Their names are listed in the programs, but the stage spotlights never actually shine on the crew members who work in theater. These artists are unseen. So Northwest Arts Connection wants to feature some of these “unsung heroes” of the Northwest side Chicago theater world, and share something about who they are and what they do.
ELLIE TERRELL is a Chicago native with a B.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies from the College of William and Mary. Her passion for mask making led her to a variety of visual and performing art opportunities around Chicago. She works as a freelance artist supporting many theater companies in Chicago, including productions with Redmoon, Chicago Children’s Theater, Porchlight, House Theater, and Albany Park Theater Project. Most recently, she served as Properties Designer for Halcyon Theatre’s production of “Estrella Cruz [the junkyard queen].”
When I saw Halcyon Theatre’s set for “Estrella Cruz [the junkyard queen],” I couldn’t believe the number of pieces of “junk” creatively placed, and beautifully lit, on the set (see the play title). There were 70s era floor-style TVs, old radios and lamps, and even a discarded (but functioning) bathtub! As Properties Designer for this play, I was curious: How do you obtain all your props? Do you have a source? Or do you go “antiquing?”
I spend a lot of time at thrift stores, on Craigslist, and on eBay, and am always on the lookout for potential objects that can work for current or future shows I know that I am working on. It’s a constant hunt. I also borrow pieces from other theaters that I have an existing relationship with.
Some may not know, but what exactly does a Properties Designer do?
Props Designers work with the Artistic Director and Scenic Designer to design and then source, buy, or create every object that is seen onstage in a show. Anything that is not a piece of the set is built or bought by the Props Designer.
What else have you done in theater?
Most commonly I do props design and scenic painting, but I also have been a production manager, teaching artist, and intern manager in the build shop.
How do you like working behind the scenes?
I really love it! I originally got involved in theater as a performer, and I was in the theater world strictly as a performer until graduating from undergrad. The shift to building and painting has been exciting and challenging. I love the variety of skills and constant problem-solving that is required in props making; every day is different. Some days I spend searching for the perfect furniture piece, some days I spend problem-solving how to achieve a magical element for a show, and some days I spend working in my studio building an object. It never gets boring.
What interest haven’t you pursued, but have always wanted to? What draws you to it?
I’m interested in lighting and light design and how dramatically it affects a show. Every object and piece of scenery completely transforms under theatrical lights, and I think it would be great to understand it more fully for my own art practice, but it is something I have never actually pursued.
Just as a fun question to close out the interview: what is the craziest thing you have ever done?
In terms of theater the craziest thing I’ve ever done is probably build 60 masks for a show. I lived and breathed masks for a month. The craziest thing I’ve ever done outside of theater is climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro! An incredible adventure.
Ellie Terrell was the Properties Designer for Halcyon Theatre’s production of “Estrella Cruz [the junkyard queen], which ran from January 21 to February 16, 2016.
About Halcyon Theatre
Halcyon Theatre is a Northwest side theatre company that is fiercely committed to making the stage as diverse as the city of Chicago. Dedicated to presenting new voices from inadequately represented communities, Halcyon works to recast classic works in order to showcase contemporary relevance. Based in the Albany Park neighborhood, Halcyon Theatre was formed in 2006 to connect people, transform borders and ascend toward a more just union. The theatre’s artistic philosophy is driven by the continuing belief that at every point of human history where there has been an explosion of artistic creativity, it has happened when different cultures and traditions have met and learned from each other. Halcyon’s work includes productions as well as providing platforms—including Compass Lab as well as writing workshops & new play labs—for artists to grow and reach their full potential.
Halcyon Theatre is in residence at Christ Lutheran Church located at 3255 W. Wilson (theatre entrance is at the building’s side entrance at 4551 N. Spaulding.) To learn more about Halcyon Theatre or to make a donation, find them online: https://halcyontheatre.org/
—Molly Jones, Northwest Arts Connection, March 2016
–Photo by Evan Barr