As the properties manager, I always think of myself as the smallest cog in the theater machine: set design, costumes, lighting, sound - all seem more important than whether I can find the perfect flashlight or an authentic looking dead seagull, and I often wonder how much difference my agonizing over which plastic glass Martin Luther King Jr. would use, or if the family in Other Desert Cities owns a gold flecked Christmas tree or a white one, makes.
When I read the plays, or see them in rehearsal, I almost immediately get a clear picture of the objects a character owns or uses, and how these objects shape not only the personality of the character, but sometimes the plot as well.
This particular play, The Mountaintop, has unique challenges. Since it is based on a real person, and takes place in a real motel, there isn’t as much room for interpretation. Because the motel room still exists, we want our set to be as close as possible to how things looked and felt in 1968. That means looking for the proper worn carpet, the seedy motel wall art, matching mid-century headboards, and, most difficult, an old black and white TV.
There is also the detail of the newspaper. Normally, I would just make a mock-up, with the proper masthead, with the “news” my own creation. But The Commercial Appeal (the Memphis, Tennessee newspaper) from April 4, 1968 is a historical artifact, and should be reproduced accurately. So, this time I will use a service that makes props for movies, and have the front page done with headlines and stories exactly as printed.
So when you look at the dirty dishes, full ashtrays, and rumpled sheets in this set, you can think of me artistically daubing old food, stubbing out half-burned cigarettes and ironing wrinkles into sheets, all for accuracy’s sake!