UBC Reports
October 31, 1996

Propping up the stage

Sherry Milne turns other people's cast-offs into the stuff of theatre

by Connie Bagshaw
Staff writer

Picture Looking for the goose that laid the golden egg? Ask Sherry Milne.

As head of props at the Frederic Wood Theatre, Milne knows where to find the goose and thousands of other items she's made or acquired for student productions over the past 28 years.

Hatpins to hobby horses are squirreled away wherever Milne can find room on campus -- in cupboards, basements and warehouses -- even in the men's washroom in the theatre's main lobby area.

"Students don't have budgets, that's why I have to keep stock for two or three years before I can remove or replace it," she says. "They are always so grateful for the very satisfying, beautiful sets we are able to produce with little money."

Milne approaches her job with the same thriftiness of a parent shopping for a large brood, scouring garage sales, antique stores and thrift shops to build inventory which she supplements by trading props with local theatres and borrowing items from her mother and grandmother, as well as from her own home.

Her frugality is legend in the department, and a source of amusement among her colleagues.

Adorning Milne's office is an ad for men's underwear, clipped from a magazine several years ago, that reads: "What will your underwear be doing a year from now?"

Someone has written on the ad in response: "We know where ours will be."

Asked to elaborate, Milne doesn't skip a beat, describing the durability of briefs and their longevity as a tool for cleaning paint brushes.

Despite the need to economize, Milne is not a pack rat, and she no longer accepts every soiled sofa or set of chipped china donated to the theatre.

"In the beginning, we took everything but we've had to become more selective over the years because of shrinking storage space. I don't keep a prop unless it's going to be useful."

A graduate of UBC's theatre program, Milne was hired on contract in 1965, spending the first three years working in wardrobe and doing wigs and makeup. Her introduction to props came during preparations for Purple Dust by Irish playwright Sean O'Casey.

"We realized early one morning that we needed a cow. It was 2 a.m., we didn't have a designer and, although I didn't have a clue what to do, I started making my very first cow. It turned out fine."

That was the beginning of a new career for Milne who transformed the role of props -- which had originally been done by the ladies auxiliary to the theatre -- from an afterthought to an integral part of Frederic Wood Theatre productions.

A gifted seamstress and color technician, Milne developed her expertise in props on the job after the departure of her predecessor. Single-handedly, she established the props department, and was its sole staff member until four years ago.

She also received training at the Stratford Festival, one of 10 people selected from across Canada for the prestigious company's intern program.

In addition to theatre experience, Milne also works in film and teaches props and design to high school students and various theatre groups.

For the Walt Disney film White Fang 2, Milne and her assistants were assigned the task of creating a native village.

"We were told to build some things, so we started creating -- masks, rattles, bowls, baskets and many, many fish, all based on Haida designs. It's not unusual to be told: `Show me something I'll like' or `I'll know what I want when I see it.' It's a wonderfully frantic process."

With no formal props course on campus, UBC theatre students often find themselves receiving the same type of on-the-job experience. Training, as a result, has fallen to Milne.

"Students are always dropping by to ask questions and get advice," she says. "When a production is their thesis, they want to be involved and as knowledgeable as possible about every aspect."

Milne, who has seen many changes in the field over the past three decades, is finding herself a perpetual student.

She recently completed a special course in gun handling and storage which she was required to take because of new fire- arms legislation.

"I can't remember the number of times I carried guns to and from the theatre over the years without thinking twice about it, and without any permits."

Milne doesn't bemoan the detail and organization involved in her work -- it's what she says she adores most about it.

One of the greatest challenges of her career was to serve a full banquet for a Hungarian peasant wedding scene every night during the 11-day run of Julius Hay's To Have, which launched last year's season at the Frederic Wood Theatre.

Milne collaborated with the UBC Food Group which prepared real food to augment her rubber chickens and roasts.

"I quickly learned which cast members had food allergies, who was diabetic and which aromas wafted into the audience."

After almost 30 years of reading scripts and pulling props lists, Milne feels ready for a change. Although she talks about retirement, she's taking courses in family counselling.

"I've absolutely loved what I've been doing; I couldn't do it otherwise. But it's time to explore something completely different."

Milne considers a career in family counselling the next logical step for someone with her background.

"I've always been curious about how things work which is a necessary attribute for a prop builder," she explains. "That interest includes how people work, how they interact and influence each other's behavior."

As part of her studies at the Pacific Coast Family Therapy Training Association, Milne has been working with cancer patients and survivors on issues concerning their illness and family relationships.

"I'm focusing on family therapy because families are often our greatest source of pain and our greatest source of strength and inspiration."

For now, however, Milne will continue dressing the five productions on the theatre's main stage, and four shows in the Dorothy Somerset Studio that are produced each year.

Having just completed Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, she is preparing the stage for the Nov. 13 opening of Hansel and Gretel and looking ahead to Morris Panych's 7 Stories coming in January.

When it's suggested that her own home must be an interesting reflection of her skills, Milne confesses that she doesn't have time to decorate.