Earning props for his props
By Lou Fancher for insidebayarea
From ridiculous to riotous to sublime, the career path of a theater prop master is a rocky road.
Witness Shaun Carroll, the 48-year-old Richmond native who mostly grew up in the tiny town of Genesee, Idaho, then jig-jagged his way from Portland to Ashland, Oregon, before landing in Benicia. And Carroll's meanderings aren't simply geographic. In the Bay Area, he's worked for various theater companies -- Walnut Creek's Center Rep Theatre, Orinda-based California Shakespeare Theater, Opera Paralléle, Berkeley's Shotgun Players, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the former Willows Theater Company and others.
Fresh from a dalliance with a mechanical, life-size puppet -- made with bed springs joints, Styrofoam torso and legs and topped by an unfortunate paper mâche head -- Carroll, as a "properties coordinator," is still navigating prop land's treacherous waters.
"The mice have eaten his face," Carroll says. "I pulled it out of storage and realized, I never thought, 'The mice are going to thank me 'cause that's their dinner.' I should have used glue instead of flour." And so it goes, learning by doing, which is modus operandi for a prop guy.
Carroll came to his profession thanks, in large measure, to boredom. He says there was little to do in Idaho except watch television and make spaceships out of garbage cans. Tested for his occupational tendencies, a school counselor told him he "didn't care how mechanical things work." Test results clearly missed the mark.
"That was odd," Carroll says, "because I love it when a theater company says they have $500 and they want a car, a cougar, a mutant turtle, purple poop and a million other things. I have to come up with the materials to make whatever they want."
His imagination has been used to turn a shopping cart into a baby carriage; a shovel and pitchfork into a giant spoon and fork; and a lobster-shaped Jell-O mold, mop, wicker brush and aluminum crutch into a hobby horse, among other oddities.
He's also had to learn how to weld, sculpt insulation foam, build fences, design costumes ("I tell my nieces, as long as I'm alive, we're not buying Halloween costumes," he says), rewire old electronics and make fossilized turtle poop out of mashed newspaper and baking clay.
"That was bizarre, but easy," he exclaimed jubilantly. "So much of my skills come from someone saying, 'Have you ever tried this?' "
Carroll's versatility is aided by his late-blooming background as an actor. It started when he went off to the University of Idaho, telling his parents he was going to veterinarian school.
"I was really studying theater, but I even volunteered at a vet clinic, so they wouldn't tell me theater was no way to make a living," he says.
Some strange, but at times necessary props and set dressings are stored in the "prop shop" of Shaun Carroll, also known as "Prop Guy,"
Graduating with a fine arts degree and a teaching certification for math and theater, Carroll worked for Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival for five years as an actor, and credits prop master Paul James Martin for teaching him the trade.
In the Bay Area, he substitute teaches in Benicia and Concord, conducts "Artist in Residence" programs and acts in regional productions.
"I love oddball musicals. I don't have a great singing voice, but I've done 'Little Shop of Horrors' three times and love that," he says.
Carroll will perform a number of male roles in Santa Cruz-based Jewel Theater Company's production of "St. Joan" in August. Beyond that, he wavers, because the life of a prop master/actor remains bumpy.
"The cost of doing work is impossible. With all the bridge tolls and stipends not enough to cover travel, it's tough," he says.
One company had him driving the 40-some miles from his home, just to bring them broth. Other engagements require more hours than he can afford, with design meetings, run-throughs, and constant changes requested by directors or set designers as a play develops. More stable companies with stronger stipends, like Center Rep and Cal Shakes, he says, are "great and close by" favorites.
Recently, he's formed a cooperative agreement with Rooster Productions, a production company owned by Adam Pugielli, the Willows' former technical director.
"When he builds sets, he contracts me," Carroll explains. "He's also bought the Willows' inventory, and I'm head of organizing and renting those materials in exchange for using the shop to build props."
With a show to perform and over-hire work for Cal Shakes this summer, Carroll continues to improvise. He's kicking around a children's picture book idea, keeping his eye on opportunities to teach and journeying along the rocky, ridiculously radical road of his choice.