The Props Supervisor of Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs, Andrew Diaz, has done remarkable work adding the final touches to Irene’s dingy basement. This interview features his background, working on this show, and how it came to be what audiences are seeing now.
Tim Daly and Tyne Daly in Theresa Rebeck’s “Downstairs” currently at Primary Stages.
When and how did you start your career in theatre?
I began, I assume like most, in high school drama club. I acted, built, and painted sets. I went to the University of Arizona, where I graduated with a BFA in Set Design and moved to New York City in 2009.
How did you work with the set designer/director to create the look of the show? Did you have any initial images in your head of how you wanted to dress the set?
Our set designer, Narelle Sissons, is actually an out-of-town designer so I never actually met her until we were loaded into the theater and beginning tech [rehearsals]. We chatted on the phone and had been emailing each other back and forth during rehearsals. Narelle had done a ton of research and kept sending images of what she wanted the space to be. We wanted to create a very naturalistic set so she would send me images almost daily.
John Procaccino in Theresa Rebeck’s “Downstairs” currently at Primary Stages.
In order to make it “Gerry and Irene’s basement,” did you have to do character research? How did you go about finding the nuances of the characters to personalize the space?
Working with a group of actors like these, I didn’t really need to do any character research… they’re that good. They had previously done this play and already knew way more than I would, so I just listened to them. I tried to make myself as available as possible during rehearsals (which is difficult when you’re balancing many other projects). I would bring items into rehearsal for the cast to respond to. Whether a pipe wrench, a plastic spoon, or pillow, we always had options to choose from and work with until each item was right for the character, actor, and play. Their attention to detail is insane so and I wanted to make them as comfortable and supported as possible.
Upstage Left in the laundry area we made the “Irene corner”. It’s the only part of the stage that seems to have any kind of organization. It’s her space so everything has its own place and put away neatly. The colors and textures are a little brighter and softer making it less hazardous than the rest of the stage.
How did you go about distressing the props to look old and dirty?
Thankfully I’m in the midst of cleaning out and remodeling my own basement at home. My husband and I were about to call a junk removal service when I was offered this play. So instead of trashing all of the things we had dug up, I repurposed them for this set. What’s on stage is straight from one old basement to another. I try to recycle and reuse props as much as possible, so the timing was perfect. Most of the distressing work was already done for us, naturally. I love to distress but this is such a natural and realistic environment I couldn’t do much faux treatment–that would make it a little fake and cartoony. To take it to the next level, however, I used a hot glue gun attached to an air compressor and blew cobwebs all over the set. When you’re onstage and look around you can see what looks like years of neglect.
How long does your design process typically take?
It all depends on the project. I love doing heavily set dressed/immersive shows (What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined; The View Upstairs). When I get shows like those, the more time the better. In theater we literally have days to make environments look like they’ve been lived in for years; it’s a challenge. There are times when I’m hired onto a show a couple of days before rehearsals begin and sometimes I’m given more time. Once rehearsals start, it’s me in a van for three weeks hitting every junk yard, flea market, or craigslist sale I can.
Tim Daly in Theresa Rebeck’s “Downstairs” currently at Primary Stages.
What was your favorite part of designing Downstairs?
I had previously done Daniel’s Husband and The Tribute Artist for Primary Stages, both of which had such beautifully decorated and designed sets. I loved that Downstairs was the complete opposite of those two. With those previous shows I had to be very precise, elegant, and chic. This was a chance to relax, let my hair down, and just make a mess.
Can you tell us about your favorite prop in the show?
In the piles of dressing I dug up from my basement, there’s a Joe Namath popcorn maker from 1971 in its original box. I don’t know where it came from or why I love it so much, but I do.
The cake that Irene bakes and gives to Teddy is also good. It’s a great example of the relationship between actors and the props. Doing food onstage is always difficult but after numerous versions of this prop, we’re all happy.
Is there anything special audiences should keep an eye out for?
There are a couple of hidden gems. If you’ve worked with me before, you know I like to hide certain things on sets I work on. I can’t give too much detail what those things are, but they’re there. They’re always there.
The Primary Stages production of Downstairs runs until December 22nd at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.