Thank you to our Properties Master, Christopher Fitzer, for this guest blog post about the challenges of creating a working kitchen onstage!
Many plays are set in or require a kitchen onstage, and in other plays “off-stage” kitchens provide real and prop dining and eating experiences onstage. And in each one of these plays, how we achieve the kitchen, and all that it requires, is different each and every time. From artificial and theatrical to fully functional and practical, TheatreWorks has presented a multitude of variations of kitchens over the past many seasons. Here are the processes we go about to create the kitchens onstage:
Prop – The simplest sinks onstage do not actually produce water. In those cases the sinks are put into the cabinetry, not attached to any water source, and act purely as an aesthetic reference, necessary to dictate that we are in a kitchen. This included the sink in the Muldoon kitchen in 2016’s Outside Mullingar.
Tank – The most common way we utilize sinks onstage at TheatreWorks is with sinks attached to a small tank hidden on or behind the stage. Sometimes they are pressurized tanks to ensure water comes from the faucet, and other times we have tanks elevated that use gravity to bring the water to the faucet. Both of these ways are much simpler than plumbing the sink, but have a limited water amount, and therefore are used in shows where the sink is only used a couple of times. This included the sink in the Reilly kitchen in 2016’s Outside Mullingar and in 2014’s Marry Me A Little.
Plumbed – The most difficult to achieve onstage, but the most realistic, is to plumb a sink onstage into the existing plumbing of the building. This way is only used when a copious and consistent amount of water is needed during the performance (and typically more likely in industrial or commercial kitchen sets). For instance, 2016’s tokyo fish story required an industrial sink to wash rice multiple times throughout the production.
Prop – A majority of the times, appliances onstage are real period-appropriate appliances that are not connected to a power source. Refrigerators are used to hold prop foods, but do not actually “refrigerate,” and stoves and ovens hold pots and pans, but never cook anything onstage. The vintage 1930s refrigerator in 2016’s Outside Mullingar and the contemporary stainless steel fridge in 2012’s Time Stands Still were just props.
Working Prop – In some shows, appliances are required to perform certain functions, but they do not need to be fully practical. Perhaps a kettle needs to boil on a stovetop. In that case, we might achieve that the needed outcome through different methods. If we do not need the kettle to actually be hot, we may add a speaker inside of the stove to create the whistling sound and add a flicker tip light to create the flame effect. But if we need the water to actually boil and a fully functional stove is not needed, we may replace one of the burners inside the stove with a simple hot plate, making that burner functional and leaving the rest of the stovetop as a prop. In 2016’s tokyo fish story the burners were prop and connected to fake gas lines, but the pot we put on top of them had a practical smoke effect inside of it, so that at the proper time the actor could “smoke” his fish.
Real – Every once in a while, a play requires an appliance to completely perform its intended function. This typically happens with smaller countertop appliances, like toasters, mixers, blenders, etc. These items can simply be plugged in, and either work as intended or work with slight alterations. In 2013’s Warrior Class, a popcorn maker with a practical fan inside created popcorn onstage.
FOOD & DRINK
Real – The easiest answer for food (but not the most cost-effective) is to provide the real thing when it must be eaten onstage. Real coffee was drunk in 2015’s Country House, real oatmeal is eaten in 2017’s Crimes of the Heart, and real sausages were had in 2015’s Fallen Angels.
Prop – In instances where food in shown onstage but never eaten, we almost always create or provide an artificial version of the food, so that it can last the run of the performances without having to be replaced. This included the shellac-coated bagels in 2015’s Proof, the plastisol-created raw fish in 2016’s tokyo fish story, the multiple cases of silicone donuts in 2010’s Superior Donuts, the molded foam meat pies in 2014’s Sweeney Todd, the carved foam steak tornadoes in 2015’s Fallen Angels, and the foam-and-acrylic birthday cake in 2017’s Crimes of the Heart.
Edible Facsimiles – In certain instances like cost or cast member food allergies, the props department may need to create edible alternatives for the food needed onstage. In 2015’s Fallen Angels, cloudy gelatin was carved into amorphous blobs to act as a cost-effective and food safe alternative to real oysters. Anytime there is liquor onstage, especially brown alcohol, colored water or decaffeinated iced tea is used. In 2013’s Somewhere, pork chops were too expensive and difficult to cook at the theatre, so peanut butter cookies were baked ahead of time in the shape of pork chops and used onstage. To prevent the melting mess of ice cream onstage, 2012’s Time Stands Still used mashed potatoes scooped like ice cream.
The scenic and props departments use a lot of tricks to make kitchens look complete and food look realistic onstage. Hopefully as the audience you never suspect…but now you’ll know how some of that theatre magic is made!