If you enjoy theater mostly from the audience perspective, you many not realize how many people work behind the scenes. Most pay attention to the actors’ performances. Many may note the contribution of the director, as well as the rest of the creative team such as the lighting, set, sound, and costume designers. But fewer take notice of the dozens of others behind the scenes that include properties director, stage manager, lighting and sound technicians, set decorators, set crew, house managers, publicity staff and many more who work to present flawless productions to their audiences.
With the present pandemic, anyone who follows theater in this area knows that it has found other tools to reach its audiences. Zoom performances, YouTube presentations, and other creative ways enable companies to keep their staff involved and, in some cases, keep their theaters financially solvent. Besides the unemployed actors, directors, and designers, thousands of people who work behind the scenes in our favorite venues are also deeply affected by the shutdown of their industry — from Broadway to Washington, D.C. and everywhere in the country where safe practices are followed.
Arena Stage has come up with a unique way of helping some of these talented artisans through a unique experience for their patrons. In late 2019, Arena Stage presented “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” by Ken Ludwig. Ludwig is known more for his farcical comedies, but this play is a love story based on Ludwig’s parents’ letters to each other during World War II. Jacob S. Ludwig was a captain in the army and Louise Rabiner was an aspiring actress. Their pen pal relationship soon became romantic, even though they had never meet.
“Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise: Love Letter Experience,” which launched this month, is an intriguing way to engage this backstage crew and reach out to those of us still in self-isolation. Jenn Sheetz the Properties Director at Arena and her staff have recreated nine love letters that follow the story of Ken Ludwig’s parents. This “journey” will feature the letters and photos that are designed and handcrafted with all the details of that period. People who purchase the letters will start receiving them in March. New letters will be sent twice a week and recipients should receive all nine packets within a six-week period.
Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, states, “We used to write letters all the time — emails are not the same. To watch this love affair grow over letters is intriguing and fun. Ken Ludwig’s ‘Dear Jack, Dear Louise,’ based on the true story of how his parents met and courted, is a lovely play — and is now a fun, exciting at-home experience. Whether or not you saw the play, experience this story recreated in real time through the mail.”
The letter package starts at $35.00. If you add a script of “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” it is $45.00. If you want Ken Ludwig to sign the script, the cost is $55.00. (This makes a great Valentine’s gift.)
I had a chance to chat with Jenn Sheetz about her career and her work on this project. Jenn Sheetz has been Arena Stage’s Properties Director for the past three seasons, after twelve seasons as Properties Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. She began her theatrical career at Arena Stage, working as a properties assistant for nine seasons in the Kreeger Theatre. Jenn has also designed properties for Norwegian Cruise Line (“Rock of Ages,” “Legally Blonde,” “Million Dollar Quartet”), Comedy Central, and Showtime.
MDTG: What was your background and training to become a Properties Director?
JS: I went to undergrad at Mary Washington University, receiving a BA in Theater and Dance. I started my theatrical career as the properties assistant at Arena Stage about a year after I graduated. I like to joke that Arena Stage was my grad school, but it is where I improved my skills and learned new ones. A month before I would work backstage on the productions, I assisted the build of the show with the prop team, working with Chuck Fox (who is retired now), Lance Pennington, Niell Duval, and Mike Ritoli who are still apart of the shop today. After nine seasons in this position, I was ready to move on and become the Properties Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. I was at Woolly for 12 seasons, fine tuning my skills and always learning new ones. When the position for Properties Director opened up at Arena, I jumped at the chance to return.
MDTG: Properties are one of the under-recognized arts of theater. Can you tell our readers a bit of what you do during regular theater productions, including how early you start, how you work with other designers (set, lights, costume)? What does your role include while a production is in performance?
