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A Conversation with Mamie Stein

As properties master at City Theatre, part of Mamie Stein's job is what you'd expect -- dressing sets with furniture and knick-knacks. Another part of her job is sheer invention.

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What constitutes a fiasco for a prop master?

Opening night at Cafe Puttanesca I was in the audience way at the back of the house right in dead-center. There's a valise that Jill Ringle's character was supposed to open up, and the contents coming out of the valise kicked off the next three songs. It wouldn't open. Somehow the thing locked. They were banging it off the ground and were up on stage for eight solid minutes trying to pry it open. There was no way that I could get up and walk backstage and help them out. At first it was a very awkward moment and then it became this fantastic ridiculous [slapstick]. Finally one character says, "Maybe I can find the key," and drags the valise out with her. Then somebody backstage pried it open and she came back with it opened. I was humiliated.

 

Tell me about this dog you made for Gompers.

I sketched out the dog, then sculpted it with modeling clay. I built up a box around the dog and poured around 30 pounds of plaster to make a mold, which I had to bake and dry out for many, many days. Then I pulled the clay out, greased up the mold and put it back together.

 

Did you make a mold because it had to be more flesh-like?

Technically, the dog probably should be in rigor, but would the audience accept this ridiculous-looking stiff, hard dog? I ended up using this mysterious Nerf substance. When I pulled the dog out of the mold it was wiggly like Jell-O so I cut him open and dug out chunks of foam and then put metal slabs in his chest and tuckus and paws. Then I slid wire into the elbow and into the hip area so he would actually move like he was jointed. The head is heavier than anything, so it droops. To coat it, I mixed up latex with acrylic paint and covered it in many layers and finally, as the final coat was drying I took a brush and ran it through it to get that hair texture.

 

When buying odd items for productions, do you feel compelled to explain to cashiers?

One time we were working ridiculous hours for a show and I went to Wal-Mart at 3 in the morning. I got 15 pairs of handcuffs from the toy section, another 15 cap guns, a box of carpet tacks, and about 15 boxes of unlubricated condoms for the sound guy.

 

Condoms for the sound guy?

Oh, the mike that techs wear, if you sweat, it shorts out the element so they stop working or they get static. So you wrap them in condoms because they're waterproof and thin and snug. Anyway, when I slapped all this stuff down on the counter, the lady's distaste was clear. Finally she looks up at me and she goes, "Young lady, you ought to have a lot more respect for yourself." And it was from that point on that I realized this is funny. So actually anymore I don't even mind what people think.

 

In the Blackbird production a couple years ago, did you figure out the technical aspect of a character's diaper-change on stage?

We ended up using a brown cream-based special effects makeup that comes in a tube. I also had a problem in Blackbird with the cocaine, because it [was in the Lester Hamburg Theatre, which is] such a small space that the character really had to sniff it. What do you give an actor to snort that's not going to make them sick? I had this whole discussion about this with an absolutely horrified pharmacist down the street. We ended up using a mixture of confectioners' sugar and powdered soy milk. And I gave the actor a big bottle of nose rinse for later. I did it down in the shop just to make sure.

 

Were you worried that someone would walk in on that?

They say they shouldn't give me any of the interns because I corrupt them. Inevitably twice a year I've got some poor intern downstairs rolling joints. I've got this great stage-pot recipe that involves basic household herbs that smells just like the real thing. I've got a box downstairs marked "pot," a box marked "syringes," a box marked "heroin." Being at City Theatre's been an eye-opening experience.

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