Meet the Staff
Todd Kulik, Properties Manager
Anyone for watermelon steak cooked medium rare?
By Theresa MacNaughton
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a small coal town. I went to the University of Pittsburgh where I studied theater, business, and art history – although most of the skills that I use every day come from years of working in my family’s upholstery and custom furniture shop. I left college before finishing-up to work at the Pittsburgh Public Theater as a staff props carpenter. There, I honed my skills building furniture and scenery for eight seasons.
Who or what inspired you to get into this line of work?
I caught the theater bug after being involved in my high school’s first musical. It was a production of Little Shop of Horrors. I was very excited to revisit it in college; and it is one show I hope to work on again. I went off and did other things, but I always thought about working in theater. Eventually life led me back.
What does a day in the life of a Properties Manager look like?
My typical day starts with my walk to work and a strong cup of coffee. When I get into the shop, I look over the rehearsal report and performance report from the night before. I have a brief meeting with my staff to discuss how to respond to notes and to set priorities and goals for the day. Then, it is off to meetings or sourcing items for the current show we are building. This could mean anything from sitting at a computer browsing E-bay and Craigslist to running all over Connecticut to visit auction houses, antique and thrift stores, flea markets and even other theatres to look through their warehouses – all in search of the perfect prop, or at least several viable options.
How do you begin each show? What is usually the first thing you have to prepare for?
Just like performers, every project starts with reading the script. I look for different things when I read a script. The mention of a character smoking possibly implies a pack of cigarettes, lighter, ashtray and more. Then, in consultation with the various designers and director, I develop a list of all the props that we think the show will require. Next, we start thinking about first rehearsal. We strive to provide at least stand-ins for everything on the list, and sometimes even finished props.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
As a collaborative art form, there are a lot of moving parts. Communication is a balancing act that we constantly work at – making sure designers are talking to each other and that we are sharing the right information with other departments, but not overwhelming them with information they don’t need.
For a show like Hamlet, which is directed by Darko, are there specific things that you will be asked to find for the production?
Alas poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio: You can’t have a performance of Hamlet without a skull. But, in truth, every prop is specific. We have discussions about every item we put on stage. The choices we make as props people have weight – just like the decisions that a performer makes. A set of gilded goblets says something about the opulence and decadence of Claudius’ court that plain pewter goblets do not.
What is the most unusual prop you’ve come across?
I think all of the most unusual props I have been involved in fall into one category: food! Food introduces a whole new set of challenges. Everything from dietary restrictions and cost, to palatability and appearance, has to be considered. When a script calls for performers to eat a fillet mignon, or scoop out a bowl of ice cream every night, you need to look for creative solutions. For A Song at Twilight last season, the actors were served a steak every night. We used pieces of watermelon brushed with caramel color. The watermelon is lighter, healthier and less fragrant. The end product was a rich-looking piece of steak that appeared to be cooked medium rare when cut and was easy to prepare and eat. Ice cream presents a whole different set of problems. Stage lights are hot, and the balancing act between rock-hard ice cream and a soupy mess is impossible. So we use instant mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes scoop well, hold their shape, and are not a sticky mess.
What has been your favorite production at Hartford Stage since you’ve worked here?
That is a very tough question. There are so many that I am really proud of – and for different reasons. I think A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder has to be the top, though. It was a huge project; we really pushed ourselves and delivered amazing props that I am proud to say are still being using on Broadway.
Do you have other talents or passions outside of working in theater?
I like to snow ski and hike. Finding time to do as much as I would like is difficult – especially in the winter months when the theater season is the most demanding.
What is your personal motto in life?
“Dare to be different.” I think one of the most important things is to approach challenges from different directions. Don’t be afraid to try something different, or try to do something in an unorthodox way, or best yourself. Sometimes there will be spectacular failures; but other times there will be “happy accidents.”