Santa’s Workshop: The Props of "A Christmas Carol"

Posted by Selena Chau, A.C.T. Web Development Fellow

Every season there are special upgrades and enhancements made to the familiar Christmas Carol props to keep the show fresh and new. While the actors rehearsed lines, staging, carols, and dances in the William Ball Rehearsal Studio (on the 8th floor of A.C.T.’s 30 Grant Avenue complex), the A.C.T. production staff worked their backstage magic in the A.C.T. Prop and Scene Shop, a 20,000-square-foot warehouse that has been located in the Mission district since A.C.T.’s move out west from Pittsburgh in 1967. Over the years, the shop has built and stored props and scenery from productions that have played at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater and other stages.

From the outside, the building is indistinguishable from neighboring warehouses on the block, but stepping inside reveals fantastic and unexpected tools, machinery, and props. As you enter, you see the replica of the Tosca Cafe bar sign (a keepsake from our 2010 dance-theater production The Tosca Project) hanging on the far wall by the design offices, still exuding some of its onstage sophistication. Overhead are rigs with three-ton limits, on hand to move set pieces and props to their storage places after productions. A drill bit set contains a range of pieces, from toothpick-sized bits to ones the size of your wrist.

For A Christmas Carol, props planning started during the onstage technical rehearsals for Elektra in late October. Director Domenique Lozano (who, this season, directed Carol for the seventh time) met with A.C.T. Property Supervisor Ryan L. Parham to request changes for this year’s production. To combat unpredictable onstage gravity and torque, which has played havoc on the production in previous years, the prop shop gave Marley’s soaring ghost two faces. The ethereal effect of the Ghost of Christmas Past’s entrance was improved from last year by draping LED lights and gauzy fabric on the wooden swing bench she rides in on. Miserly old Scrooge was also in need of more money (of course!), so the props department researched the appropriate currency design and made color prints. After the bills were cut, they were aged: crumpled, unfolded, sprayed with water, and ironed with low heat. When the paper fibers broke down, the bills were soft and manageable—like real money.

Almost half of the Christmas Carol props were updated this year with details that keep the show believable and authentic for A.C.T. audiences. Aging techniques are used to make props fit into the appropriate time period. However, if a prop gets too worn down, like Boy Scrooge’s Christmas gift from Dick Wilkins, a replacement is fabricated in house. Dick’s bound copy of The Arabian Nights would be in pristine condition when he gives it to his friend, so a new cover with custom cut leather corners was created, with the title added on the spine.

The props department upholds the longevity of the props, and this is especially important for the Ghost of Christmas Present’s magic branch, which gets shaken and swirled countless times every season. This year, durable plastic twigs replaced the missing wooden twigs: the plastic lasts longer and requires less maintenance.

During rehearsal, the crew becomes familiar enough with the props that they can see which ones might be in danger of damage over the course of the run. Prudently, extra props are built, and the stage props manager can easily swap a broken prop out between shows.

In A Christmas Carol, the props help tell the story, and they are then packed up and stored back in the warehouse, biding their time until next year’s encore.

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