Properties Supervisor Alice Maguire Talks about Food on Stage
By Neena Arndt
Clyde’s is On Stage Now – October 9!
In Clyde’s, the characters relish a good sandwich, and see culinary success as a potential path to prosperity and self-fulfillment. Their sandwich dreams—and all the accompanying ingredients—provide a welcome challenge for the Goodman’s props department, led by Properties Supervisor Alice Maguire. A few weeks before rehearsals began, Maguire sat down with resident dramaturg Neena Arndt to discuss the ins and outs of putting food onstage.
Neena Arndt: First, a little background. Can you describe your job at the Goodman?
Alice Maguire: The props department is responsible for the set dressing, the hand props, (anything an actor carries), the cabinetry, the furniture, the foliage, the light fixtures, any decorative item. Anything within the play that an actor has to handle—phones, canes, dishes, food, books, all the small items.
NA: That’s a lot, so it’s a good thing you have a fantastic staff that’s making and buying all those items. What’s your process with regard to food when you’re reading a script? What kinds of things do you have to consider?
AM: The first thing you consider is, does it have to be real or can it be fake? And then stage management has to get a list of all the allergies, because a lot of people have specific diets or food allergies. So before we do anything we have to get that information. If the food has to be real, we have to decide, in terms of labor and cost, how to approach it. Is it something that we try to shop and get a lot of, do a weekly shopping, freeze it, bring it to the theater? So for instance, in Gem of the Ocean, they have to eat a lima bean soup, and there was nothing canned that would look right. We did look, we did purchase, it was terrible. So I actually found a recipe, the simplest recipe I could find, which was chopped up onions, carrots, navy beans, and some water, a little bit of spices, and we actually made a giant pot every week. So the process is, you come up with an idea, and then usually the last week of rehearsal you send it down and make sure the actors are happy with it, because they have to eat and talk and act at the same time.
For instance, when we just did Life After, the actor needed to eat a tart, so we went and got some different tart shells. We wound up using a phyllo shell, which is really lightweight, and just a little Cool Whip. Sometimes it’s trial and error, in terms of what works. A lot of time actors know what they want to eat, but not always. For Having Our Say—that was a huge food show—the McCarter Theatre had done it before us. I know the props director there and she sent me a list. They actually used a real chicken; the actors had to stuff a chicken every night. I thought about the danger of a real chicken, the cost, the maintenance. So Jeff [Harris—properties artisan] actually cast a chicken that could be stuffed.
For Clyde’s I have paperwork for the first production, which was at the Guthrie. It’s fascinating, they have all these lists, with each sandwich—pickle, cheese, a bun. So my process is, I read this and think, ‘How many pickles do I need? What kind of pickles? American cheese, is it sliced? Does it have the plastic on it?’ There are 21 sandwiches, and all different!
NA: Is there a difference between the Albert and the Owen Theatres in terms of what you can get away with? If the audience is closer, is it easier for them to tell if something is fake?
AM: Yes. But I wouldn’t say that’s the most determining factor. Our primary guideline is what the script requires. If it has to be real, it will have to be real. And you also want it to be real for the actors. I wouldn’t want to give an actor something totally fake just because we’re in a bigger theater. You want to give an actor something they can believe is real. They’re going to see it up close!
Neena Arndt is the Resident Dramaturg for Goodman Theatre.