Setting the stage for naked mole-rats

This piece was first published by the College of Fine Arts.

The University of Utah Department of Theatre is dazzling audience members of all ages with “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience,” a musical adaptation of a children’s book by Mo Willems. Directed by General McArthur Hambrick, with music by composer Deborah Wicks La Puma, the show follows Wilbur, a naked mole-rat with a knack for style.

Mae Hinton-Godfrey demonstrates one prop.

The props studio in the new Price Theatre Arts Building has been a wild flurry of labor and excitement, as props designers craft all manner of objects and furniture central in bringing Wilbur’s world to life. Props master Arika Schockmel worked alongside two student assistant designers, Mae Hinton-Godfrey and Sam Dalton, to build rolling root stumps, clothing carts, signs and a storefront—just to name a few pieces.

Assistant prop designer Hinton-Godfrey initially started her studies at the U in education, and was taking a costume class just for fun. It was when she experienced great success in her first paid job as a costumer that she started seriously considering it as a career. Now, she never wants to leave.

“I have enjoyed seeing the progression from a story book into a fully three-dimensional world with a lot more realism than I had initially expected.”

“Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience” is her first foray into props. “I have found that it’s been really helpful to understand the role props plays, filling in the gaps between set and costume. I like seeing where we can support other areas rather than just working in an isolated environment. As a costumer, I tend to try to do everything on my own, and not necessarily communicate with other departments,” she said.

This show has been both more collaborative and more playful than some of those past experiences.

“I am actually really excited for this show because it’s a musical and a kids’ show,” Hinton-Godfrey said. “We were going to make a lot of the designs two-dimensional, but it has evolved into some more organic designs. For example, the set is based on some of the beautiful red rock formations here in Utah. I have enjoyed seeing the progression from a storybook into a fully three-dimensional world with a lot more realism than I had initially expected.”

Prop artist Dalton is in his final year as a theatre major at the U, then plans to go to grad school for a Master’s in higher education. Besides lending a hand on roots, he was responsible for cue card signs, which he drew freehand, based on Willems’ whimsical style. “It was really fun to create the things that get to be sillier, and get interacted within the show,” he said. “The typeface for the signs is called Grilled Cheese!”

Sam Dalton shares signage.

With most of his design experience in set, Dalton is also having fun discovering the world of props. “This process has helped me understand the nuances,” he explained. “Just because something is a clothing item doesn’t mean it’s costumes. It’s really about how it is being used in the show, and who is using it. It has made it easier to develop relationships with other areas that help when you need something to make the show better.”

Disruptions in the supply chain have made this particular process challenging for the team. But creativity has prevailed and even revealed some exciting innovations.

“Items are more expensive right now, and shipping is more expensive and slower, so we had to be very creative and manage our expectations,” Schockmel said. “We had a plan for how we were going to build things, and then it turned out we couldn’t afford it, so we had to go with plan B. Plan B was garbage, which was better. It was faster, easier and more creative for all the students involved.”

“Props is something you don’t know you like until you do it. All students have to take a lab aspect, so they will work with costumes, set, props, and sound. I try to grab people that enjoy crafts and encourage them to take my class. It is wonderful for problem solving.”

Recycling and sustainability are important to the design team. Many would be surprised to know just how many materials in U theatre’s shows are repurposed or up-cycled.

“Our technical director salvaged baling wire from a house he was clearing. We had to line everything with wire so we could bend it into the shapes we needed. People were bringing us plastic bags, bubble wrap, and we brought things from home,” Schockmel explained.

They were also beneficiaries of a happy mistake. “Two years ago, there was a mistake in ordering paper towels for our building’s machines, and so janitorial staff came, and asked if we would like the paper towels that didn’t fit. We said, ‘Oh yes, we would!’ We’ve used thousands of paper towels to paper mâché. And we got our paint from the Department of Film & Media Arts when they shut down a set last season.”

Additionally, Pioneer Theatre Company donated piles of clothes they were cleaning out from their costume department this summer, and a few costume racks that were on their way to the salvage yard. A win-win for everyone.

Department of Theatre curriculum requires that all students take a design element, even if they are focusing on performance. This prepares them for the professional world, where those in theatre wear various hats.

“Props is something you don’t know you like until you do it. All students have to take a lab aspect, so they will work with costumes, set, props, and sound. I try to grab people that enjoy crafts and encourage them to take my class. It is wonderful for problem-solving,” Schockmel said.