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Snakes on a Stage: Behind the Scenes with Tony Koehler

Props master Tony Koehler returns to the Folger Spotlight to talk about the foresight needed to bring a fortune teller to life, how to make a bed (from scratch), and, of course, the trial-and-error involved in creating a number of venomous co-stars.


Props master Tony Koehler is chained to his work.

Antony and Cleopatra is in its closing week of performances, but props master Tony Koehler is still hard at work maintaining the luxurious look of the play’s exotic settings. When Folger Spotlight caught up with him, he was back in the Folger Theatre dressing rooms to return unused props to storage and to attend to the general maintenance required for every show, particularly the grapes served by Mardian in the production’s opening moments. “It’s always food,” says Koehler.  “Half of the grapes are fake and half of them are real, but the fake ones are falling off the vine, so more hot glue. Hot glue, gaffe tape, and golden duct tape are my favorite things on this show.” There’s also the care and attention paid to the paper goods, as a number of sealed letter are delivered, read, and then crumpled through the course of a performance, requiring new versions to be prepared each week.

Though food and letters were also a staple of Koehler’s work for As You Like It, he finds Antony and Cleopatra “more interesting.” For example, despite being in the forest, As You Like It was animal-free, but the same is not entirely true this time around. Koehler explains, “When you think about Cleopatra, you think about the snake, which actually we think Shakespeare invented. She probably took wolfsbane, or another poison, but that’s not very romantic, and so the script calls for three asps—two for Cleopatra and one for Charmian.” Though the script calls for snakes, there was still some discussion as to whether they would be “real,” or representative, such a piece of poisoned snake-jewelry that Cleopatra would have with her from the beginning.

Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) with her asp. Antony and Cleopatra, 2017. Photo: Teresa Wood.

Eventually, it was decided these snakes would be actual snakes within the world of the play, which set Koehler on the path to create the slithery stars. “We want them to move and look real, because there are all these beautiful things happening on stage and we don’t want to distract from that with something fake-looking. I began with one of the wooden snakes that have the small slits in them to give them mobility and found some great Lycra, scaley fabric and made a sleeve. Unfortunately they were too big, so they were cut. Then I bought some rubber snakes from Chinatown and they worked really well, but were again kind of big. It was cut into three pieces, but they were weird lengths, and didn’t really work aesthetically. Then I bought more of the same snakes, but just cut the tails off and carved a head out of the body. Visually, that really worked, but they didn’t have the life we needed them to have. For the fourth set, I went to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and they have rubber snakes with really great movement. The snake itself is probably four feet long, but we need them to be about ten inches, so again I cut the tail off and carved a head into it, and they have wonderful movement—on the first night, when Cleopatra pulled out the snake, we actually heard a gasp. And that’s always the reaction you want.”

More snakes, along with scraps of the fabric and trim that was part of creating Cleopatra’s bed.

Though not called for in Shakespeare’s script, Cleopatra’s bed was another example of experimentation, fine-tuning, and last-minute changes coming together to get the perfect item on stage. Originally conceived as a “a kind of 1970’s papasan cushion.” It then evolved into “a high, circular bed that had to be 12 inches high, fit the triangle, and also be beautiful to go with the beautiful floor of the set.” Koehler debated many fabrics, including leather and snakeskin, before he found an abstract, luminescent, geometric “mermaid” print at New York’s Mood fabrics (“Thank you, Mood!”). Tony Cisek, scenic designer, approved it via video-chat, and the fabric was purchased alongside a suede that would alternate with it to represent worlds of Egypt and Rome.

When Koehler and Cisek viewed it under the stage lighting, it was clear the suede wouldn’t be needed. From there it just took a shopping trip by friend of Koehler’s in New York; an overnight delivery from USPS; a local seamstress; and hair-raising ride by Koehler through the streets of Capitol Hill with the bed strapped to the hood of his car (“I thought I was going to get pulled over”) for Cleopatra’s bed to make its theatrical debut. Finished with sari fabric as bed sheet, embellished pillows, and a tassel-trim, the bed immediately sets the scene in Egypt and is featured prominently in the production photos, helping convey the look and feel of the show to audiences both inside and outside of the theater.

Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) and Antony (Cody Nickell) , with the bed from the first act. Antony and Cleopatra, 2017. Photo: Teresa Wood.
Some of the other Soothsayer’s objects, including a clawed leg that Koehler found in a lighting fixture store.

This, though, is typical when working on a production, especially when the director encourages collaboration within the rehearsal room. Says Koehler, “Robert [Richmond, director] loves to let the actors discover things in rehearsal, which is good for the show because things develop organically, but it can be a challenge for me because what I bring for rehearsal based on the script is constantly changing, and we only have four weeks.” A key example of that was the Soothsayer, who was to have a magical object to assist in his prophesying. According to Koehler, there were many steps and many voices involved in finding the right prop:

The Soothsayer’s stone.

“First, you have to decide that he tells the future with an actual object… maybe it’s a crystal ball, or a glowing orb, or an amulet around his neck. It takes the prop designer, the director, the set designer and, when you’re wearing it, the costume designer, to agree about what that thing is. Does it serve the story? And then it has to fit with the actor. Right there is five people at least that have to say ‘yes,’ and then I go make it, or source it, or find it, which takes time sometimes the entire four weeks.” And how close to the end do changes get made? “We actually swapped the Soothsayer’s crystal at the very last minute, from a diamond paperweight to a natural stone.”

It can be a wild ride, but, in the end, this high level of collaboration reaps dividends in the final production. “Because of that and the collaborative nature of working with all the other designers—costume, lighting, set, the directors, and the actors, who had a lot of input in this production—I really feel we put the best show up there.”

Koehler’s final verdict on Antony and Cleopatra? “I loved every second of it.”


Thanks so much to Tony for speaking with us! Come see his work in Folger Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra, on stage now through November 19. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.

 


Antony and Cleopatra
Folger Theatre
Directed by Robert Richmond; scenic design by Tony Cisek; costume design by Mariah Hale; lighting design by Andrew F. Griffin; sound design by Adam Stamper; production photos by Teresa Wood.

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