Props Master: Nina Alexander
After studying sculpture at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and following her passion for creating with theatrical companies throughout New England, Nina Alexander continues her journey in Ogunquit, Maine, where she runs the props department at the Ogunquit Playhouse.
Nina discovered a love for theatre when her older brother introduced her to the theatre community at their high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the drama department’s advanced technical program fostered her enthusiasm for set design. The appeal of designing stemmed from the idea of being a “visual storyteller,” as she calls it. She followed this passion to her undergraduate education at RISD. She negotiated an unpaid internship in exchange for college credit at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI, and ended up working there full-time after earning her degree. During this time she met Timothey Sullivan (now Production Manager at the Ogunquit Playhouse) at the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Graduate Program. The two would remain in touch over the years before reuniting in Ogunquit.
After three years with Trinity Rep, Nina found a job opportunity with the Children’s Museum of the Arts in New York and became involved in arts programs for the city’s schools, running after-school classes that incorporated puppetry and stop motion animation. Timothey, who had recently joined the Ogunquit Playhouse, contacted Nina while she was doing freelance work in Boston and asked her if she would be interested in hopping on board as props master for a brief run of Mary Poppins at the Portsmouth Music Hall in late 2014. After working a mere week and a half with the Playhouse on this project, Nina was hooked. The following season, she started as the props master at the Ogunquit Playhouse, and the theatre quickly became her new home.
Working with the props department at the Playhouse is not your typical nine-to-five. During tech (the days before the opening of a show, where the cast, crew and creative team work all hours integrating costumes, lights, sound, and sets) and with so many shows to prepare for, she often finds herself working unpredictable hours. Remarking on what drives her to do this work, Nina says, “you’ve got to do it because you love it and because you want the show to be good.’
As a true regional theatre currently running at 25 weeks, a season at the Ogunquit Playhouse tends to go by extremely quickly, especially due to the tight turn around required for each show. With the nature of the Playhouse schedule, it’s not uncommon to be working on three or four different shows at a time. Nina explains, “It’s kind of like, here is the car right in front of you, and then there is the middle view, and then there’s the horizon. You have to make sure you aren’t going to hit the car in front of you but you also have to be conscious of the traffic up ahead and ultimately know where your goal is.” One of Nina’s many responsibilities is providing props for rehearsal. After rehearsal, the set is reassembled on the stage, where space constraints and the evolution of the vision for the show often results in changes to props. Nina refers to this process as a “delicate dance of being really passionate but not getting too attached to anything because it can all change.”
At the Playhouse, the production department often orders packages from Broadway, off-Broadway and other regional productions that are specific to shows being mounted that season. During unpacking, Nina’s job is to determine what needs to be cleaned up, what needs to be redesigned or fixed, and what doesn’t quite fit with the ultimate vision for the show. From that point, she can assess what the production needs and start putting the pieces together. Nina is well versed in looking for affordable options and getting creative no matter what the budget. For example, she purchased a vintage chest of drawers on Craigslist, added shelves and dressed it up for use as a mini-bar in Curtis’ 1970s apartment in Sister Act. Now integral to the set, this is a piece that is likely to become part of the Ogunquit Playhouse’s own props and/or set package that will be rented to other companies around the country for their productions.
The Ogunquit Playhouse also runs a Children’s Theatre, with the Junior Players camp culminating in a fully staged production performing to often sold-out audiences. For these shows, Nina serves as the Props Supervisor (as well as Set Designer for Shrek, Jr. this year) while her assistant, Tori Ames, shoulders the responsibility of Props Master. While these productions have “a lot of whimsy and a lot of specifics that you have to make on the fly,” many elements from the concurrent main stage show are also incorporated into the Children’s shows, providing a new opportunity to get creative as well as a unique learning experience.
For people looking to pursue a career in theatrical design, Nina ardently encourages them to “physically get into it,” adding, “I took a very unconventional course. I got practical skills at a time where I didn’t have to be paid. I know it’s tricky for a lot of people out there, but if you can do it early enough in your life where you have the support of other people, go and volunteer! Just be in the atmosphere and learn how to work with people, learn how to work with materials, and learn the flow, and just get into the theatre.” Nina credits her supportive family and friends like Timothey Sullivan as well as the rest of the staff at the Ogunquit Playhouse for helping her cultivate her creative passions and continue doing what she loves to do.
Above: Sister Act set with mini-bar prop;Victor/Victoria set with props and dressing;Shrek, Jr. production photo with set and prop detail (photos by Gary Ng)