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Making the scene: Prop master Jill Sheets creates theater magic with the aid of helpful volunteers and clever problem solving

By on April 22, 2019 in Arts with 0 Comments
Jill Sheets, problem-solving prop master, will create stacks of authentic-looking newspapers sturdy enough to dance on.

By Susan Lagsdin

Theatre prop master and producer Jill Sheets isn’t worried yet, but she does have a problem. 

“I need a realistic newspaper like this on top of the stack every night, and I don’t want it to get ruined.” 

She holds up a very authentic-looking, faux-vintage edition. “I could shellac this one, but that might make it too slippery to dance on… maybe paint it on?”

Newsies, Music Theater of Wenatchee’s 2019 Apple Blossom musical, opens at the Numerica PAC on May 1, but the crew loads the show sets onto the stage 10 days earlier, and bundled 1899 newspapers are essential for the look of this much-acclaimed Disney musical.

Since January, Jill noodled around the problem of creating tall newspaper stacks, flat and sturdy enough to dance on, that are not stacks of newspapers. She has a creative process, of sorts: “An idea gets in my head and just kind of bounces around until it’s ready. And sometimes a dumb idea turns into a good one.”

She eventually had 12 wooden boxes built, with foam pipe insulation on the sides, covered in strips of Wenatchee World newsprint for folds, alternating with fluffy strips of newsprint edges. She still needs 65 (yes, 65) much lighter newspaper bundles to be thrown around, but that’s easy. “I’ll just cover lots of Amazon boxes,” Jill said.

The papers will be there. Undaunted by deadlines, setbacks and overwork, she has delivered the props for an eclectic run of plays. Six dancer-sized baby buggies, seen onstage for about six seconds? A swan shot from the ceiling? A man-eating plant? Bring it on. 

Jill makes theater magic with a team of great volunteers, including partner-in-props Barb Visser.

When her kids were young, she was lured into back-stage work on The King and I, the all-district musical. With two sons in the pit orchestra and a daughter on stage, she realized it was easier to volunteer than wait in the parking lot. 

She’s since worked as producer — the behind-the scenes-overseer of the whole shebang — for eight plays at Wenatchee High School.

She first did props for the Apple Blossom musical in 2015. “Spamalot was the most fun I have ever had on a show,” she said. 

Since then she’s created an impressive resume of work on 24 WHS, Short Shakespearian and Music Theatre of Wenatchee plays, working closely with directors Paul and Kelly Atwood.

Whether the script calls for vintage, huge, zany or ho-hum-but-necessary (like coffee cups, a radio, a cat), Jill stretches the budget for buying, renting, building and then will gladly trade, beg, borrow and steal… ideas. 

Theaters are often glad to off load bulky set pieces, Jill explained, which are easier to load on a truck than to dismantle or keep in storage.

With exceptions. “There’s a sarcophagus at Wenatchee High School I just can’t part with… and of course the killer rabbit from Spamalot.” The latter she’s surreptitiously slipped onto the set of every play, a kind of personal Where’s Waldo.

Jill’s day job, not this volunteer one that sometimes takes sometimes eight, sometimes 20 hours a week, is perfect for a creative problem solver. 

She’s half a team of educators at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center, inventing year-round programs for adult learners: hands-on science projects like Get Lit, the environmental film series, geology bus tours. 

Though the work she does is different from her stage job, she finds clever ways to get things done on time and under budget. 

Her two-part life is rewarding but wearying. “I admit, I’m getting a little tired,” she said. 

When Jill, now 56, needs to close the curtain on her thoroughly engaging roles, she said she’s confident, given this generous theater community, that somebody competent will step up to do the job. She cites energy, curiosity and hands-on work style, not a building or drama background, as her own initial qualifications.

Jill is adamant her theater work is not solo but collaborative, dependent on a star cast of assistants, whether she’s doing props or watching finances as the show producer. 

She joked, “My friends tend not to answer my phone calls when we start a play.” But she said they’ve rarely said no to a request, and they frequently ask, as all the best volunteers do, “What else do you need?” and “Can I give you a hand with that?” 

Maybe the “little tired” feeling just came from some particularly long hours in the scene shop. 

Jill knows there will be a lull of a few months, and then she’ll be off and running, already looking forward to producing and propping Mama Mia, the 2020 Apple Blossom musical.

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