When it comes to Community Theatre, John Plaege is part of the woodwork. Probably because he provides some of the woodwork – in prop form! After 137 different shows in 27 different venues over 25 years, I thought it was a good time for Fantastix to catch up with the King of Props.
What did you do before props?
I’m not a not a tradesman by any sort. I’m a clerk. I worked for James N. Kirby – the refrigeration company. A family business. I was in production control. It was just when computers were being introduced.
Have you always been a tinkerer?
When my kids were little, I used to make their toys. I would make toys and take them to the local chemist shop to sell. This included little tables and chairs which I couldn’t make enough of. I ended up stopping because they were too popular. People started asking for specific sizes and colours. I got phone calls from as far as Orange from people looking for the tables and chairs.
Was it a matter of Bankstown Theatre Company finding you or you finding Bankstown?
I’ve been a member of Bankstown Theatre Company for over 25 years. My son, Michael, went to a 21st birthday which was held by one of the girls at Bankstown in 1993. He met with Vince Cairncross who spoke about doing sets and props. Michael offered my services. He said to me, “I’ve got a good job for you, Dad. Making things for the theatre.”. Even though I was very busy with renovations at home and lots of other projects I went to the meeting at Bankstown with Vince and Pauline and Reg Paull. They wanted me to do H.M.S. Pinafore – which end up being my first props show. My first prop was a ship’s wheel and then I got asked to help Pauline with the costumes. She wanted 40 sailors’ belts that had to be painted black – with a texta colour!
I was not involved with anyone else until The Regals’ The Wizard of Oz via Lauren Nalty & Meg Day. That was quite a thrill – business was booming! I thought about opening another branch. Ha ha.
With your props, one of the things that you’re known for is building props on a shoestring budget.
Scenery, props and costumes are more noticeable when they are not satisfactory. I have a formula I use when deciding how to build a prop. I consider four things.
- It has to be safe;
- It has to be functional;
- It has to be made within budget;
- What’s the Impact on the audience?
What’s you most challenging prop?
The most challenging was in City of Angels at Rockdale Musical Society. I was asked to make an iron lung set just after the war. I had to make sure it wasn’t too big to fit on a hospital bed and not too small for the person to fit inside. I did the props for The Venetian twins at Bankstown. There was a coffin which I built in my backyard. Whilst I was building it, my neighbour who is from Vietnam, he looked over the fence and he asked what I was building. I replied, “A coffin”. My neighbour replied, “Oh. Who died?” The coffin had to have a secret bottom so Ben Dodd could climb out once he got inside. It worked very well.
I also built a shooting gallery and peep show box for Dogfight at Bankstown.
What is your most expensive prop?
I did a show called Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Diane Crease ask me to build a wall to wall gaol fence enclosure like a concentration camp. 43ft wide with a double door in the middle that slides open. The fence was made out of conduit pipes. Inside the middle ones I had to put dowels in there to stop them from the bending. The total cost was $1,150.00.
With theatre you can focus on what you are most interested in. In your case you are interest in props. Your average theatre goer goes a just wants to be entertained.
Exactly. I look up to people like Bob & Col Peet and Simon Greer. Often when I go and see a show, I don’t really see the show. I see how the show is made. Which allows me to improve things and better them for next time. And I always ask the people when the props come back how the props could be improved. I use the slogan ‘when only the best will do’. Some of my props have improved due to the suggestions from others.
What is your Favourite Prop?
The old-fashioned camera that I made is a favourite. I’m a big fan of the 1930’s and the Rock and Roll era after that. When I build my props, I listen to 1930’s music while I work. You’ll be amazed by how much it helps me. It relaxes me.
I have some old-fashioned microphones that have an interchangeable top.
I’m very keen on ‘faking’ things. I like copying things – not in a criminal fashion – ha ha. I try and make them look as close to the real thing. I’ve got gramophones, radios, that sort of thing. One thing that disappoints me is in respect to weapons. I used to make some terrific copies of weapons that were used in Miss Saigon, Catch Me If You Can and Assassins for example. I had an hour-long discussion with a police officer at Bankstown Police Station about prop weapons. I showed him an AK47 that I made. Unfortunately, he said it had to be destroyed. How are people supposed to put on a quality production if you can’t use the thing you require for example Les Miserable, Bonnie Clyde, Parade? He said that you will have to employ – at significant cost – an Armourer to stand side stage and ensure than no one gets shot. With a wooden gun? How ridiculous!
Because the gun you gave me to use in Catch Me If You Can was just a piece of timber with a paint roller for a barrel. I can certainly understand that replicas are looking so realistic that regulations need to be put in place.
Agreed. He said that “the one you made and all credit to your skill but if you take it into a bank or hold someone up in an alley, they will be scared stiff because they think it’s a real one”. I don’t know what the future holds for these types of productions – it’s becoming very difficult.
What is your Funniest prop?
I had to build the limbs for Pippin. I was transporting them to the theatre and I stopped at Coles. I opened the side door of my van and some of the limbs came rolling out. A woman saw them and screamed. I explained that they were props for a show and she was okay after that.
Any production that you haven’t done props for yet that you’d like to?
If you take the alphabet the only two letters that I haven’t done props for are O and Z. At night time when I can’t sleep, I go through the alphabet. Assassins, Anything Goes, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and so on.
Have ever walked into Salvos or St Vincent de Paul and seen the prop of your dreams across the room?
Yes. In fact, I have been lucky at some of the bigger St Vincent de Paul. I got a flashing magic lantern for Aladdin at The Regals. A lot of props I do make from scratch.
What are your favourite shows?
I have a lot of favourite shows. Miss Saigon, Les Miserable, My Fair Lady, Annie, Crazy For You, 42nd Street and Dial M for Murder. For the record, my least favourite show is State Fair.
What do you do for fun outside of making props?
Not very much. I don’t play tennis. I don’t bet. I don’t go to the pub. I do general family things with the grandchildren. I’ve got nine grandchildren.
What do you want your legacy to be as a prop person when you decide not to do it anymore?
I just hope they go to good use. I’ve got some in mind that I’d like to give to Rockdale, Regals and Bankstown. I don’t want them to fade away. I want them to be used. It’s by having people like you and Tim Wotherspoon and Phil Plunkett that can keep things going. People say to me “when are you going to stop making props?” I say “when my hands can no longer open and close. Or my brain can’t tell me to cut something in half.”
Thank you to John Pleage for joining Fantastix for an enjoyable chat. If you want to contact John, his details are available in the Fantastix Production Essentials Directory. Particularly if you are doing an ‘O’ or ‘Z’ Production – John needs to complete his set.