2015 True West Award: The Masters of Props

True West Awards Props Masters


​Today’s recipients: The Masters of Props
Becky Toma, Rob Costigan and Beki Pineda

Today’s award presenter: Kevin Copenhaver
DCPA Costume Crafts Coordinator

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Theatregoers generally know what a scenic, lighting, sound or costume designer contributes to any show. But the vastly underappreciated Properties Master? Not so much. Once, after a theatregoer saw Becky Toma’s name listed in a program under that title, she asked Toma if she runs the building where the show was being staged.

Not that kind of properties management.

Every theatre production relies to an extent small or sprawling on the work of the Props Master. Those in the field prefer the less gender-confusing title “Properties Designer.” But few know what the job actually entails. Essentially the Properties Designer gathers everything an actor touches during the course of the play. So if you need, say, an umbrella, newspaper or pet snake, it is the job of the Properties Designer to find it, make it, borrow it or steal it.

Beki Pineda quote“The thing people don’t often know is that we are an integral part of the production team as well,” said Toma. “I don’t think many people are aware of the fact that we are researchers, historians and designers. We collaborate with the director and all of the other designers to ensure there is a cohesive look to the production.”

And here’s something very few people understand: If the scenic designer draws a room that calls for a stationary piece like a bar or a couch or a clock hanging on the wall, generally it is the Properties Designer who goes out and finds it (or makes it). So part of their everyday reality, veteran Beki Pineda said, “is that the set designer always gets credit for everything you’ve done.”

Toma, Pineda and Rob Costigan are three of Denver’s most highly sought at their craft. And no one is more appreciative of the significant artistic contribution they make to every show than today’s True West Awards Guest Picker, DCPA Costume Crafts Coordinator Kevin Copenhaver, who chose to honor all three equally.

The best Properties Designers are not only artists, Copenhaver said, they are organized, vigilant and extremely patient. Because invariably, just as soon as they think they are finished with a show, the people running it will often come up with a few more things for them to find. So a day in the life of a Properties Designer can be a bit like an ongoing scavenger hunt. And typically, they are working on three to four shows simultaneously.

“I don’t think people realize that this is hard work,” Pineda said. “It’s not just going to thrift stores and antique stores. It’s putting in the work of going to estate sales and auctions every week to update the stock and keep new furniture available. It’s loading and unloading furniture and heavy pieces. It’s finding just the right prop and then having it cut from the show – and not being able to get your money back.”

Copenhaver says it is the demeanor of the Properties Designer that separates the good ones from the great ones. “For example, Becky is always a tremendous support,” Copenhaver said of working with Toma. “She’s consistent, she loves the art and she never has a bad word to say about anyone. She is a joy to work with.”

Rob Costigan collaborated with Scenic Designer Michael R. Duran in Lone Tree Arts Center's 'The Explorers Club.' Photo by Danny Lam.Rob Costigan collaborated with Scenic Designer Michael R. Duran on Lone Tree Arts Center’s ‘The Explorers Club.’ Photo by Danny Lam.

Costigan is the rare Properties Designer who also has performed as an actor on local stages for three decades. He has appeared in 30 productions at the Arvada Center.  Sometimes he even acts and designs the same show, most recently playing a zany professor with a pet snake in The Lone Tree Arts Center’s prop-heavy farce, The Explorers Club.

Pineda, coincidentally, doubles as a writer for GetBoulder.Com. That makes her one of the few theatre critics who understands the relationship between the Props Designer and the Scenic Designer. About Costigan’s work for The Explorers Club, she wrote:

“The trip to Lone Tree is worth it just to take a look at the gorgeously sumptuous and ornate set Scenic Designer Michael Duran and Props Designer Rob Costigan (doing double duty) put together. The Grand Room and Bar of The Explorer’s Club is laden with the souvenirs of their travels, including stuffed trophies. Rich in detail, authentic in style, it provided an excellent setting for this talented troupe of explorers.”

