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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Mar. 10, 2010 7 years ago

The prop shopper

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Marlene Whitney walks at a breakneck pace, drives a station wagon with ample trunk space, wears a tape measure on her belt and is an expert bargain shopper. Her studio is the only dust-free corner in the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Scene Shop, a 15,000-square-foot warehouse.

The Asolo Rep’s full-time property master, Whitney, 37, joined the staff two seasons ago. Her first show was “Barnum,” a big-budget production and her most challenging project to date. The circus musical not only required 19th-century furniture, it called for an extraordinary number of juggle-friendly hand props.

“It was really intense,” says Whitney, a native of Montreal, Quebec. “You never think the show’s going to happen, but the shows always happens.”

A graduate of University du Quebec à Montreal, Whitney studied performing arts and dreamed of becoming an actress. Although she left the spotlight years ago to pursue steadier work as a prop buyer and set dresser in Quebec’s movie-and-commercial industry, her backstage resume is impressive.

While working on the set of an insurance commercial, Whitney fell in love with Sarasota and decided to extend her visa. Working as an aerial photographer, she flew in single-engine airplanes up and down the state, eventually landing a part-time gig working as a prop buyer and set builder at the Sarasota Opera.

When Whitney was hired to replace longtime Asolo prop master Cathryn Dashiell in 2008, she was finally ready for her first “office job.”

“This is my first real job,” says Whitney. “I love it. You go to work in the morning and you never know what’s going to happen. Every time a new show comes up, it’s like a breath of fresh air.”

It can take anywhere from a month to six weeks to build a show. Whitney’s job is to spend that time combing local thrift stores for furniture, props and linens that closely resemble the photographs and specifications provided by the set designer.

“I don’t think people appreciate our exactitude,” Whitney says. “They just see furniture on a stage. When I read a script, I extract all the props. And then I go to all the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores from here to Bradenton.”

To stay under budget, Whitney will pull pieces from the theater’s enormous prop inventory, currently stored in an aging warehouse behind the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Still, many pieces are built from scratch — a time-consuming task that doesn’t always pay off. Whitney mentions the Queen Anne dining-room table carpenters built for the 2008 production of “The Giver.” The table was deemed superfluous before the show even opened and, like many props, was stowed away for later.

“It happens all the time,” Whitney says, unperturbed. “This is not my first barbecue, if you know what I mean.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]

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