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Sardines & Sardines: A Prop-tastic Disaster

Pictured: Deborah Strang. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

By A Noise Within
May 7, 2018

Noises Off has quite a lot on its plate – sardines, axes, flower bouquets, spare burglar costumes – you never know what you’ll find behind the curtain! With all its choreographed chaos, the production demands quite a lot from the cast and crew. And if the sardines don’t flop just the right way, you’re in for a disaster.

Enter Sydney Russell and Erin Walley, Co-Prop Masters for Noises Off. We sat down with Sydney to get the inside scoop on how she and Erin managed to pull off such a massive parade of props for the show.

What does a prop master do?

We supply hand props, which are props handled by the actors and are denoted by the script or director. We also supply set dressing, which are details of the set added to the basic structure – like lamps, picture frames, etc. Props add a lot to the time period and can tell you about the characters without words.

Why does Noises Off have two prop masters?

Noises Off is a prop master’s dream and a prop master’s nightmare. It’s what we call a prop heavy show – specifically because it’s a farce. Comedies often are prop heavy and specific and require precise timing. Chaos takes the longest time to choreograph to make it look like an accident.

Erin and I played on the different strengths we had. Erin handled set dressing and normal household items, which she has a large stock of. I can build things, plus I’d done the show recently and knew what gags were needed, what would work and what wouldn’t work, and so on. We each could focus on what we’re good at, and I couldn’t have done it on my own.

What was the craziest prop in this production?

THE SARDINES. The doors were the set’s problem, sardines are ours. I was especially excited because I never liked the sardines in other shows I’ve done – they were either too small, too fake, or not like sardines. Lots of people used fishing lures, but that was not right for us. I made a mold and cast our own fish. My husband made a fish sculpture, I made a silicone mold, then silicone copies, then I coated and painted them like sardines. They flop around nicely – good fish movement, you know. They read really well onstage. We have two kinds – half “profile” sardines that are flat on the back and are glued to the plates, and full sardines for dumping on their heads and pulling out of [Dotty’s] dress.

What was a prop-mergency you had?

Again, the sardines. I made the sardines out of silicone, which is clear and non-adhesive and refuses to stick to anything, even paint. I knew it wouldn’t work before I did this, but I hastily painted the silicone sardines just before they started using them for rehearsals. But the paint flaked off immediately in rehearsals. I did research, and all these websites said there’s nothing you could do, but I finally stumbled on silicone painter caulk for bathroom and kitchen tiles. It was a $9 fix from the hardware store! It was a good thing, too. Without paint, those fish would have looked stupid. We had to smush the paint on with our fingers, because the paint wouldn’t work in a spray or with a brush.

What was the hardest prop to find?

I saw in the archival of the previous production that Selsdon [played by Apollo Dukakis] steals the TV, but instead of picking it up, he turns it over. But there’s dialogue about him stealing it and about all the items in the house being thrown about. I wanted him to pick it up. I found an original 1981 colored TV that was actually still in working condition. The guy talked about how his father had it for ages and even watched a recent episode of Two and a Half Men on it. But then I gutted it. Now it’s light as a feather with a handle – pre-tailored to the actor’s needs – and we get the dialogue jokes that were missed last time.

How did you start in this profession?

I started in technical theatre at age 14, and since then I’ve always dabbled in props. I was drawn to the idea of taking different pieces and making something new. You think outside the box – sometimes to make something imaginary or that doesn’t exist. Telescope stands made out of lamps, for example. It’s such a good mix of right and left brain – with the detailed research on one hand, and creative problem solving and artistry on the other.

How did you come to A Noise Within?

I worked with Rafael Goldstein [who plays Tim Algood] during Other Desert Cities at Theatricum Botanicum. He only saw me work for a couple days. Then he told me they were looking for a prop person for A Tale of Two Cities, and now here I am, four shows and one season later.

What was your favorite show at ANW?

Henry V. It was the first time where I could go out to other companies, and they were already talking about it, and we were still in previews! I was like, “I did that! That was me!” It was cool to be part of something so good people were talking about it before it opened.


Tickets for Noises Off are on sale now. Extended by popular demand! Must close May 26.

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