"We spent two weeks making the most realistic eyeballs that you could also squish," reminisces Seán McArdle, talking about a King Lear production he once worked on. He and his colleagues made Jell-O eyeballs using a mold designed for Halloween parties, then added a red string to each to serve as an optic nerve. Each creation was then sealed in white plastic, and moistened to look true to life.
The actor playing Cornwall, after gouging Gloucester's eye out, was standing on a grate. "He turned around, and he had this eyeball and he just squished it in his hand. It would squirt, and then it fell down through the grate and just oozed everywhere. It was so awesome!"
McArdle is one of the unsung heroes of theater: a prop builder. He can whip up just about anything you need to help the audience suspend their disbelief. He particularly delights in seemingly impossible challenges, like the one he was faced with in Sam Shepard's play Ages of the Moon.
"It had a ceiling fan that sped up and slowed down during the first half of the show," explains McArdle. "The two actors onstage were constantly referring to this fan -- not getting it to work, or it was working too well. Halfway through the show, it speeds up out of control, and one of the actors comes back with a double-barrel shotgun and blows it off the ceiling. Sam talked me into building a smoke effect that I made with crap that I picked up at a joke shop and a system I hacked out of a remote-control helicopter."
That was several years ago, in Dublin. The seasoned crafter now has a full-time job backstage at the Guthrie Theater, where he's worked in various capacities since 2010. (The Guthrie is staging Lear later this season, so brace yourself.)
The busy McArdle also has a personal prop shop in his garage, and uses it to do freelance work across the country and beyond. Tommy Hilfiger, for example, hired McArdle to cut seashell-encrusted VW Bugs lengthwise and then separate each half into three parts for shipment to Macy's window displays in New York and San Francisco, where they had to be ready for reassembly when they were unpacked.
A native of Nebraska, McArdle worked his way up from college theater at Doane University (then Doane College), earning his stripes with, among other gigs, a seven-year stint as prop master at the Public Theater in New York. "If I hadn't left that job," he muses, "I would have been the prop master on Hamilton."
The Public Theater job meant working with some high-profile actors, and McArdle has an endless supply of stories. For example, there was the time that Kevin Kline decided an outdoor production of Mother Courage and Her Children, which required a chicken to be slaughtered onstage, needed an actual chicken. Kline, cast as the cook, showed up at rehearsal with his own supply of dead chickens.
"I told him, 'No way, man,'" remembers McArdle, who ultimately convinced the star to settle for a replica. "It's 100 degrees out here, we're in the middle of Central Park, there are rats everywhere. He wasn't even the one who plucked it: Meryl Streep was the one who was plucking it."
To do McArdle's job, you have to be a bit of an inventor — and your inventions have to work, every time. "Film and television have it easy," he points out, "because they can call cut. Our stuff has to work every night, every show, seven to eight performances a week, and it has to work flawlessly."
Safety is paramount, so part of McArdle's job is finding the least dangerous way to accomplish each effect. When a gun needs to be fired onstage, for example, even firing a blank or a starter pistol can break an actor's eardrum — or worse.
"When we did To Kill a Mockingbird here [at the Guthrie]," McArdle says, "I built a rifle that uses compressed air, and I do a little poof of corn starch at the end of the barrel. Under lights, it looks like smoke." The noise the audience heard came from the bursting of a plastic pouch, amplified by the theater's sound system. "You ever do that thing in elementary school where you take a straw and wrap it up and flick it and it pops really loud? Same thing."
Though very occasional mishaps inevitably happen (there was one hairy incident involving Oscar Isaac and a gas-fueled torch), McArdle and his colleagues test everything "a million times" to make certain that everything will work, day in and day out.
To that end, McArdle is glad the Guthrie's artistic director Joseph Haj is allowing more of the production team to be present as directors and cast members work through scenes. "Joe really is into the idea of open rehearsals," says McArdle, "so they will invite us into the room and we can troubleshoot and brainstorm."
To avoid spoilers, McArdle can't talk publicly about at least one of the coolest props he's working on for an upcoming Guthrie show, but in his line of work, every job brings a fresh new challenge. He reminisces about a production of Shepard's Kicking a Dead Horse that McArdle worked on in New York, under the direction of the playwright himself.
"The play revolves around a dead horse onstage," explains McArdle, "that at the end of the play has to fall into a grave. I spent two months designing and building this horse. I got a taxidermied horse form. I cut it apart at all the joints and figured out really strong ways to reinforce it so that basically it was a big dead horse puppet. There were remote controls that pulled two pins inside the horse so that it fell and tumbled down into the grave. The first time I got it to work, Sam slapped me on the shoulder and he said, 'Good work! You want to know what we're doing next?'"
It involved an unreliable ceiling fan.