Meet the Staff
Erin Keller, Properties Manager
By Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri (and for the fellow St. Louisians out there, I went to Mehlville High School). I did my undergrad at the University of Missouri, where I earned my BA in theatre with a focus on stage management. After graduation, I moved back to St. Louis (after a brief year living in the United Kingdom) where I started working as the prop master for the St. Louis Black Rep and completely fell in love with props. I stayed there for three seasons before heading to Virginia Tech for my MFA in props design.
Tell us about the first time you experienced live theatre and how it impacted you.
I remember going to see a production of Paddington Bear in elementary school. It was incredibly exciting to see some of my favorite stories acted out on stage, but I also remember being fascinated by the architecture of the space and being completely enamored with the whole experience. I’ve been pretty lucky to have had exposure to the arts for most of my life. I’ve been in love with telling stories for as long as I can remember.
What does a day in the life of a Properties Manager look like?
It’s hard to say what a typical day is like because there is no such thing as a typical day in the prop shop. Depending on what’s on the docket for the day – and where we are in the build process – I could be doing research, ordering supplies, moving furniture around to different spaces, sitting in multiple meetings, or really doing anything. That’s one thing that I really love about this job – no two days are the same! There’s constant challenge. It’s impossible to get bored.
What interested you most about pursuing this type of work?
I’m really drawn to the intense creativity required for this job. It’s not just about artistic skills; you also have to be very clever. There’s a lot of dramaturgy that goes into selecting each piece. We spend a lot of time thinking about things like what color and size coffee cups the characters would be drinking out of. A gray, utilitarian mug says something very different from an oversized mug with hand-painted flowers. And it’s not always just about what fits with the characters, but how it fits into the overall design of the production. For example, if you put a white umbrella on stage, you’d better want everyone in the audience to be looking at that umbrella. I’m kind of an over-thinker by nature, so it’s actually quite relaxing to obsess over the details and have it be a good thing.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Predicting the future. No…really! The list that we start out with as we go into rehearsals is never the same list that we end up with by opening night. Things develop and change a lot through rehearsals as we work out the best ways to tell the story. It’s important to try to predict how much that might change and in what ways. If a director is on the fence about whether or not they want a sofa onstage, it’s probably not a good idea to have an artisan work on building one for two weeks, especially when you know there are items more important to the storytelling. You have to very carefully allocate resources to make the most efficient use of your time and budget, and that can sometimes be a bit tricky.
What aspects of your job would most people be surprised to learn about?
It takes a village! I’d be lost without the talented artisans we use here; but in addition to that, there is a fantastic community of prop makers out there all over the United States. We are constantly communicating with each other on advice for projects and tips on where to find things. It’s such a wonderful and supportive community. We love looking at what other prop masters are doing and enjoy helping each other figure out tough challenges.
What is the most unusual prop you’ve had to create (or find) for a show?
A functioning sewing machine made out of cardboard that had to be worn on a performer’s head and operated by a puppet that magically turned a coat into a schoolbook. This was for a production of Pinocchio I worked on with the Rogue Artists Ensemble in Los Angeles in 2012. I did a lot of research into hand-crank sewing machines and the belt and wheel systems used to move the needle. Re-creating that with cardboard and twine was tricky. Part of the concept of the design was that everything was made of cardboard or some other type of paper/fiber product. Once the mechanics of the machine were worked out, we had to figure out the balance so it would sit comfortably and correctly on the actor’s head and build the trough to catch the coat and the lever mechanism to “pop” out the book.
Tell us your favorite production at Hartford Stage and why.
I’d probably have to say Matthew Lopez’s Somewhere. Not only was it an incredibly fun show to work on – what, with fully dressing two apartments – but it was such a beautiful and inspiring story. I loved the magical nature of the show, and watching the family struggle to support their passions was really touching. I think that it was the kind of innovative storytelling that Hartford Stage does best.
Do you have other talents or passions outside of working in theater?
I love camping and hiking and generally being outdoors. I also love running! You might be surprised to know that I don’t stick with crafty hobbies too much. I go through periods of knitting or painting or building furniture for myself, but as they say “The shoemaker’s children have no shoes.”
What is your personal motto in life?
A quiz on the Internet told me it should be “You are confined only by the walls you build yourself,” so we’ll go with that.