Giving props to the proper props

The Baltimore Sun

It's a detail that the audience will never, in a million years, pick up from the darkened confines of Center Stage's Pearlstone Theater. Not even the actors are likely to look closely at that most unassuming of props: a partially empty bottle of Clorox.

But Ellen Nielsen knows that the label contains three sections of advertising copy that actually was used on bottles of bleach in 1963, when Center Stage's current production, Caroline, or Change, is set.

After all, Nielsen researched and found the exact wording, not to mention the precise weight and sheen of paper used to make labels in the early 1960s. She meticulously reproduced the color of the ink and typeface from the original advertisement, printed and cut a new label, and glued it to a white plastic bottle.

E. Faye Butler, the actress portraying the title character, an African-American maid named Caroline Thibodeaux, might shove it around the top of her laundry room work bench, but she won't think much about it. Neither will the audience.

They'll merely accept it without question - exactly as Nielsen planned.

"The more realistic the surroundings, the more it helps the actors develop their characters," says Nielsen, an intern in Center Stage's props department. "When the actors are on stage, they don't want to have to be thinking about how something was made. Getting those details right involves a lot of research, and a lot of craft."

The musical is set in Louisiana in 1963 during the burgeoning civil rights movement. In lieu of a raise, Mrs. Gellman, Caroline's employer, imposes a rule allowing the laundress to keep any coins she finds in the pockets of the family's 8-year-old son - a policy which has devastating consequences.

The bottle of Clorox, which sits next to a similarly authentic box of Tide from 1963, are among the hundreds of props for Caroline crafted by Nielsen; her boss, props master Jennifer Stearns-Gleeson; the department carpenter, Nathan Scheifele; and Jeanne Marie Burdette, who constructs soft goods made from such materials as fur, leather and vinyl.

"Obsessive" doesn't even begin to describe these people. In a recent production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Lee Savage's set design called for a handful of pennies to be scattered under furniture on stage.

There the copper coins lay. No one picked them up, or said, "A penny for your thoughts," and it's not even clear whether the "heads" or "tails" side faced the ceiling. But the scattered change helped create the messy atmosphere that Savage sought.

So Stearns-Gleeson and her employees procured pennies. But, not just any pennies - pennies from 1962, when Edward Albee's play is set.

"I've really learned that each set designer falls somewhere on a continuum between theatrical effect and practical realities," Nielsen says, adding that for a hyper-realistic play such as Virginia Woolf, it's important that the set furnishings don't jolt audience members out of the world the actors create.

In contrast, Caroline has fanciful elements that require ticket buyers to suspend their disbelief from the moment the curtain goes up. For those shows, absolute realism probably is less crucial.

One small example: in the musical written by Tony Kushner and composed by Jeanine Tesori, the washing machine talks to the title character. So does the moon, the radio and a city bus. And the dryer does a mean Motown.

Not that Nielsen and her co-workers had to dust off their magic wands. In the show, the talking appliances are represented by physical artifacts - but also by actors voicing their "thoughts." Set designer Allen Moyer and costume designer David Burdick try to visually connect the actors with the props.

"The washer, dryer and radio are figments of Caroline's imagination," Moyer says. "They're almost like girlfriends whom she's invented to keep her company when she's doing the laundry."

Thus the Lady Kenmore washing machine is painted in a period-appropriate aqua. (Nielsen's research found that this was the only shade, other than white, offered by the manufacturer in the early 1960s.) And Danielle Lee Greaves, who portrays the appliance, will wear a similar shade.

"Danielle's costume will look like an unfolded pile of laundry," Burdick says. "It will be made from nightgowns and men's wear. A pair of boxer shorts will be sewn onto her back."

The washing machine itself, still wrapped in plastic, was procured from Stearns-Gleeson's basement, where it had been damaged in a flood. The dryer, dating from 1957, was found on an online auction site.

"EBay is probably the single most important tool for props people in the 21st century," Moyer said.

To make the old dryer production-ready, crew members merely installed red lights in the interior. This will bolster Caroline's contention that, though the Supreme Being created everything on heaven and earth - including the new washing machine - "the dryer was made by the devil."

But aging an essentially modern washing machine was a conundrum. It required a period logo, several dials cast from plastic, and strips of "chrome" molding.

"A big challenge for us is getting things that we do by hand to look machine-made," Nielsen says, tucking down a piece of molding that protruded slightly from one corner. "It takes really strong craft."

Nielsen loves doing the research, loves visiting the library to pore over design books, loves perusing catalogs from such venerable institutions as Montgomery Ward and Sears, because they contain everyday items that were used by ordinary people.

She relishes the glimpse into the past these objects provide, the values that they implicitly reflect.

"In school, I learned a design ethic that was stripped-down and minimalist, with very clean lines," she says. "Then, I worked on a show with Victorian decor, which was the exact opposite of everything I'd been taught. I learned there is a way to do that well, too."

For Nielsen, building a world on stage that's accurate in its tiniest particulars isn't simply a gift to the actors and audience, and it's more than just a professional challenge.

It is her art form.

if you go

Caroline, or Change runs through Jan. 18 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $10-$60. 410-332-0033 or

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad