Interview: Theatre Life with Lance Pennington

The 45 year Arena Stage veteran props artisan shows no signs of stopping

By: Oct. 11, 2022
Interview: Theatre Life with Lance Pennington
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Today's subject Lance Pennington proves that longevity can be achieved while working in theatre. For 45 years, yes you read that right, he has been living his theatre life as a member of the props department at Arena Stage. His current position is that of Associate Props Director. His work can currently be seen with their current production of Holiday which runs through November 6th.

There are many elements to what Lance's job entails. Part of it is prop creation as well as helping to acquire whatever is needed for a particular production. There is also prop modification and much more. Having a working knowledge of all time periods is a definite plus.

As you will read, Lance is a career artisan of the theatre. To my knowledge, he is one of the longest running employees for a local theatre company. With the amount of turnover that happens in theatre, Lance's 45 years of service to DC theatre is awe inspiring.

Grab yourself some tickets to Holiday at Arena Stage and check out Lance's handywork. 45 years in and he is still living his theatre life to the fullest.

Did you go to school for theatre?

Yes. I started in high school in performance, as a means of escape from the cornfields which I grew up around. It became a way for me to go places I did not know before. I realized early on that I did not have the training to pursue acting, and I found great comradery backstage. So, I majored in Theatre in college at Kent State University in Ohio. In college, I learned a respect for the stagecraft involved in producing a play. I was lucky enough to have two people generate my interest in fabrics and sewing, and of course the hot glue gun.

Had you been working at another theatre before coming to Arena Stage?

I did several summers of theater during school and after graduating. I worked for a children's theater company as an actor/technician and an outdoor drama as a 1/3 of a costume department where I was responsible for running shows, building costumes, laundry, and strike. During these jobs, I learned that pit pads are very important and how to get Texas dirt (powdered makeup) out of clothes. The best thing about most of my jobs in this industry has been the backstage personnel.

45 years ago, I replaced a friend who was a show runner at Arena Stage. After two shows, I became a permanent member of the props department. Then by the end of that season, I became the assistant properties director. I continued to stay because I like working in a regional theatre where everything is produced in house and full of great people.

What was your first Arena Stage production?

The National Health in 1977. I worked during the day in props shop as an artisan and in the evening, I ran the show. The most memorable prop I made was a fake human liver. The liver was used for an organ transplant as the show was set in a British 1950s hospital.

How much time do you generally have to create/acquire all props for any given production?

We have about 4 to 6 weeks, sometimes less, to acquire all props for a production. Beginning with concept phase we read the play, talk with the scenic designer and director about the style and needs for the show. Then working with the scenic design, we strive to fulfill the look of the show and the needs of the actors. Hopefully, by tech week we have achieved at least 98% of what we need. During the previews and up to opening, we refine and finish our work. Some challenges we face are waiting for information from designer or rehearsal, locating just the right pieces to fit the requirements of the play, and mostly budget restrictions.

Interview: Theatre Life with Lance Pennington
The interior and exterior of the dollhouse used in
Arena Stage's current production of Holiday.
Photos provided by the artist.

Can you please tell us about the pictured dollhouse and how it was modified for Holiday?

The doll house was built for a production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre by Jenn Sheetz. The interior was not decorated as it flew in upstage for a scene. We borrowed it for Holiday. It got a new paint job on the exterior and a base coat inside. After a trip to the hobby store to get wall papers and trims, we decorated the rooms with new flooring and colorful wall treatments. The furniture is a mix of borrowed and bought pieces. The windows were replaced and curtains made from fabric trims were added. New grass and flowers spruced up the outdoors. Our family was purchased online and seem happy in their new home. Incidentally, the house is on a rolling platform to help move it on and off stage

Do you find the "period" shows like Holiday more challenging prop wise?

No, I enjoy the period pieces more. I like creating the look of a different age. I always say I can do pretty or pretty ugly. One of my favorite period creations was a French empire living room for Piggy Bank. This room was challenging because the requirements were high, but the budget was low. Somehow, we pulled it all together and it looked great. The designer offered pictures for research of what he liked the amount of furniture and placement. We consulted books and paintings, this was before the internet, to find what worked both the furniture and placement.

What would you say has been the most bizarre prop request you have had from a director?

Creating a fake bubble bath with 3 layers of fabric. One layer was opalescent sequin bridal lace, the next layer was a white stiff netting, on top of a stretch opalescent spandex. It was created by a lot of pinning and gathering and stitching together the three pieces. Then adding a snap to one side, for the actress to wear onto stage. She went out and laid down on the stage and two pieces of scenery rose from the floor to make a tub around her. This was for The Women.

What are some of your favorite Arena Stage productions from a prop creation perspective having been there for 45 years.

1977's Caucasian Chalk Circle, we manufactured the entire show from scratch. We dyed all the fabric, quilted them, and made them into scenery, costumes, bundles, a baby, and the floor. We had the masks to fit the actors and even the ropes on the props were macraméd from raffia and fabric and jute.

On the Razzle, I made three 1840s dresses which were rigged for three running crew members to fit beneath the skirts. They would sit on small wheeled bicycle seats and propelled the dresses around the stage unseen by the audience.

Special thanks to Bucklesweet's Royal Director of Public Relations Amy "Queenie" Killion and Arena Stage's Associate, Marketing & Media Strategy Anastasia St. Hilaire for their assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.