GOD IS IN THE DETAILS
by Tom Hartman
Feast of St. Visa of Palatine
At age 23, St. Visa was called to become a hermit by bill
collectors and spent the rest of her life kiting checks at the
So, Susan Lersch says to me, "Yeah, the prop designer for POPE
JOAN resigned." "Why? The props for that show aren't that
hard." "Her car died. She says that she can't do it if she
doesn't have a car." "P'shaw," says I. "I mean there's
really not that much. I could do it for Chrissakes."
Now, not only am I doing props for POPE JOAN, but I also
have access to the worldwide infotainment web, and soon Pinky,
we will have accomplished what we've plotted for every night for
years: we will take over the world!
But I digress.
My job is made even easier since somebody else is providing
the swords and Chris is taking my approved approach to
properties: less is more.
There was once this production of CARMEN where the prop
person decked the table in Don Jose's death scene with plates,
cups, silverware and a variety of real foods, along with
Carmen's knife. Well, after endless hours of caterwauling in a
language I don't understand, Carmen finally gets to the point
where she stabs Don Jose, reaches for her knife, and thrusts a
banana in his stomach.
Those things happen with extraneous props.
So anyway, I guess I'm supposed to impart some wise
theories on the creation of props. Well, I have only one thing
to say: everyone who reads this will like me for no discernible
reason! Everyone who reads this will like....
But I digress.
I must admit that ever since the infamous hot glue gun
incident in Southgate, Michigan of 1978, my approach has been:
"If you need a prop,
Then you gotta shop."
So gentle readers (see, I like you for no discernible
reason) my contribution will be a guided tour of Chicago's own
"Mall of Medievalry," if you will. (Personal note: talk to
Chris re: adding a "Who put the evil in medieval?" number.)
OK, here's our shopping list:
- Casting bones and carrying bag - the bones were part of a
pot of ruined chicken matzo ball soup. The bag I got at one of
those little incense shops at Clark and Belmont. Brazier
rigged with battery operated lights -- this was a major pain in
my butt. I had to end up doing papier mache. There's still
flour paste all over my kitchen, my clothes and the lamp in the
living room. Papal shepherd's staff - this I found at a
used furniture place in Newtown across the street from where
they filmed that little girl getting blown up for the beginning
of The Untouchables and about three doors west of where John
Candy and Maureen O'Hara lived in "Only the Lonely." (Personal
note: write essay about the weird juxtaposition of life and art
when you find yourself "living" on a movie set. Include
experience in Dallas and Zapruder film, Georgetown and Exorcist,
Central Park and Hair.) Thurible (incense burner) - this
item was in the possession of our own Susan Lersch, having been
bought at the selfsame above mentioned store ten years ago when
I produced a workshop production of Susan's play, "Sisters:
Some Theatrical Rituals of the Nunnery." Self lighting
charcoal - Athenian Candle Co. in Greektown. They also sell
incense and oils. They had one little jar of oil labeled "Bend
Over." Of course I had to smell it. Of course it was intended
for straight women and reeked of flowers, which I can't stand,
and of course, I got it on my nose and had to smell it for the
next three hours. Funeral incense (myrrh or frankincense)
Athenian Candle Co. Matches - oh, I forgot to get matches.
Thank Goddess theater people still smoke. Paschal candle
Athenian Candle Co. Book of gospels - this was brought in by
Will Hepp. It's actually a Book of Kells. Of course I can't
tell a Kell from a Trill, but I digress. Holy water bucket I
found this object, actually a little handle bowl that I later
rigged with a chain, at this antique shop in Andersonville where
I live. Unfortunately, they're going out of business. But then
again, they were underpricing the things they had.
Eucalyptus sprigs to sprinkle holy water - Bregstone's display
in the south loop.
- Bed dressing - Minnesota Fabrics. This was two pieces.
