“When you have to build sharks, a mad rhino, and a giant octopus, the potential for some really fun and inventive ideas comes forth” says Semisi, one of the students who had the amazing opportunity to work on the prop goldmine, James and The Giant Peach.
This amazing adventure of James Henry Trotter fulfills the fantasy of anyone who has ever dreamed of escape. Roald Dahl's story of James and The Giant Peach, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s latest theatre production, comes hilariously to life in this delightful dramatization that reveals the wickedness of some, the goodness of others, and the indecision encountered by many when they are faced with crises. The characters are creative themselves, seen through James (as he cleverly gets the Peach out of danger), the wise Old Green Grasshopper and the pessimistic Earthworm. The audience also sees James' mean Aunt Spiker and cruel Aunt Sponge come to a suitably sticky end. However, with these diverse characters and the fantastical nature of the play comes a complexity of props.
“James and the Giant Peach was the first show I got to work on as a props master, at least in the university setting, so it was definitely jumping into the deep end for me,” explained Ada Packiewicz, a theatre student who worked alongside Semisi. A props master on a theatrical production is in charge of designing, constructing, finding, borrowing, purchasing, and/or renting all props for the show. All items onstage that are handled by actors are considered props, including luggage, food, papers, cigarettes, firearms, flowers and much more. While many plays have fairly “run-of-the-mill” props lists, James and the Giant Peach is a different story, entirely due to its fantastical nature. Because of this, Ada and Semsi got the opportunity of a lifetime to be props masters for this production.
Through the long process of refining ideas and coming up with the final designs and builds for this production, the end product was an amalgamation of intense research, trial and error, and small unexpected discoveries. Take for example the prop sharks which are, essentially, 6-foot long springs. “This was not the original plan and even in its simplicity it was a long and challenging process to build,” Semisi explained. “The original plan was to focus on the movement of the tail and sections of the body by making a sort of door hinge mechanism or a sort of wooden snake sort of thing. Ada and I even met up on the weekend for a little model building session to get a clearer idea of what this thing would actually look like.”
Whether it’s a shark, a rhino, flocks of birds, or an octopus, they each started out with very different designs and puppetry as props. The build process never went completely as planned and changes needed to be made and rethought constantly. However, coordinating these props with the director and actors successfully brought these puppets to life. “With all these puppets, it took hours of rehearsal with Jenn Chapmann (Director), the props designers, and Arthur Grothe (Fight Choreographer) just to get the movements down, get the look solid, and give these pieces of metal, cloth and wood character and life,” explained Semisi.
“Through the long hours, I would be remiss if I didn’t express how grateful it has been to bring these props to life with these amazing, creative artists. That’s how I think our department exceeds any others in the opportunities they give for us as students. We are able to work together with these seasoned professionals as they let us make mistakes and learn from them.”
Overall, this production truly speaks to the collaborative nature of theatre and the aspect of props in this production. No one person had full ownership or control of these props, costumes or set from start to finish. Ada describes that “it was not only a great learning opportunity, but, in my opinion, one of the best things a young aspiring theatre student could do to jumpstart their career, especially in the world of props.” Every person involved in this production had some hand in creating these characters and the world that the characters live in.
“That’s the best thing about theater. Everyone is always learning and growing with each other and from each other.” – Semisi