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Props, y'all

Peek behind the scenes of 4 Chicago holiday productions

December 21, 2011|By Julia Borcherts for RedEye

Ever wonder what it takes to create an artificial sound of ice cracking? How stagehands can get actors airborne across the stage in “A Christmas Carol” in complete darkness? What the course of action is when there’s a last-minute wardrobe malfunction in Joffrey Ballet’s “Nutcracker”? Or why there needs to be 22 of the iconic leg lamps at the ready in “A Christmas Story, The Musical?” We went directly to the source: the costumers, the prop masters and the production managers who make the magic happen at these iconic Chicago holiday productions.

Matt Chandler, Assistant Production Manager

How do you fly people through the air in the dark?
The people running it are positioned just off stage right so that they have a clear line of sight onstage. They can see the performer there, and they have infrared monitors so they can see in the dark [and] get the height that the performer needs to be at. And on the screen, they actually have little permanent marker marks. [When] the feet of the performer land on that mark on the TV screen, we know they’re at the right height.

What’s your own favorite ‘flying’ moment to watch?
It’s the entrances of the two ghosts. Albeit, when Future enters, in terms of what happens, it’s kind of simple. But we’re able to have Future appear in a spot where nobody’s expecting. There’s not an entrance—a light comes up and Future is there. It’s actually a performer that hangs in the air off the ground about 6 or 7 feet.

Go: Through Dec. 31 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $25-$80; 312-443-3800;

Rick Kubes, Foley Artist (reproduction of everyday sound effects)

What are your biggest challenges?
My first year, I really struggled just with getting the sounds out there. Last year, I started to get into more of the intricacies and the delicacies of what the difference between an older man’s punch is to a young George Bailey punch or how fast somebody runs or how hard they would slam the door.

What are your favorite sound effects?
No question, I love breaking glass. My most delicate one would be my cricket noise, with this little wood block and a little stick. And any time there’s water splashing—when Harry falls when the ice cracks or in the dance scene during the Charleston when the floor opens up—taking that tennis racket and slamming water.

Go: Through Dec. 31 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.
Tickets: $35-$40; 773-409-4125;

Travis Halsey, Wardrobe Design Assistant

How did you design the new ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ costumes to replicate the 20-plus-year-old originals?
A technology called sublimation. Cirque du Soleil uses it a lot—that’s who inspired me to start using it.

Say we’re doing pansy petals—you design your pansy petal in Photoshop and then you scale it and send it to a company that prints it on a gas permeable paper. They lay the paper on whatever fabric you want—we used organza for this project cause it’s lightweight—and then they blow the color using a gas through the paper into the fabric.

It’s a really cool process ’cause you can get beautiful vibrant colors and they’ll last a long time. When people see the flowers now, they can go, “Oh, that’s an iris, that’s a peony, that’s a rose.” They’re very identifiable and still beautiful and floaty.

How do you handle wardrobe malfunctions?
We’ll just fix it while they’re standing in the wing ready to go on. Three of us [from the Joffrey artistic team] and 12 union dressers are equipped with needles, threads in multiple colors, scissors—we don’t put any safety pins onstage ’cause that’s not safe.

Go: Through Dec. 27 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.
Tickets: $30-$115; 800-982-2787;

Greg Davis, Props Master

Tell us about the leg lamps.
There’s 22 different leg lamps in the show, basically four different kinds—the  children in the cast dance with small ones, which are modified electrically to work on a battery pack; the adults dance with what we call “the dancing leg lamps,” which are all full-sized but they’re reinforced to withstand the choreography—there’s actually a handle inside there. There is the leg lamp which arrives in the crate, which is essentially a regular lamp. And there is the broken leg lamp [laughs], which the mother knocks off of a piece of furniture—it’s a breakaway prop.

What happens backstage when things go wrong?
[During a performance last week], one of the automation tracks—which moves the scenery—broke. It was supposed to move the Christmas tree with all the presents under it. And it’s kind of important for the last scene when they’re opening their Christmas presents [laughs] that that piece of scenery gets onstage.

So we simply had to push it onstage, which isn’t an ideal solution but it was there. We’ve learned that as long as no one gets hurt, somehow the audience will forgive you and it will all work out in the end. You can’t panic.

Go: Through Dec. 30 at The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.
Tickets: $35-$125; 312-462-6300;

Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor.

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