On a Thursday morning in mid-March, the rain falls sideways and chatters against the gabled steel roof at the American Conservatory Theater’s prop and scene shop at 681 Florida St. The space is longer than a football field and twice as wide. It looks like it was once a jet plane hangar. Industrial fluorescent lights hang from corrugated ceilings with paned skylights. Two parallel cranes with three-ton capacities are on tracks that run the expanse of the room.
The cranes move big things here, because big things are made here. Three scenic artists spray-paint black a 40-by-26 steel grid that in two weeks will represent a New York City highrise window in “Maple and Vine,” the upcoming production. To the left, four carpenters measure, cut, staple and assemble the facades of 1950s homes and atmospheric drops before handing them over to the scenic artists to paint and texturize.
From productions such as Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” in 1975 to Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” and “Play,” which open in May, this is where sets are fabricated and decorated and props constructed and stored. Theater is made here.
Before people pay good money to watch a play unfold, and before a set ever becomes theater at 415 Geary Street in downtown San Francisco, each physical element starts here, as it has since the ’70s. The approximately 12,000-foot workspace is a mix of industrial assembly line and fine arts studio, not to mention a museum of theatric treasures. Props are not only made but stored here; for every mid-19th-century candelabra a prop artist crafts by hand, another is stored away from one of hundreds of previous performances. Artistic directors are scrupulous; not all candelabras are equally authentic.
In mid-March the workshop was behind schedule. In three weeks it needed to deliver the sets for “Maple and Vine,” one of eight performances that will premiere at ACT in downtown San Francisco this year. The specs and scene designs arrived a week late.
Jen, one of the scenic artists, is a thin woman with dirty blond hair who wears paint-splattered blue jeans and an oversize flannel jacket. She has an industrial paint mask over her face and is testing the paint stream from a compressed air gun. This is what a real artist looks like. She sprays another layer of black paint over the steel grid’s welded joints. The seams can’t be perceptible.
“Things here always look brighter than downtown,” she later says, “so you compensate here. It’s a mixture of giving them what they ask for and what they really want,” referring to the artistic directors. Jen recalls working on sets for Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” last year. She painstakingly painted an interior wall to mirror the designs, but to no avail. Just before deadline she resorted to matching the texture and color with strokes from a kitchen mop. “That’s what came through at the nth hour.” Both she and the art director were pleased.
In an office slightly elevated above the shop floor stands Mark Luevano, the factory foreman, peering through a window that overlooks the floor. To his left the carpenters work, four truckish-looking guys with a mean age of 40 who all favor Carhart-brand jeans, dirty hoodies and steel-toed boots. In all, there are four carpenters and three scenic artists on the floor today, and a prop department working in a space at the rear of the building. Together the crew constructs sets and props for approximately seven shows a year.
The highly regimented days start at 7 a.m. Everyone seems lost in work, isolated by the din of power saws, compressed air staplers and paint sprayers. It’s not until break time that the tools cease, the music stops and everyone converges in the lunch room.
Today it’s Tim the buyer’s birthday, and the crew has brought two cakes, one of which Lette — “Lette Crocker,” as the guys like to call her — made with her famed KitchenAid. The group is funny and down to earth. They’re middle-aged men and women who pack snacks of oranges in Ziploc bags and spread peanut butter on saltine crackers. When breaks conclude, the talking ceases and the music recommences. And so, quickly, does the work.
Today the carpenters construct pitched facades of post-World War II homes for “Maple and Vine.” As Luevano later tells it, “We’re translating a feeling into a number. The artistic directors tell us what they want, and we almost always say, ‘Yes, we can.’ And then we get back to the shop and say, ‘How do we do this?’”
Luevano recalls a scene from Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” It involved the ghost of Jacob Marley — originally just a puppet in a spotlight — and he thought he could improve on it by rigging a mechanism to zip the ghost over the audience and above the stage. Luevano told the art director it would happen, and it did.
Upstairs, in the back and in any spare corner in the space, old scenes and props have been organized, tagged and jammed in the hope that one day they’ll return to the stage. Old staircases leading to nowhere, tea sets of every era and social status, at least three dozen walking canes, sticks or sabers, a dozen variations of champagne buckets, telephones from every decade, decanters, chalices, shelves of 20th-century candle holders, baggies of faux international currency, a lantern for every shade of night. It’s dark and overwhelming, with probably more than 50,000 items from hundreds of plays covered in dust and white cotton sheets. It’s dead grandma’s attic on some spectacular drug.
Like props far from the stage, the scene shop workers remain out of the limelight. Chris says he enjoys having his work seen by lots of theater-goers — he recalls the roar of the crowd when the curtain revealed the first set in Maupin’s “Tales of the City” last year — but in terms of recognition, “No news is good news. One sentence in a review about our scenes is great, but anything more than that probably means the critic is complaining.”
“We don’t get much feedback here,” Chris adds, “so we try to recognize each other’s work amongst ourselves.” They seem like the type of group for which this sentiment rings true.
It‘s 4 p.m. and the eight-hour day should be over, but it’s not. The carpenters must catch up with the scenic artists if the set is to ship on time. Pink Floyd echoes across the space. The rain has stopped and the sawdust swirls and trembles through the unexpected afternoon sunlight falling on the scene shop’s floor.