Who’s hungry?

Last year I created and managed the props for the Butler Little Theatre’s production of Over the River and Through the Woods, a play primarily about family and love but also about food. During the play, the characters eat and eat, and eat. Eating is hard to manage while acting. There’s the risk of having something in your mouth when your line comes up, or of choking on a bite or getting something in your teeth or on your clothes…. And for a props manager, there are also the concerns about providing food that can survive the stage lights and not go bad before the actors eat it, and piles of dirty dishes getting in the way for the rest of the show.

The play is currently in production at the McKnight Players dinner theater, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s food columnist, Suzanne Martinson, is preparing the food props for the show. She has taken the concerns about food safety and edibility to heart, as one would expect. But she’s approached it quite differently from how I did.

For the BLT production, the director wanted the theater to smell like cooking: specifically, like onion and garlic and tomato sauce. But not for the whole show, only for the big dinner scene at the end of the first act. We set up a hot plate backstage, put a layer of olive oil in a fry pan, added dried onion and garlic, and set a fan behind it. I turned the contraption on midway through the act — not too high or the oil would smoke — and flicked the fan on when the dinner scene started. It took several rehearsals to get the timing exact so the smell filled the 150-seat theater by the correct point in the show, and then didn’t linger to nauseate everyone for the next hour. I had to turn everything off and set the sizzling pan outside, by the theater’s dumpsters, to cool off while the show continued.

And that was just for the smell effect. The food was a bigger consideration. Here’s what the characters eat in the course of the play, all of it dictated by the script and therefore not possible to change:

Coffee and coffee cake
Dinner, including zucchini, veal, salad, bread, and wine
Coffee again
One very tall sandwich (not eaten)
Large platter of antipasto (not actually eaten, just for a sight gag)

For coffee we used Coca-Cola; the cannoli were filled with whipped cream, which is easier to serve quickly and eat than real cannoli filling; the white wine was white grape juice. I substituted toast points for veal at first, then switched to skinned, thinly sliced yellow squash, sauteed and served with a light sauce to look like veal piccata. (We avoided red sauce for fear of tomato splatters on the costumes.) I limited garlic and onion in all the dishes: Every character kisses someone in the course of the second act, and of course they also shout at each other and so forth, and I didn’t want the camraderie of the group to be destroyed by rampant garlic breath.

Each night of tech week (the week before opening) and of the eight-night run, I prepared a “meal” of veggies and fake veal piccata for six at home, took it in plastic containers to the theater and set up my station backstage with crock pots and serving utensils, cut up the coffee cake and put the pieces onto dessert plates on a tray, prepared dinner service for six, ran the smell effect (see above). During the show I stayed backstage and handed out trays and serving dishes to the actors, who brought them on stage, served each other, and then brought everything back off. I cleared the table at intermission, squirted whipped cream into the cannoli shells (couldn’t prep them too far ahead because they got soggy and nasty), and washed everything up at the end of the night, by hand.

By the end of the show and for months afterward, I couldn’t stand even the sight of zucchini, and I had developed an aversion to the smell of the dishwashing soap we used at the theater.

The actors claimed to like the fake veal piccata — most of the plates came back clear every night. I’ve never been sure if they meant it or were merely being kind. It is hard to find anyone to handle props, especially food props, and possbily they were thinking ahead to future shows when they’d need my services again. But then, if the food hadn’t been at least serviceable I doubt they’d want me to be in charge again. It’s the dilemma of doing a thing well: Someone will want you to do it again.