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Q&A with backstage hero, Karin Rabe

What is a Properties Master?  

A Properties Master is a lot like a museum curator, in that we work with the scenic designers and directors to create worlds on stage that help the actors tell the story. We have to keep in mind the style of the design, the practicality in the use of each object, and the period in which the play takes place. I’m fortunate in that we have an incredible team here at the Alley who I work with to pull hand props and furniture from our warehouse to use for the show. Anything we don’t have in stock will have to either be built or purchased. We do an awful lot of building, which means that many of the pieces you see on stage are custom built to fit the design and needs of the show. The pieces we don’t build from scratch will likely need to be altered in some way. We almost always reupholster furniture to fit the specific color palate of a show, and often change the color or finish of the wood.

On a show like A View from the Bridge, that means finding or building the perfect item for the actor to use that is also period correct and fits the parameters defined by the action of the play. For example, for the newspaper that Eddie reads in Act 1, we noted that the script says that Eddie lives “in Red Hook, on the Bay seaward from Brooklyn Bridge. The time is the present.” After some research and discussion with Gregory Boyd, our director, and Hugh Landwehr, our scenic designer, we decided to go with the Brooklyn Eagle, which was a daily newspaper published in Brooklyn. Then because the script was originally produced in 1955, we decided that was also the year of the paper. So our shop produced a full newspaper of the Brooklyn Eagle from Wednesday, January 5, 1955, which we printed on our in-house plotter (See photo of the newspaper here). Then, we repeat this process for every hand prop and piece of furniture you see on the stage.

So, in short, a properties master works with the scenic designer (and other designers), director, actors, stage management and the prop shop staff to create a curated world onstage. It’s much like moving into a new house and getting to decorate it from a bare room to one that is lived in and comfortable.

What do you love most about your job as a Properties Master? 

I have to admit that although it’s fun solving all these prop problems, my absolute favorite part of every process is seeing the show with an audience for the first time. Because it’s then that I’m reminded of what an awesome thing it is we all do every day. Watching the audience watch the show and seeing and hearing their reactions is the best reward for the work we do, and it makes it all worth it. Watching a student matinee audience of A Christmas Carol scream when Marley enters from the floor, or watching a Summer Chills audience try to puzzle out ‘whodunit’ is just phenomenal.

How long have you worked at the Alley?

I moved to Houston after spending seven years managing different prop shops around the country thinking that I’d only be here for a few years. Now, thirteen years later, I can’t imagine living or working anywhere else. I love managing our prop shop and working with our amazing team of artists and artisans.

Where are you originally from?

I’m a Navy brat, so I’m from a little of everywhere, but I spent the bulk of my early years in Pensacola, Florida. My dad retired from the Navy when I was 6, but prior to that I lived in Texas, Japan, Maryland and was born in Scotland. At 13 years and counting though, Houston is actually now the city I’ve lived in the longest.

What is your favorite show you’ve ever worked on at the Alley?

Oh gosh, that’s a tough one. There have been so many, so I’ll try to narrow it down to the top five. They’d include The Seafarer, Red, The Pillowman, Subject to Fits and The Underpants. Oh, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was my first show here as Prop Master. It was such a fun introduction to what working at a theatre with a resident company can mean for the collaboration onstage and off.

What are your interests or hobbies outside of theatre?

My interests and hobbies really reflect my choice of career, because I love going to yard sales and finding old pieces of furniture that I can restore or update. I also spend a fair amount of time crafting, quilting, fixing up things around our house and yard, and reading. But man, I love finding old treasures and fixing them up. Luckily, my parents have an antique booth at a mall in Florida, so I can keep fixing up furniture and then take it to them to sell. It also means that there’s a lot of revolving furniture in our house, as I find something new, the older pieces will go off to the booth.

Tell us a fun fact about yourself!

While I was always enamored with art and performance, I actually started college to become a physicist. I thought I could double major in science and music performance as I also wanted to sing opera and classical music. Fortunately, I had an incredible physics professor who knew of my love for the arts, so when he heard that the theatre department needed some help with a big project, he asked me to help them in return for extra credit. And the rest, as they say, was history. I went over to the theatre department, ended up helping them build an 8-foot wing span plane, my first prop, and then they convinced me to run the show and come back to help on the next show. And it’s a good thing too, because while I still use and love the math-end of physics, I don’t think I would have enjoyed a full career of it, and well, I had horrible stage fright so I would have made a terrible singer.