Diane Almeter Jones: Omnipresent Prop Master Extraordinaire!
by ANTHONY CHASE
For the record, Diane Almeter Jones has said, “No!” Many times.
“When appropriate,” she concedes.
It’s difficult to know that from the evidence. It might appear that Jones says “Yes” to doing props for every show in town. At the moment, she is doing the props for To Kill a Mockingbird at the Kavinoky Theatre; she is propping Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy for Road Less Traveled; and she is producing her own play, Forget Me Not, for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August -- booking a venue, getting registered and so forth.
“It’s a perfect trifecta!” she enthuses.
Jones has served as prop master for numerous shows and has done set decoration work for a number of films in Western New York over the past few years. Still, she is careful not to overbook, and at this point in her career, she needs to be paid appropriately.
“I never double book a tech week,” she insists. “And I am always there for the designer run and the dress rehearsal. For me, it is not just a matter of assembling the props and walking away. I love getting caught up in the minutia. ‘Have I missed a tag?’ I don’t want anything anachronistic to appear on the stage. My goal is to be unnoticed, so I need to be on top of my game.”
For those who might be unsure, a “prop” is any object that is used by an actor in a play or a film. If a book in a play is placed on a shelf and never moves, it is “set dressing.” If an actor has to pick the same book up, then it is a “prop.” Sometimes assembling the props can be quite an undertaking, for example, if a show is “prop heavy,” meaning that it requires a lot of props; or if a play is in a distant historical period; or set within a certain industry or culture; or in a place of fantasy, then that show places greater demands on the prop master.
Where would you go to find a dentist’s chair from 1948? How would you create Guinness bottles with appropriate labels for a play set in Ireland in 1916? These are the challenges face by a prop master or set decorator.
Jones remembers that her first prop job came at the Kavinoky Theatre. They were doing the musical, She Loves Me, and Loraine O’Donnell, who usually did their props was playing a role in the show. Set in a Budapest perfumery at Christmas in 1934 among other locations and during other seasons, the show would be “prop heavy.” They needed to find someone who could focus on the challenge. Stage Manager Jenny Kennedy, who was one of Jones’ college professor’s at Buffalo State, recommended her.
“Joe Demerly, who was the managing director at the time, reached out. I said, ‘Why not? I was nearly done at Buffalo State. I was majoring in theater and had a background in graphic design and art. I did it, and afterward, Loraine, who is a good friend said, ‘Well, I’m not sure my job is secure now!’ The Kavinoky hired me for three more shows. Then [film art director] David Butler needed me for the film Marshall, so I started doing film set dressing. By then, I was out of school and had found my niche building and procuring pieces for sets on stage and film.”
What does Jones like about “propping”?
“I love to be on the team,” she says. “I love the collaboration, and I love being a part of telling the story. And in Buffalo, I’ve been able to help tell such diverse stories.”
Recalling highlights, Jones mentions the props for The Three Musketeers at 710 Main Theatre; Spamalot at the Kavinoky; Big Fish with Second Generation; she recalls working for David Butler on the film Marshall. She likes the complicated projects.
“I love Ken Shaw (who designed The Three Musketeers). David King (who designed Spamalot) is wonderful!”
“The director and the scenic designer sets the tone,” she says, but then everybody participates. I think most of all, I like working with assistant stage managers, because they are the ones handling the props and helping to maintain and repair them during the run!”
“I have loved working on my own show, Forget Me Not,” she says. “That started at Buffalo State and it all weaves together every aspect of my life. I like being a part of everything -- different styles, different theaters with different missions. I am so proud of having gone to Buffalo State and so glad that I went to the most diverse college in SUNY. My Buffalo State roots are strong and I am proud of that. I was able, not just to meet, but to work with such a diverse range of people at Buffalo State, in every sense of the word.
“I stage managed Buck, Boogie Bop & Beyond for Carlos Jones at Buffalo State and then we took that to Jewish Rep, and then we took it to the Paul Robeson Theatre, so I got to work at those theaters too.
Other vivid memories also come to mind for Jones.
“Spamalot at the Kavinoky was my biggest fun challenge of this season,” she says. “Just the volume and the absurdity of it – luckily I love building. For example, I had to build the backpack that Arin Lee Dandes wore. It had to be huge and she is tiny. We didn’t want to hurt her! Everything on the backpack was hollow. We used pcv pipe that was sanded and painted look like wood. I also enjoyed making the shields that spelled out ‘Camelot.’ They took a long time. I didn’t want them to look new. This was medieval times. They needed to be dirty and blood spattered and disgusting. Luckily my work in film has taught me how to make things look really worn and broken down!
“I’ll be using those skills again. In Between Riverside and Crazy, the protagonist is living in an apartment that he has not taken care of for a long time. It needs to be dirty and disgusting. I will be using watered down paint, and things will be tea stained and old and icky. That is part of the fun of propping.
“What was nice with Marshall was that they had a sale of props at the end of the shoot. Sometimes films will do that and I am always one of the first to buy things back. In film more is more. In theater less is more. In film, if they ask for a toaster they want to see three versions before they decide. In theater they just want a toaster.
“Also, it is a one inch rule in film – a prop has to look good from an inch away because it might get a close-up. In theater, it is a ten-foot rule – except, at Irish Classical I would imagine. The audience there is so close that you need to use the one-inch rule.”
Jones’ fee for prop work depends upon the complexity of the show, and she does take pride in being a professional. She notes that some theaters are unaccustomed to paying for prop work, but with her expertise and the time involved, this is not an option for her.
“I’ve gone from freelance graphic designer and artist to legit. I have my IATSE card.”
IATSE is the “International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, its Territories and Canada.”
“Getting my card was a wonderful moment,” recalls Jones.