Blue material that stayed stationary on the bed and two strips
of fur sewn together that could be spread on the bed and wrapped
around Joan. Our own Susan Lersch handled the sewing. Cross
necklace for Joan - this little antique shop in Andersonville
that is not going out of business. They know what their stuff
is worth and are not too unreasonable in their prices, although
they were trying to sell a broken Talking Pee Wee Herman doll
for $30. The voice box on mine still works. And I have the
matching Chairy doll too. Wonder what I could get for them?
- St. Peter's ring on pope's body - this I got
at The Alley at Belmont and Clark. It's an eyeball ring.
One coin on pope's body - they had Mardi Gras coins at
Bregstone's. I want to go back to Mardi Gras. I drove down
there two years ago, had the time of my life.
- Switch - The Drum in Andersonville Kerchief - The
Unique Thrift Store in Uptown Food tray - Some hospital
resale shop on Diversey Cushion - Pier 1 Casting bones
and bag - same as before. (Personal note: buy Susan a timer
for her birthday. Coins - Bregstone's Coin-I got the
coin purses at some handbag store in the Loop that's going out
of business - That's Our Bag. Maypole - this one drove me
crazy, figuring out how to do the top so that the dancers around
the maypole could wrap young Joan in the streamers. Everything
I tried ended up looking like a lampshade in a Victorian
whorehouse. Eventually, Chris decided it didn't need a top. I
love tech week.
- St. Peter's ring - Flashy Trash on Halsted.
- Acacia sprigs - Tom Thumb in Evanston Olive oil jug
Pier 1 Etruscan pottery - this was some old thing my
roommate had lying around the house. Polenta bowl - ended up
being a basket after I was unable to find a large wooden bowl
that wasn't a salad bowl. Striped magenta cloth - Minnesota
Fabrics. I had to glue the stripes on to the cloth. Then some
actor tells me how he hates that ugly fuschia thing. "That's
magenta," says I. "I took the crayon into the fabric store.
It's magenta. You're fined two Streisand albums." Furs
Minnesota Fabrics Feathers - peacock - Bregstone's Two
keys - this is for the line in the Forum song "a chastity belt
with two keys." In the Bailiwick production, they had an actual
chastity belt that kept cutting the actors' hands. I thought
only having the two keys was cheaper and funnier. Chris agreed.
Change purse - That's Our Bag
- Altar cloth - Minnesota Fabrics Small, dark hard roll
to be used as communion bread - Jewel's Chalice - same store
I got the staff Paten - ditto Laurel wreath crown to fit
Louis - this is another one I had to make. Got the leaves at
- Battle plans - The Drum. Rags - my closet
- Three books, loosely tied together - these were graciously
lent by Susan Lersch and Denny Kineslla
- Stool - Salvation Army on Broadway and Montrose. Bowl
of "Sweetmeats" - I got the bowl at the same store I got the
cross. The food I bought at Jewel. Goblet - this antique
store on Clark St. across the street from the Organic.
- Scourge - I bought silk cord at Minnesota Fabric. The
actual prop was created by Susan Lersch. She had experience
making them while researching her Off Off-Broadway play,
"Sisters: Some Theatrical Rituals About the Nunnery." Coin
purse - That's Our Bag Realistic newborn baby - Toys R Us.
I must admit that doing the props were fun and presented a
challenge. Particularly since I was doing all this running
around in sub-zero weather. Maybe that woman who said she
couldn't do the props without a car wasn't so dumb after all.
I will leave you with a meditation:
Eartha Kitt, Brad Pitt
Joan a great big hit.
Repeat three times daily and buy a ticket to Pope Joan and all
your problems will resolve themselves.
No, actually I will leave you with one more story about props:
There was once this outdoor passion play and one night the
Roman soldier who is to lance Our Lord in the side during the
crucifixion, grabbed the wrong lance. When it came time to poke
Jesus in the side, the actor playing Christ nearly jumped off
the cross and yelled, "Ouch, you stabbed me, you son of a
If you're going to have props, have a well-labeled prop
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