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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Jenn Sheetz

Giving props to one of DC's artisans.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Jenn Sheetz
Jenn Sheetz

Throughout this pandemic, theatre companies have found some creative ways to keep staff members employed.

Today's subject Jenn Sheetz is one of those fortunate artists that is living her theatre life as the Properties Manager at Arena Stage. She has held that position for the past three seasons after twelve seasons as Properties Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. She began her theatrical career at Arena Stage, working as a Properties Assistant for nine seasons in the Kreeger Theatre. She has also designed properties for Norwegian Cruise Line (Rock of Ages, Legally Blonde, Million Dollar Quartet), Comedy Central, and Showtime.

Her pandemic project is based off of a recent production at Arena Stage called Dear Jack, Dear Louise. The two-character WWll love letter correspondence play was written by Ken Ludwig.

Jenn Sheetz and the properties department are currently working on bringing the love letter theme to your mailbox with Ken Ludwig's Dear Jack, Dear Louise Love Letter Experience. It allows you to experience the magic of Louise Rabiner and Jacob Ludwig's connection and intimate journey through a series of nine letters of handwritten correspondence including letters, photos and telegrams designed and handcrafted with period details. The items are mailed to your home when you purchase the experience.

Read on for more info about this project and what Jenn says are some of her more "interesting" prop requests over the years.

Lots of theatre goers are totally oblivious as to how a lot of the props you see onstage in a production get into the show. What is stage magic for an audience member usually means someone like Jenn is running around all over creation to either find what is needed or is in the prop shop at Arena Stage making things from scratch with her team of artisans.

Consider purchasing Ken Ludwig's Dear Jack, Dear Louise Love Letter Experience and support the work of theatrical artisans like Jenn Sheetz. She and many others are trying to live a theatre life when there is no live theatre so please support her and the many other artists around town if you can.

Out of all the disciplines in theatre you could have chosen, what was it about props design that drew you in?

During high school I enrolled in as many art courses as I could, and had the opportunity to attend youth art programs at the Smithsonian and the Corcoran School of Art. My intention was to be an art major when I went to college. However, my freshman year I signed up for the Intro to Theatre Design class and was introduced to a fantastic professor and set designer, Keith Belli. He encouraged me that I could use my experience in painting and sculpture for theatrical work. Assisting Keith with his designs by finding or building the props is where it all began. Soon, my classmates were asking me to prop their scenes for directing and acting classes.

While I finished sealing the fake icing on a cake for a scene from Picnic, a classmate walked in and commented how delicious it looked. The reward of creating an object that looked real, and was enjoyable to make, got me hooked. I love the creativity, the research and construction of props, the problem solving and the complexity of how to make it work. Every show is different and ask for different props. I am always ready to learn new things and skills.

How did you come to work in DC theatre?

I moved to the DMV area in high school and went to Mary Washington College (now University of Mary Washington) in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The theatre department would field trip to DC a few times a semester to see productions at Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Shakespeare Theatre Company.

I have always loved the DC area and the theatre it has produced. It felt only natural to stay and become a part of it.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Jenn Sheetz
A letter packet from
Ken Ludwig's Dear Jack, Dear Louise Love Letter Experience.
Design by Jenn Sheetz.

What about your current project, Ken Ludwig's Dear Jack, Dear Louise Love Letter Experience has been the most fun? What research did you do for this project?

I was able to bring in Lance Pennington to help with the project. He has been a part of the props team at Arena Stage for over 40 years and has been out of work since the beginning of the pandemic. Even though we are in separate rooms for each other's safety, it has been fantastic having him around.

I searched for images of letters written during WWII, researching stationary styles, sizes of the letters, which style envelopes to use, and what items I could put inside the letters to embellish the love story between Jack and Louise.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Jenn Sheetz
Another letter packet from
Ken Ludwig's Dear Jack, Dear Louise Love Letter Experience.
Design by Jenn Sheetz.

Recreating the v-mail letter that Jack sends from Europe was a fun project. I had purchased an original v-mail letter from eBay to use as a reference. Using a similar envelope with matching size and color to the real one, an address window needed to be added. On Etsy, I found the War Department stamp for the return address, which was a nice surprise. When a solider sends a v-mail from wherever he is stationed, it would be opened, censored, put on microfilm and then a copy of the photo of that letter would be mailed to the recipient. The real v-mail is so small, and the one Jack writes is pretty lengthy that I decided to make his v-mail a little larger so that it could be legible.

Some of the sources I used were the Postal Museum, the Camp White Museum, the Fort Sam Houston Museum, New York Public Records,, WWII US Medical Research Centre and eBay.

In all of your years of being a props designer/director, what would you say has been your most bizarre props ask for a production?

I worked at Woolly Mammoth for 12 seasons. Their productions had plenty of bizarre props: a vomit rig in a dirty sink, actual sized The Birth of Venus splattered with paint and washed off for the next scene, "3000 tons of lettuce to fall from the sky", inflatable furniture drop from the grid for a party scene, a working 19th Century vibrator, not one but two plays set in a hoarding situation that had to be cleared in under 10 minutes during intermission, flame proofing thousands of cotton balls to fly into the audience and a favorite of mine, an edible goldfish that looked so real we were threatened to be reported to PETA.

Arena Stage has also had me work with the Props team on some bizarre props! A gutted 3-foot fish, a 24-foot dead weeping willow, a dead bloody goat, a vintage BMW with working parts and the bumper rigged to fall in a fight, a deer gutted onstage, a fake steak cut up every night and a sleeping, breathing Siberian tiger on a sofa just to name a few!

You designed props for Norwegian Cruise Lines. What would you say are the biggest differences in designing for a cruise ship over a "legit" theatre production?

For a NCL show, I would gather and work on the props in my home workshop. When the props were completed, I shipped them to the Scene Shop that was contracted to build the show. The larger furniture items were sent directly to the shop and assembled there or when they arrived on the boat. A shop visit would be arranged after all the props arrived, and any last-minute fixes would need to happen. The props would be repacked into a large shipping container to be delivered directly to the boat. Sometimes the boat would be in Miami, sometimes it was still under construction overseas. Once on the boat, I would unpack and organize all the props, assemble them if needed and assist the crew with dressing the set. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to travel to another country and work on a theatrical production.

Even though the setting is different, the work is still legit. Some of the larger shows I have worked on for NCL include Legally Blonde, Million Dollar Quartet, and Rock of Ages. To prepare to work on these shows, I went to see Rock of Ages on Broadway and was given a tour backstage to view the props. I did the same for the touring show of Million Dollar Quartet. My end goal was to recreate the Broadway experience.

What is your most rewarding production that you have worked on at Arena Stage?

My choice would be my first show as Properties Director, which was Anything Goes. It was a big change from Woolly, there was a prop shop of five staff to supervise, bigger budgets, bigger shows and it was a musical. There were a lot of adjustments that needed to be made during the rehearsal process for the big dance numbers, including a (rather quick) redesign of the benches on the set, as well as changing the feet to casters for many pieces of furniture to quicken the scene changes. Learning to step in as the Department Head while also working on a large musical was challenging. Opening night, I felt proud of the work the prop team did and was excited to be continuing to work at Arena Stage.

Special thanks to Arena Stage's fantaboulous publicist Lauren McMillen for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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