Drinks, jewels, clothes, art—The Way of the World is awash in the finer things in life. Props designer Tony Koehler recently spoke with The Folger Spotlight about the secrets behind the glitz and glamour of Theresa Rebeck’s smart satire.
Scene 1. An outdoor table at a swank restaurant. A glorious sky. HENRY and CHARLES are having martinis.
These are the first words in Theresa Rebeck’s The Way of the World, but certainly not the last mention of cocktails—which provides a huge task for props designer Tony Koehler. “There is a cocktail in almost every single scene,” he explains backstage at Folger Theatre. “I think that 47 was the last count.” To make matters more complicated, characters drink multiple types of drinks, requiring Koehler to find the right look for each beverage sipped (or slammed) in this fictional version of a swank life in the Hamptons. Moreover, each cocktail has to be easily prepared—no time for complicated mixing and measuring backstage.
So what did the actors end up drinking? Here’s the secret menu of what’s really being imbibed on stage:
- Red wine – water and food coloring
- Champagne – sparkling green tea
- Jewel-toned cocktails – Gatorade (for the intense color)
The scenes don’t always allow the actors to finish these mocktails, so “whatever doesn’t get consumed is poured out in backstage buckets—it’s like a wine tasting with a lot of colored cocktails.” Another difference from actual alcohol? “There are lots of monologues in this show and it’s really fast, so it’s actually good for them to have access to liquids onstage.” To prevent drinks from spilling, Koehler attached a metal sheet to a black restaurant tray using black gaffe tape (“my favorite supply”), which magnetically attracts the metal washers attached to the bottom of the stemware to keep them from tipping.
In addition to what goes in the glasses, there’s also the logistical puzzle of making sure each character is served the right drink at the right time. Luckily, Koehler had help from Jessica Short, Assistant Stage Manager, who tracked the tracked the growing number of cocktails during the rehearsal process, and Christina Miller, Production Assistant, who is responsible for washing the glassware each night. “It’s like a party every night. There are multiple types of each kind of glassware,” Koehler says.
Another key prop is Rene’s ornate spider brooch, which may or not be Faberge (but is definitely worth a lot of money). To find the perfect accessory, Koehler began with clues describing the brooch in the script (“I did want to show him that silly little spider brooch. It might be Faberge. If it isn’t it’s still nineteenth century, and it’s a gorgeous piece.” “This thing is real! Gold, and diamonds and rubies.”) and did some searching. In the end, two versions of the chosen brooch were purchased so that they could be both costume and props, with a little paint added to turn fake-diamonds into fake-rubies.
Koehler drew on his background as a painter (you can still find some of his work displayed in Miami) and merchandiser to help decorate Alexander Dodge’s sleek set and put the finishing touches on the world in which the rich and fabulous concoct their romantic schemes. Dodge had specific designs in mind for the paintings displayed in the pivotal art gallery scene, so Koehler took Dodge’s renderings and “got a great deal on some huge canvasses—5x5ft and 4x6ft—and then I set to hand-painting them. I was constantly referencing the research images. I painted them at home because they needed to dry and there were a lot of layers. In the end, it took about 12 hours.”
And the beautiful items that decorate the set? That’s where the merchandiser’s eye came in.
“The original idea from the set was that it would be transformative: that it would be one-part Rene’s closest, and one-part art installation. Originally it was filled with shoes, and then we added some hand bags. Once we realized we would need a bar onstage for each scene, we were able to grow the variety of objects used in the cases. [Playwright and director] Theresa Rebeck suggested we add more crystal and things that sparkle, so we did, and I’m really pleased with it.”
But even with all the sparkle, shoes remained important. “In the art gallery scene, when they bring on these display cases, there’s about seven of the exact same shoe. I painted the bottoms red so they looked fancy and like art. In that way, we still have a nod to that original idea.”
In the play, the character of the Waitress makes the point that people in the Hamptons have a great eye for fashion and design, and know the value of everything. We bet if they saw Koehler’s props on the Folger stage, they’d say it looked like a million bucks—or maybe even $600 million.
Thanks to Tony for speaking with us! This weekend is your last chance to see Folger Theatre’s The Way of the World, which closes Sunday, February 11. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.