JS: I first read the script and create a prop list based on the stage directions and what the characters are saying. I make notes on what the prop is, how it functions, who has it, and mark what page so I can come back to review it. Next, we begin the design meetings where I hear the director’s vision and what the other designers are thinking. It’s important for me to hear from all of the designers. For example, the sound designer might want a speaker in something; the costume designer might need the blood to come out of a costume; or, the lighting designer might want a lantern to have a wireless candle in it. At this stage, the set designer will begin to give me drawings and research. I then start working on a budget for time and money, using the set designer’s information but also looking at my own research. How much is this going to cost? How long will it take to build the props? Do we have it in stock? Could I rent/borrow it? I make sure that everything I find is approved by both the director and set designer before we begin the build. The build usually starts about a month before rehearsal so that the real items, or real sized mockups, are put into rehearsal for the actors. I assign the shop crew to projects. The shop team includes Lance Pennington, Mike Ritoli, Niell Duval, Jonathan Borgia, Kyle Handziak, and Marion Dube. We build, shop, pull from stock, and maybe borrow props in preparation for rehearsals. Rehearsals start and we get a daily report of additions and cuts which we work on as well as the ongoing projects. Rehearsal moves onto the stage the weekend before tech. All the real props are set in the theater or offstage positions and tech begins. This is when it all comes together — lights, sound, costumes, set, and props. We work through the show, stopping, resetting, moving slowly to get all the cues set, work the scene changes, do the costume quick changes, and work the special effects, as well as many other things.
During stage rehearsals, the tech schedule for the next two weeks includes extended dinner breaks to work on any notes that have come up and a note session at the end of the night for any fixes to work on the next morning. When the show opens, I read the nightly performance reports to see if anything needs to be replaced or fixed. I make sure to stock all the consumables — a prop that needs daily replacing (food is an example) — for each performance. Once the show closes, we strike the props from the set, take everything to storage rooms or the warehouse. If we borrowed anything, we return it. If there are things we do not want to save, we recycle the steel and set aside any hardware and lumber that is worth keeping. And by this time, we are most likely in tech rehearsal for the next show!
MDTG: What show or play was your favorite? Most challenging?
JS: There are so many!
My most memorable as a Properties Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company was “Hir.” I had to prop a 1980s ranch house that was set dressed in a “crafty” hording situation for Act 1 and Act 2 and had to be completely cleared of all the junk during intermission. I made crazy ribbon mobiles, pipe cleaner sculptures, and sequined knick-knacks mixed in with piles of clothing and dirty dishes. On top of that, there was an actor who had to vomit in a sink about 10 times and an air conditioner unit taken off the wall and hit repeatedly with a baseball bat (it needed to break every night but also ready to use for the next show).
I think the most challenging play came my first year as the Properties Director at Arena Stage. “Kleptocracy” was a new play with rewrites happening up until opening night (Woolly prepared me for that). I needed a 1980s BMW with a trunk and door that opened and a bumper that fell off in the fight for every performance. Lots of blood — an actor was executed onstage and the blood from his head needed to land on the actors around him; a bloody nose in a fight; and stabbing in another fight. It also required a tiger sleeping on a sofa, Putin cutting up a steak nightly (that did not want to be real) and feeding it to the tiger, and a dead deer gutted onstage.
My favorite part was the blood splatter on the actors light-colored costumes when it first happened in rehearsal. The shock of the blood hitting them was a perfect reaction. The director asked if they could do that every night. One of the things I try to do when there is blood in a show is to schedule a time in rehearsal to work with it. That way, the blood is ready when we go into tech.
MDTG: What special challenges did you have reproducing the letters and photos for “Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise: Love Letter Experience?”
JS: When we did the original production, the director, Jackie Maxwell, wanted the letters to be blank. We differentiated all the letters by color and size. This time I get to create them. The fun part of this project was all the research I got to do. I found WWII love letters on eBay. Some were even sent from soldiers in the camps where Captain Jacob S. Ludwig was stationed around the time his letters were written. I wonder if they might have known each other. The most challenging aspect of this project is how to make them as authentic and unique as possible, and at the same time, mass produce them.
MDTG: Can you tell us what attracts you to this project and what those who get the letters will take away from their purchase?
JS: I really enjoyed working on Ken Ludwig’s “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” when we produced it last season. I love that you follow their story through the letters they write, and how their relationship grows into love, without ever having met each other. Even though you know that these two are the parents of playwright Ken Ludwig, you are hoping as you read their letters that they find each other. And it is a great way to support the USPS!
For information about this unique experience from Arena Stage, “Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise: Love Letter Experience,” click here. To purchase directly, click here. For more information about Arena Stage, go to their website.