An Owners' Manual 

Shotgun Players prop mistress Jeanine Rodgers fesses up.

Need a severed head? If Jeanine Rodgers can't find it, she'll figure out how to make it in her kitchen, where the scale gets more use measuring chemicals than weighing food. Working closely with directors and set designers, the prop mistress on Shotgun Players' Owners -- now through October 9 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, ShotgunPlayers.org) -- thrives on finding or making exactly the right weapon or spring-loaded box.

Prop design is a collaborative process from the beginning. "Are we going for surreal, or very standard?" she asks. "What I put onstage has to blend with what they want." And things change as the rehearsals progress: "Props you thought would just be sitting there are getting thrown across stage." There are other considerations, from how much handling something will get to the director's feelings on food. Theatrically, real food is a nightmare. It's messy, and masticating actors can't enunciate their lines. If they do get food, Rodgers has more questions: "'Is there anything I can't give you? Do we have allergies?' Tofu works in many cases." If it's not real food, she turns to Styrofoam or "really nicely painted rubber or plastic."

Besides allergies and mess, Rodgers thinks about space, a prop person's big challenge. When she started with Shotgun, assisting the set designer on The Play About the Baby, the company was still using LaVal's; its move into the Ashby Playhouse thrilled her. "I asked, 'Where are the props?' and Patrick [Dooley, artistic director] said, 'They're in the closet with the cleaning supplies.' We have a closet! We have a spot!"

Furniture is the real killer because it's expensive and bulky, and there's no guarantee (unlike Shotgun's omnipresent stuffed raven) that it will ever be used again. So Rodgers is fond of the San Pablo flea market, whose "very gracious" manager allows the company to rent big items. For Owners, Shotgun is borrowing from the Rep, the Willows, and ACT, whose prop storage Rodgers imagines as the warehouse in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Besides research and procurement, she loves figuring out how to make something look right from thirty feet away. On her first props outing, The Death of Meyerhold, "I had to come up with Russian papers, I was making it snow -- the little things that make a prop person happy." She Photoshopped the newspapers and tore up plastic shopping bags for snow. She has learned that wall-hung props don't need backs, convincing electronic devices can be cobbled together from toys and model-kit debris, and the island of Madagascar, which she painted on a child's ball for Travesties, is larger than you think. Largely self-taught, Rodgers has the ability to look at something and say, "I know it's not that, but it's the same shape as that. I can make it look like that."

During the day, Rodgers manages the payroll for a San Francisco real-estate firm, where she admits that her prop work is having an effect: "People often come to me with questions that nobody else will know the answers to." Owners audiences will see her knowledge hard at work. "The set is slightly minimalist, but the set designer would like each of those pieces fully dressed, so there's lots of paper and things to put on cabinets." And there are two butcher shops. Two of 'em! "Can't just have one, no," she laughs. "It's set in the '70s." So no severed heads, but maybe some rubber steaks fresh from Rodgers' kitchen.

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