Working in the stage management and production team, Jess Maguire is the Company’s props buyer. This role entails coordinating, problem solving and sourcing prop and furniture requirements for all our productions.
If we have the storage space, we will return everything we can reuse to our props store at Melbourne Theatre Company HQ on Sturt Street in Southbank. These are then available for designers to use on future productions. Torch the Place is an excellent example of this – set designer Isabel Hudson required lots of set dressing to complete the junk trunks, so she raided our props store. And the red exercise bike seen in Torch the Place was first used in Tribes in 2012.
Many of the items in the store are also part of our props hire, available for schools and arts companies to borrow. One prop that gets hired out a lot is Milky White the cow from MTC’s 1988 production of Into the Woods. Mrs Havisham’s cobwebbed wedding cake from Great Expectations is another popular prop.
We reuse vintage suitcases and cushions quite a bit. They typically get reused on similar period sets – making the same objects seamlessly work across multiple productions and with the vision and talent of our designers definitely requires some resourcefulness!
A lot of the time designers will repaint, reupholster or modify our stock to suit the needs to the new show. We reused the cow from The Beast, for instance, repainting it, changing the ears and modifying the legs for its use on The Last Man Standing. We repainted and reupholstered the red ottoman from Hay Fever to become the white ottoman in Arbus & West. The shabby look of the ottoman worked really well for Hay Fever, and while it definitely wouldn’t work for Arbus & West, the shape and size was perfect. It was easy and cheaper for our team to recover and paint the stock than to source an alternative.
Other examples: the coffee table on Home, I’m Darling was actually an old dining table we had in stock that we cut down to coffee table height. The piano from The Lady in the Van was reused on Così: it’s a gutted piano that fits our stock keyboard perfectly. The flown chaise from Twelfth Night is another; it was too large for us to store so we pulled it apart and the mouldings were reused for parts of Shakespeare in Love set.
There are some items that are favourites of designers – certain lamps often make reappearances on stage (particularly the period and vintage lamps). Only a very astute audience member might notice that they have been used previously. I find there can be a year or so between something making a reappearance, but more often than not it can be quite a few years. Some examples:
- the pink lamp from Three Little Words was reused on the piano for The Architect and again in Home, I’m Darling
- a yellow standing lamp that was used on Three Little Words was re-used near the armchair on Astroman
- there is a little crystal lamp that makes an appearance on Born Yesterday, Arbus & West and Hay Fever
- the sconce lights on Born Yesterday were also used for Arbus & West
- there is a blue lamp that was originally purchased for Vivid White and reused for Home, I’m Darling.
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Often, we store a lot of our furniture in offices around our HQ. Most were originally show props, but every now and then people will find their office furniture being temporarily replaced so that I can use it on a show! At one stage, the couch in the reception area was used in Birdland; the old chesterfield couch in Executive Director & Co-CEO office was used in What Rhymes with Cars and Girls (and was planned for use in another upcoming production); and the Marketing and Communications Director recently lost her couch to another show!
Some items have been modified and repainted so many times over the last 20 years that they are no longer in a good enough condition to reuse so they get recycled. If we don't have the storage space to hold onto props we want to keep for reuse, we sometimes sell them on or break them down into reusable pieces. We recently sold the vintage English Rose kitchen unit from Home, I’m Darling to a donor who planned to repurpose it for a house they were renovating. Other items might be sold to staff or are placed on Gumtree. We sold all of the arcade machines and buttons from Astroman to a hobbyist, for instance. But it isn’t always easy to sell on or donate our props as they have usually been modified or built for use on stage, so we always try to reuse as much as we can or give something another life before we dispose of it.