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Two upper-classman girls helping a freshman into her costume belt.

I’ve worked with kids for half my life, usually nursery school kids, and usually in the classroom. About 10 years ago I started working with teenagers in theatre. Then things got a little nutty. I mean, I stopped getting barfed on*, but I inadvertently added in drama onstage, drama backstage (if you want real drama), and much illumination.

Adults like to moan about the shortcomings of kids, and teens in particular. This is nothing new. Back in 20 BC Horace was kvetching to the same tune, and it hasn’t stopped yet. Yeah, there’s vanity and techno obsession and laziness among teens. But so is there among adults. I’ve worked with both backstage, and quite honestly? If I were to assemble a dream team of ideal colleagues**, the scale would tip heavily in favor of the teens. In my experience crewing roughly four shows a year, they’re the reliable, enthusiastic, and hardworking ones. Most consistently.

They’re also fascinating—wonderfully, sometimes heartbreakingly, candid. I like to engage them, and am humbled to be rewarded with a lot of trust.

Everyone wants to feel seen.

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Actors waiting on stage right for their entrance cue.

Story time. Seriously, I have tons. And I haven’t forgotten this is primarily a food blog. Don’t worry; food and teenagers are inextricably linked.

…There was the boy who spent most of his time grinning and jumping off things—easily the most high-octane kid I have ever worked with. Once, after he told me about a beef stir-fry he’d made and was very proud of, he revealed to me—still grinning—that he was a hemophiliac. He hated feeling captive by it and knew risking injury was stupid, but said it kept him sane—like giving the disease the middle finger from time to time.

…Seeing two freshman girls reassure, and embolden, and wipe the tears from an eighth-grade girl’s cheeks when a classmate had said something mean to her.

…The girl who loved acting but became almost paralyzed with stage fright. She said once she got out there, she would forget her nervousness and enjoy herself. So every night at places, she would come to me and I would say, ‘You just have to make it for 10 more minutes. In 10 minutes you’ll be fine.’ A year later I bought a ticket for the winter show, which she was stage managing for the first time. I went backstage to see her because I knew she was nervous. When she spotted me she squealed, ‘OH IT’S MARISA OH I’M SO GLAD YOU’RE HERE!’ And I reminded her that she’d be golden in 10 minutes.

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Lest they forget.

…The boy who raced down the hallway with a pan of brownies, stopped in his tracks, held the pan out to me so I could pull off a piece, then kept going. He didn’t speak because his mouth was stuffed.

…The girl whose mother died just a few days before the run of the show. I was stunned when she arrived to rehearse. The staff said she did not want to talk about her mom yet, but just wanted business as usual. And every single kid in the show respected it. Every now and again I’d see one of them walk past and squeeze her shoulder, but not say a word.

…Once I brought in a big box of homemade cookies, and another day a bigger box of chocolate truffles. I have no pictures because crumbs and empty candy cups dusted with cocoa powder don’t make stellar shots.

…I asked two students what topics they chose for their senior theses: (1) the history of the transgender movement; 2) the wisdom—or folly—of knowing the future, with citations from the movie Dune and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five). How cool is that, really?

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Costumes for set dressing.

…I asked an actor where he was from, and he told me Virginia. A few minutes later he asked what my last name was. I told him, and asked why he wanted to know. He said he wasn’t sure what he should call me. I assured him he could call me by my first name. He grinned a sheepish grin and fidgeted a little, and said he thinks he’d feel better calling me Ms. Procopio. This was new. Then I remembered: he’s southern. 🙂

…One actor confided he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college, and was on the outs with his family about it. He also confided an injury, and when he came up with a new way to dance that kept him from pain he was so excited to share it.

…I learned that the kids who are the shining stars, the most charismatic, the most beautiful, need more TLC and a shoulder to lean on more often than the average kids.

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My most recent crew kids liked to mark the number that was next up so they could look ahead to their cues. They were new to crewing, and I’ve never seen this idea in action before. It’s a good one.

…Asking a sound tech who studied in Spain for a year to tell me what he ate there. His eyes lit up as he told me about octopus eaten at every meal, about fresh anchovies skewered in fire and smoked, and how they charred, and crackled in his teeth. He was from Oklahoma, though I couldn’t tell from his accent (though it explains why he called me ‘ma’am’ when he first met me). He spoke glowingly about game-hunting and how he can tell from the taste of the venison if the deer nibbled trees a lot: ‘It tastes twiggy.’

…High-fiving an actor every night when he came off stage for not incinerating the building in a scene in which he held a Zippo up to a travel-sized can of hairspray. An admirable accomplishment.

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Actors will be actors. Dressing room tidiness.

…When I complimented another kid, from Korea, on the stones it takes to go to school halfway across the world when you’re only 14, and asked why he did it, he said, ‘Do you want the brutal truth?’ I said yeah. And he replied that kids in his home country were expected to study 8-12 hours a day, and by going to school in the U.S. he could do ‘all this,’ and waved his arms across the stage. ‘It’s much better,’ he said. A little later he went to the concession table, bought two Sprites, and gave me one.

