Have you ever played the game “I Spy”? Or have you ever participated in an escape room?
One of the common themes of these things is a narrow focus, on sometimes, ordinary stuff – to solve puzzles, to find a missing link, to further a story…
Hi, I am Cindy Ernst-Godinez and I find stuff. I am a properties designer for theaters around town and I want to share with you the drive for me to find “such stuff as dreams are made of”.
Properties design is sometimes a forgotten art, but it is ever so important to the integrity of good theatre. We are the human equivalent of a Swiss army knife of abilities – carpenter, painter, seamstress, re-upholsterer, mechanic, etc. We provide some basic story telling through color and shapes useful to the audience and necessary for actors through some plain ordinary stuff. Take the Skull for Hamlet, the Flower for Oberon, and the Book for Prospero… They are just a word in a script. We make them what you see in your dreams. We make the Skull decayed and putrid, the flower tantalizing and rare, the book aged and magical.
I am originally from Gulfport, Mississippi. Before I was born my military family moved, a lot. My grandmothers were from Germany and England, they were not particularly fond of each other when they first met. But they did share a common gift – collecting items with not just value, but stories. So did my Airforce engineer grandfathers – they amassed mostly car parts and tools. A secret: One of my grandfathers had the schematics for a plane in his hoard of miscellaneous car parts and tools. I dare not say more.
What these family members gifted, unbeknownst to me, was a love of the ordinary. Ordinary objects with stories of their home origin was all they had. Everyday ordinary objects can have some beautiful and tragic stories. So, it is my duty to make those stories happen seamlessly by asking a lot of questions first.
Let’s try an exercise together! A play calls for a book. The play does not give you any further details about this book, only that it is held by an actor. Think about all the questions you could ask yourself about the book. What was your most interesting question?
Here are some of mine:
Is the book so old that the actor may smell it? Is that a pleasant library smell or a rotten moldy smell?
Is the book a color that issues a feeling? Green for Disgust or Red for Passion? Purple or Blue to signify Regality?
Is the book full of notes? – With little bits of paper? Earmarked and book marked to show it has been scoured through and well read?
Does it tell me a story of where it has been?
I wish I could know your questions. These are my part of helping you watch a play. This is where the design of properties is starting to fail and be forgotten. The searching for that perfect item and the thrill of the quest is time consuming and difficult, but the payoff is special. We work so quickly to mount a play that we miss some of the meaty bits of detail that build upon our stories. I want you to watch something on stage and never second guess that an item is outside of that play’s time and place. I want you feel something for that child who hugs a well-loved teddy bear wearing a knitted sweater from a grandmother, whose little paws are rubbed off from sooo much love. I want you to love it too. I want you to get lost in your imagination – that is my job as a props designer.
There is a growing desire in our ever changing world to be minimalistic and up-cycle with new purpose. This is to be applauded, because our stories should be up-cycled as well. Choosing one ordinary piece of your families past to keep can bring you a plethora of future stories to tell your friends because it elicits a stirring of memory. How precious this can be.
The flip side of precious memory is that we see sadness in some memories. But this is another thing we strive for in theater, is it not? The terror, the horror, the disgust. This is why we strive to be as accurate to history as possible when telling stories of race riots with protest signs, internment camps with dirty bedding or historical stories with sealed letters of the declaration of war. The precision we must take to preserve absolute truth is not lost in our design field and found through ordinary objects.
Imagination is boundless and you can’t have the word Extraordinary without the word – Ordinary.