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Another day, another popover.

There’s feeding them offstage, as in cookies or brownies, in which case they’re generally very easy to please. Onstage is a different matter. Often a script will call for actors eating (what we call practical food), and in my work as a prop master, it’s my job to procure it. Sometimes I buy it; other times that’s impossible or just plain inconvenient, and I have to make it for each performance. Below I offer a menu of my most unforgettable experiences in working with actor palates.

My Fair Lady

Calls for a tea service with strawberry tarts; I also added shortbread—a proper British cookie—and iced tea stood in for hot tea. The character Pickering is supposed to eat unabashedly throughout the scene, every night, and the actor who played him quite enjoyed himself. Pickering also consumes a great deal of port in every show. Since alcohol is not something that benefits actors performing just above an orchestra pit, I provided a decanter of cranberry juice instead. And I told the actor that if he happened to have a urinary tract infection, we were about to clear it right up.

Little Women

Calls for impractical ice cream and pastries, which I made of homemade play-dough, and practical popovers, which I baked fresh every night. The character Amy loves them, but not so much the young actress who played her. She’d leave the popover in the same place on the prop table every night with one bite missing, and I’d finish it.

Arms and the Man (or was it Chekov’s Three Sisters?)

Forgive me; this was college, in 1989. There is a party scene in one of these shows for which I set a few practical pastries on a little dish, and dozens more on a platter the size of a manhole cover. Then I told the actors that the ones on the giant platter were for the show and warned them not to eat them. They ignored me and tucked in every single day. I didn’t yell. I just got there earlier one day, hit the whole platter with spray polyurethane, and didn’t tell them.

Some say of all of life’s utterances, the most rewarding to hear is ‘I love you.’ I say it’s the 1.7 seconds after an actor spits a synthetic, combustible pastry into his hand and yells, ‘God-DAMMIT.’

Does this mean I’m not a romantic?

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

The script doesn’t actually call for practical food, but one director thought it would be fun to have the character Jacob munching on something during one scene. She settled on pasta. It got a laugh, and the Italian actor who played him was all in. Every night I brought him linguine tossed in olive oil, cracked black pepper, and Parmesan. He loved it.

Shrek

Shrek offers his crush, Fiona, a traditional ogre treat: a freshly killed beastie of some sort, plus odds and ends from the forest, in a sandwich. I used raffia, moss, bark, silk leaves, and my squirrel puppet. The script calls it a s’nother; personally, I called it an RLT (roadkill, lettuce, and tomato). Shrek and Fiona had to be able to munch on something from the sandwich, so I bought them gummy worms and tucked them into the edges. Fiona was impressed.

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Because anyone can send flowers.

And my favorite:

Jesus Christ Superstar

Top of Act 2, Jesus and the apostles are gathered for the Last Supper and are supposed to share and eat bread. I feel badly for the person who actually served the original 13 (whom I will forever picture as Mel Brooks), because it was a bear trying to get all of these guys to agree on what kind of bread they’d eat without complaint. I tried everything—matzoh, of course; Wonder bread; croissants (Mon Dieu! En Israel?); rolls. The actors all gave maudlin little coughs and said, ‘I can’t eat this; I can’t sing.’ Finally I got them all to agree on something. But I’m sure I’ve relinquished my place in heaven for serving Jesus and the disciples KFC biscuits.

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I’ve mentioned that I volunteer as a theatre stage technician, which means I wear black shoes and clothes and move set pieces on and off the stage with other techies for local productions.

Right now I’m crewing My Fair Lady, and I’m also in charge of props. That’s all of the stuff that’s handled on stage, all of the envelopes and baskets of flowers and lace fans and five-pound notes that the actors use. I collect it, organize it, work with actors on how to use it, make repairs to it, and return all of the stuff to its original position on and under two long tables at the end of each performance.

Since this is My Fair Lady, which features three teatime scenes, two chocolate-eating scenes, and numerous port-drinking scenes, I also have to provide food and drink for the actors to eat and drink every night.
A word about my philosophy. I believe people see shows because they want to be put under a spell; they want it so much that they pay to be put under it. It’s our job as live storytellers to make sure what we give them—costumes, sets, dialects, props, everything—is as accurate as possible. Any discrepancy risks breaking the spell. The audience is counting on us to carry them along with us for the entire story. It’s an act of great trust. I don’t want to betray that.
On that note, I wanted the stage teatime to be as authentic as possible. The script calls for tea, plain cake, and strawberry tarts, so I made sure the actors were drinking real tea (iced, in this case), and eating plain cake (pound) and real tarts (mini raspberry, because I couldn’t find strawberry). I also added shortbread, ubiquitous at teatime. That’s the tea service for Henry Higgins’s tea above.*
Since we’re on a pretty tight budget, at first I bought cheaper milk chocolate for the actors to eat, but anything creamy gunks up their throats. Speaking like that is bad enough; singing is worse. So I gave the rest of the milk chocolate to an appreciative fellow techie and bought bittersweet chocolate, which is dairy free. No complaints.
The ‘port’ I provide is liberally drunk by Colonel Pickering throughout the show. When something good happens, he heads for the port. When something bad happens, he heads for the port. It’s really cran-apple juice, so I told the actor who plays Pickering that if he has a urinary tract infection, we’re about to clear it right up.

On to fake food, which matters just as much to me.

Lots of actors play vendors and sell goods onstage during the opening scene, and so I asked the director at what time of year the start of the show takes place. I learned it’s in early spring. Thanks to supermarkets, which offer every kind of produce on earth every day of the year, I know most people can no longer tell when a particular food is in season, when it is actually growing in our own regions, but I can. And in Edwardian London in early spring, poor produce sellers would only have access to what they had stored last fall. That meant I couldn’t use the fake summer peppers and zucchini I found in the prop room. Call me crazy to care (and you likely will), but to me it would look ludicrous. I did find lots of fake apples, pears, garlic, onions, cabbage and potatoes**, which were perfect. Then I went to Silverton Farms, bought old bushel baskets for a buck apiece, and loaded them up with the ‘produce’ (above).

The director wanted the kid who handles the garlic and onion basket to do something with them while he was onstage, to look busy with them. So I cut lengths of twine and showed him how to make garlands, explaining that that was what people used to do, and some still do, with alliums. He didn’t have great success making garlands and the director told him to ad lib something else.

So he did. Last night I watched him from the wings, rubbing onions on the front of his shirt the way you would apples, 100% poker faced. Just about killed me. After he crossed offstage, I walked up to him.

‘Saw you buffing the onions.’

‘Uh, yeah.’

‘Do you know what would happen if you buffed actual onions on your shirt?’

‘Uh, no.’

‘The skins would peel off all over the place.’

Silence.

‘Then I guess it’s a good thing they were fake, huh?’

This I was happy to let go, because I figure if it broke the spell for the audience, at least they’d enjoy it as much as I did.

*Why didn’t I fill the sugar bowl or creamer? Because the audience will never see inside them. If we were selling the balcony, I would have filled them.

**Some potatoes are made of painted Styro and some are Poly-fil stuffed in pantyhose. Now you know how to make fake potatoes. I know you’ll sleep easier.

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