Copenhaver, for one, can’t fathom how anyone could both design and perform in the same show. “That’s not something I would ever dream of doing, but I appreciate Rob’s energy and his sense of fun,” Copenhaver said. “He has boundless energy, and you have to give him credit for really caring and not being jaded.”

The job of the Properties Designer rarely comes with awards. To Pineda, the reward comes mostly from internal recognition and a personal sense of a job well done. But there are moments.  

“There’s no feeling like the curtain going up on a set you’ve decorated and hearing the audience’s appreciative gasp of pleasure,” Pineda said, “or having an actor tell you they love what you’ve brought for them to play with.”

Our three honorees at a glance:

Rob Costigan: The Aurora native graduated from Smoky Hill High School and Regis University. Among his meatier roles have been playing the barber in Man of La Mancha and Henry Ford in Ragtime, for which he was nominated by the Henry Awards. He also won a 1998 Denver Drama Critics award for playing Barnaby Tucker in Country Dinner Playhouse’s Hello, Dolly! Along with partner Bob Bauer, Costigan’s properties company does pretty much all the shows at the Town Hall Arts Center and Phamaly Theatre Company, among others.

Beki Pineda: The tireless one has four shows opening in January: Big Bang at Spotlight, The Normal Heart at Vintage, Mary Poppins at the PACE Center in Parker and Arcadia at Denver School of the Arts. Pineda, who hails from a town of fewer than 2,000 in central Illinois, maintains a huge warehouse of stuff that local theatre people can rent for their shows. Pineda, busier than ever in her 70s, also works as the Box-Office Manager at Denver School of the Arts and regularly volunteers for the Denver Actors Fund helping out artists who are often significantly younger than she is. She already has started work on One Man, Two Guvnors, opening Feb. 5 at the Vintage Theatre.

Becky Toma: Her roots go back to the heyday of the old Bonfils Theatre, and she now serves as Props Designer for the Mizel Center and Town Hall Arts Center. The Virginia native and Colorado Women’s College grad is probably best known for her collaborations with the great local director Nick Sugar, including 2015’s Young Frankenstein and West Side Story at Town Hall. She just closed The Drowsy Chaperone, performed by Wolf Academy students at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, and she is now working with Sugar on Violet, which opens at Town Hall on Jan. 15. Other upcoming jobs include Art Dog for Denver Children’s Theatre and the Aurora Fox’s highly anticipated staging of the DCPA-born Black Elk Speaks.

Becky Toma had many wall hangings on her list of things to populate the set of Town Hall's West Side Story.' Becky Toma had many wall hangings on her list of things to populate the set of Town Hall’s West Side Story.’

The True West Awards began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. This year, DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from around the state over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore’s daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

Day 1: Rachel D. Graham
Day 2: BALLS! A Holiday Spectacular
Day 3: Creede Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary season
Day 4: Laurence Curry
Day 5: Bernie Cardell
Day 6: Susan Lyles
Day 7: John Jurcheck​
Day 8: Christopher L. Sheley
Day 9: DCPA Education’s ‘Shakespeare in the Parking Lot
Day 10: Man and Monster: Todd Debreceni and TJ Hogle
Day 11: Shauna Johnson
Day 12: Geoffrey Kent and Benjamin Bonenfant
Day 13: Sesugh Solomon Tor-Agbidye
Day 14: Keith Ewer
Day 15: Allison Watrous
Day 16: Jonathan Farwell
Day 17: Bob, Wendy and Missy Moore
Day 18: Emma Messenger
Day 19: Shannon McKinney
Day 20: Mary Louise Lee and Yasmine Hunter
Day 21: Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin
Day 22: Scott Beyette
Day 23: Augustus Truhn
Day 24: Jimmy Bruenger
Day 25: The Masters of Props: Rob Costigan, Peki Pineda and Becky Toma
Day 26: Jalyn Courtenay Webb
Day 27: Andre Rodriguez
Day 28: Rebecca Remaly
Day 29: Mark Collins
Day 30: Phamaly Theatre Company’s Cabaret
Bonus: Donald R. Seawell

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