Love may bloom naturally in the Forest of Arden, but the magic of theater requires a great deal of time and work from the people behind the scenes. Folger Spotlight caught up with Props Master Tony Koehler to find out what goes into the love letters (and snacks) that bring As You Like It to life.
Folger Spotlight found Tony in the main dressing room of the Folger, hard at work at a sewing machine. “Right now I am working on something for the picnic scene,” he tells us, pulling out a faded pink pouch from under the needle. “It’s the forester scene, and the bags that have the food—which is real food because they eat it—are getting holes, and I don’t know why. It’s driving me crazy. I think it’s because the material has been dyed so much. But I have new material, I’m going to try different things.”
As for what goes in the bags, the snacks for the exiled court have been carefully planned out: “They’re eating pistachios because they make a cool sound, they’re easy to remove, easy to open, and they’re small. The actors are singing in that scene too, so it’s something they can eat and it doesn’t stay around for awhile. Also, they’re supposed to be foraging for food, so I have nuts and berries (which are really raisins). Luckily no one has a nut allergy in this show, so it’s easy to get away with. There’s also some grapes, which are fake because they don’t eat them anymore.”
The food in As You Like It is an example of something the script indicated would be needed, but sometimes props are the result of the production process. “It depends really, show to show,” he explained, when asked about how much is pre-known versus discovered in rehearsal. “A lot of directors here at the Folger are very actor-driven, so it’s very organic.” It can also have a lot to do with the individual actor, such as Aaron Krohn’s Touchstone, says Tony. “In As You Like It, he’s the clown, and he’s a very physical actor, so he’s the one that came up with bringing out the maracas and the handcuffs and the scroll…all of those just happened, they don’t get called for in the script. When you’re going into a show, it’s nice to know the time and place and the people that are in the story, and then you can create the world. You know essentially what you’ll need, so you’ll know the type of thing, but you won’t know what the thing is.”
Once Tony knows what the thing is, he has figure out how to get it on stage. For the Folger, he says, it’s “a lot of buying or sourcing. Making is not a big thing here just because the shows tend to be really paper heavy shows, not a lot of special needs for these types of Shakespeare unless it’s a wild production.” But of course, there are exceptions to every rule. “I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year and they needed a wedding cake, but because they didn’t eat it, it could be fake.” He continues, “I got to build a four-tiered weeding cake with three brides and grooms on top and all these cascading flowers. When I get to make things, it’s really fun for me. There’s creative problem solving and I like the tactile nature of building.”
As You Like It would certainly fall into one of the “paper heavy shows” Tony refers to, as each production requires between 50 and 60 of Orlando’s love letters per night, and designing those letters requires careful thought. “It’s very character driven,” says Tony. “Each character has their own paper and that’s where I start, because I think the paper says so much. In our space, you’re seated away from the stage, but close enough that you notice things like that. As a result, I never use white on stage. I always used an off-white or an ivory, but recently I found a blush, which is apparently very popular with the brides right now–it’s very warm and looks very beautiful on stage, and reads as white, but is a little more poetic. I tend to use that a lot for shows here at the Folger.”
So, what kind of paper can we see in As You Like It?
“For this show, I’m having to use a lighter weight paper. It’s parchment, like a resume paper, but it’s textured and I use various colors. It’s all in the same family, but there’s a noticeable difference when you’re on stage about tones of each. Since it’s lighter weight, I can make copies really easily and—I don’t want to give all the magic away—but there’s a scene where the poems fall from the sky, and they float really nicely all the way down. The weight of the paper has a lot to do with that.”
The paper is only the first step, as audiences would surely notice if actors were carrying around blank pages. For this production, Tony explains, “Lorenzo Roberts (who is playing Orlando) wanted very much to write the poems out himself, which I love. He wrote out ten poems—two from the script, and he developed the rest of the poems from those—and there’s two poems per color of paper.” Saved the task of composing poetry, Tony has been focusing on how to create enough individuals poems for the production run, but maintain the personal touch. Using the poems Lorenzo has written, “we just copy those over and over so it’s still in his hand. I use a certain setting on the copier so it looks like it’s handwritten in ink. I love when it’s in his own hand, I think it adds so much more, even if the audience doesn’t realize what it is. It adds another layer to the storytelling. They’re his thing and it’s very, very exciting.”
Tony shows us a number of poems lying in wait for their big theatrical moment, but there’s one final step since he wants to “rough them up a bit. I want them to look like they come from a notebook, so I’ll tear the edges and I’ll fold some of them. These are his originals that he wrote. They’re almost identical, you can’t tell much of a difference. Some of the texture from the original gets copied onto the new.” Once prepared, the poems get sorted into envelopes hanging backstage so that the actors know which ones to bring with them during the performance. The envelopes help because “it’s easy and really quick. The actors have particular ones because some of the poems are in the text and they have to have those. We don’t want to hand them something that’s totally wrong, even though they have their lines memorized.”
Despite the care that goes into these letters and the stories they tell, Tony’s favorite prop in the show brings us back to the forester scene, which is his favorite moment in the play. “I love the rug that they roll out in that scene. The music is beautiful, the lighting is beautiful with the lanterns, and they roll this rug out from the court that they took with them. It’s something they brought from this former life and it’s kind of this refugee idea. I happened to find it, and it was lightweight but also had colors that matched the wallpaper on the set almost exactly, so it just ties everything together. When it gets rolled out, it just adds so much story and place. I love that. It’s the best.”
Thanks so much to Tony to talking to us about his work! Come see the raisins, letters, and rug in action in As You Like It , now on stage at Folger Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.