…The crew girl who hurdled actors and set pieces to make her cue on time. She lost her house in Hurricane Sandy and was displaced for a year while her family built a new house, but was unfailingly upbeat and worked just as hard as she ever had. She would be on my dream crew.

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A crew girl waiting, tie line in hand, to pull at her cue.

*To be fair, that only happened to me once. Poor kid.

**Because regardless of age, that’s what they are, since we’re all working toward the same goal: a good production.

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‘A few trifles’ is a quote from the stage drama Little Women, and the food you see here is what I made for the show, which is going on all this month in Holmdel, NJ. As prop goddess, it’s my job to rent, buy or make (not to mention schlep, maintain and track down from actors) everything that’s brought on and off stage. I often have to provide real (what we call ‘practical’) food for shows that call for actors to eat on stage. But the director for this production decided all of the Christmas Day treats that old Mr. Laurence next door sends over to the March family will be impractical—just for looks. I’m a stickler for authenticity on stage, and the theatre space is small, with the audience just feet away from the onstage action, so this took some doing.

The script describes the spread: chocolates, ice cream, fruitcake and cream puffs. I thought about buying most of it and polyurethaning the crap out of it so it would last the run of the show (and so the actors and mice wouldn’t eat it).* But I couldn’t find puffs that weren’t already filled with cream (which would spoil); fruitcake is tough to find in April; and ice cream wouldn’t survive beyond Act I Scene I.

Plan B, which I went with, was to make a bunch of homemade play dough and form it the way I do marzipan. Click on the photos to take a better look. This is my first go with shaping play dough for stage. Everything pictured here, except for the holly sprig on the cake, is made of play dough.

To make it: I combined 3 cups flour, 1.5 cups salt, and 6 teaspoons cream of tartar in one bowl and 3 cups water and 1/3 cup cooking oil in another. You can also add food coloring to the liquid. Then I added dry and liquid together and poured it into a heavy-bottomed pan over medium low heat. I stirred frequently until the mixture got thick and rubbery and lost its sheen. Then I took it off the heat to cool. Once it is, you can shape it into anything you want. Here’s what I did.

For the chocolates in the top tier of the epergne above: I shaped quarter-sized balls, flattened them, and let them dry out for a few days. Then I painted them with brown acrylic** paint and let that dry. I topped them with white acrylic paint in peaks, as if it were buttercream. Once that was dry, I covered them with polyurethane.

For the cream puffs: I shaped balls about 2″ in diameter and topped them with balls about 1″ in diameter, which looks very much the way choux pastry looks when piped, before it’s baked. Then I brushed on acrylic wood polish with a very light hand—just so they’d look slightly browned—and poly’ed them. Since the play dough wasn’t dried out beforehand, when I poly’ed them they cracked a bit. It makes them look like authentic puffs.

For the fruitcake, shown above (sliced) and below: I wanted to model it after Traditional English Fruitcake, which I imagined was a holiday favorite of Mr. Laurence, and one he wanted to share with his neighbors. First I kneaded in edible brown gel paste from my candy supply basket. But once it dried, it turned a disagreeable, asteroidlike shade of brownish green. On went the brown paint and then poly, the latter of which gave the cake an appealing gloss that made it look moist, buttery and alcohol soaked. I sliced it with a serrated knife.

I made a real fruitcake last Christmas, and iced and decorated it in the style of the south of England. For this one, I decorated it in the northern style—very simply, with bits of play dough shaped to suggest sliced almonds, lightly wood stained so they’d look toasted, and I scattered them around the edges. A sprig of holly was inserted into the middle, and I replace it with a fresh one each weekend.

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For the ice cream:  The show takes place in New England in the 1860s, before vanilla was the common flavoring it is today. Lemon was common, though. Let’s call the below lemon.

To give it a realistic effect, I used an ice cream scooper to scoop the soft play dough into the bowl. I chose a silver one which had a frosted-over look, suggesting the ice cream was creating condensation on the outside of the bowl. Then, while still soft, I covered it with lots of poly. Like the puffs, this made it crack a bit on top and gave it a subtly iced-over look, and the extra poly made it appear slick and slightly melting.

Good times.

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*Bit of an editorial there, especially the choice to put actors before mice; actors show far less discretion. When I propped Chekov’s Three Sisters in college, I had to provide a huge platter of impractical pastries for one scene. I bought real ones, and the actors nibbled at it like stoners until I was forced to shellac it. Even then I still needed to post a sign telling them to keep their sticky paws off it. Though I quite, QUITE relished hearing the occasional ‘Bleah! Goddammit!’ from actors who either weren’t literate or thought the sign was a joke.

**This is latex, or water-based paint—my favorite. Oil-based paint is nice and shiny, but it takes longer to dry, is more of a hassle because you need to buy turpentine, a solvent, to clean your paintbrush, and until it dries your house smells like a Sunoco station.

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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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