Interview with MTC's Props Artisan Lizabeth Stanley

MTC staffer Lizabeth Stanley has many talents. She has been a stage manager and production manager for several Bay Area theatres, but as MTC’s properties manager, her focus is the demanding and essential discipline of prop design. A consummate artisan, Lizabeth has already distinguished herself in the field, and has been named a 2016 TBA Awards Finalist for outstanding properties design.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is Lizabeth’s ninth production with MTC. Since Miss Bennet is a holiday play, it naturally involves food—a specific category of prop that presents a number of challenges. With Thanksgiving on the horizon and food on everyone’s minds, MTC’s literary manager and dramaturg Laura Brueckner decided to catch up with Lizabeth about the little-known theatrical specialty of stage food.

LB: Can you tell us about the different kinds of "stage food" that designers are asked to create?

LS: Sure! In an ideal world, all food would be real, and would contribute to the “smell-o-vision” of the show, which one of the ways in which live theatre is so exciting. But food is expensive, perishable, and time-consuming [to prepare]—so, whenever possible, we make inedible versions of the things on stage. For example, you can make a very convincing cake from low-density foam and caulk. When you do need real food it gets much trickier. Sometimes you can use the real thing [called for in the script], but often you have to fake it because of dietary restrictions or cost, so what looks like a cube of cheese might actually be tofu or even bread.

When designing for a production that calls for real food onstage, what are some of the challenges and decisions you face?

Budget is always a big concern. Food is very expensive, so anytime we don't need to have real food, we try to avoid it. Most of the time, it's cheaper to build a fake than it is to replace food every day or so. It's also less wasteful, which is important to me. Real food also has to be prepared, which means we may need a microwave or stove, and maybe a refrigerator—and if that's not available, it might mean I have to bring food every few days.  It also needs to be replaced frequently, so we have to decide whose responsibility that becomes.

What further challenges and decisions do you face when designing stage food that an actor will consume?

The biggest challenge is probably dietary restrictions. There are the obvious issues of allergies and religious restrictions, but there's also actor preference. My rule is that actors get to be very picky about the food, because it's something they're putting in their body eight or more times a week. Many actors are concerned about tooth decay and weight gain, so foods high in sugar or fat are usually out.

What kinds of research did you do when deciding what kinds of stage food to create for Miss Bennet?

Our lovely dramaturg did a lot of that research for me! She found a book that described a number of period foods. Some of them didn't sound too appealing, but others are things that might make it into my regular rotation at home!

What else don't audiences know about the food they see on stage?

Actors get really tired of eating the same thing each night. I try to mix up the flavors when I can for them!

See Lizabeth’s stage food design—and the work of many other artists—in MTC’s rolling world-premiere production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, running November 25 through December 18, 2016!