The Art of Props: An Interview with Professor Mary Creede

By: Racheli Moskowitz  |  October 20, 2017

Professor Mary Creede has worked as a professional artist for over 30 years, and has taught Studio Art at Stern College for Women since 2009. She is the director and co-owner of a collaborative art facility called Jerard Studio. Aside from privately commissioned works, the studio has produced props for numerous Broadway shows, including Hamilton, The Addams Family, The Little Mermaid, and most recently Frozen. She has produced work for hospitals such as Montefiore Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and along with John Jerard, has led art programming there for pediatric patients.  

Racheli: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came into the field?

Mary Creede: I did a lot of art and theater work in high school, but regular [studied] academics besides that. I always thought it was more of a hobby; I was afraid to have it be my sole profession, as a lot of people who go into creative fields are. I thought that I would always do support work, meaning that I would do the business end of the creative fields.  I went to the University of Virginia and I started as pre-commerce, and then wound up totally enthralled with  by my fine art and theater classes. I felt compelled to make. I became further involved in the technical end of the theater because I was taking an introductory tech theater class and in the class’ textbook there was a photograph of somebody walking on a gigantic painting and painting it with a brush on a stick and I asked the instructor, “what is that” and he said, “that’s somebody painting a backdrop, that’s a profession…if you have the skill, this is a tremendous thing to learn.” So, I did Summer Stock as an intern and learned how to paint backdrops.  I got completely drawn into it; working on a big creative project with a group was also really inspiring as was the training I received to make it possible.


RM: In your featured Thrillist video, you say that you “define craftsmanship as earnestness in making.” How do you think you continue to find that earnestness every day in continuing your work?

MC: Well, you need to take it seriously, and you need to question it constantly and not settle. It can be kind of dangerous to say, “Oh that looks pretty good” or, “That’s enough.” I do thoroughly rework stuff, but I always move on to the next piece. I really recommend having a few pieces happening simultaneously.  I guess earnestness and craftsmanship [are] about not being careless, and really being “present” in the genesis of your work.  

RM: Why do you think props are so essential for a show’s success?

MC: Well, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes Props are completely mimed, we’ve definitely seen that technique used. It depends on the show. In some cases, they absolutely are [essential]. I think the impact of props has a lot to do with the way the show’s directed. So I’ve seen props used to their greatest potential, and then I’ve seen occasions when they don’t necessarily give them that chance. A lot of the times they don’t want the props to upstage the performers but when  puppets are used, for example they, become very significant and even one of the characters; like the Groundhog in “Groundhog Day”.  Audiences like to be wowed by ingenuity either on an intimate or grand scale

RM: Do you then sometimes have to hold back or downgrade the props?

MC: You have to do what’s required. Now, we always make things better than they need to be made because the one thing about Broadway is that everything really gets banged around. You have to make them almost like gym equipment! But you have to make sure the designer wants It the way you are making it. There’s a lot of people that are flexible because they’ve worked with our studio a long time and they trust our design capabilities, and they might not give us a drawing at all. But there are some designers that are very specific and if you give them something they haven’t asked for, even if you think it’s better than what they asked for, it might not be appropriate for the show.

RM: What’s it been like working for a show as large as Hamilton ?

MC: Well, it’s nice to be able to have an ongoing production. We develop a lot of stuff initially and we usually prototype things, and what’s helpful about a show being successful and having a bunch of productions come after the initial one is that we can streamline our process and get a second chance to make [the props] even better. You make a lot of discoveries for the first one that goes into the show. So what I do like about Hamilton is we’ve done four of them–four sets of props for four different productions. There are two touring productions: a Chicago production, and we just did a London production.  Also the Design Team, David Korins, has been really great to work with as well as and the prop supervisor Denise Grillo.

RM: Do you have a favorite show that you’ve worked for?

MC: I would say I have favorite props more than favorite shows. We did a horse for Hello Dolly last January that was fantastic. We worked with another great designer, (Santo Loquasto) and prop supervisor, (Pete Sarafin) to bring it off. We [also] did a tree monster for Cinderella–I loved that, (designer William Ivey Long) it was very challenging for the actor and a great collaboration because he performed the piece so well.

One thing that’s nice about being exposed to so many different shows is that you get to work with so many different groups of people. While the fabricating the pieces for these productions is challenging and exciting, the collabrations with both design teams, my personal collabortion with my partner John Jerard and with the fantastic and committed artisans in our studio is one of the most fulfilling  aspects of my work.  It’s a constant growth experience.

RM: What’s it like seeing the shows you’ve produced the props for?

MC: It’s really good for me to see the shows we design for. But I almost wish we could see the show before we design the props. That’s one of the things that I did like about working in a theater company is that you’d see what the intention was before the show was up and running. A lot of the times I’d go see a Broadway show, and I’d look at a prop and say, “I didn’t know they were going to do that with it!” Hopefully, you get some of this information through the rehearsals. But the rehearsal periods are becoming so compressed that it’s very difficult to make changes to a prop based on rehearsal because you may not have time before it makes it to the stage.

RM: What do you think it takes to be successful in the art world?

MC: I think that you have to be flexible. Professionally, I recommend making yourself indispensable. The creative fields are growing faster than the average [growth] for other professions. Our world has become so content-driven with all the media exposure that we have now; I’m not saying it isn’t challenging to get a job in a creative field. But I think it’s going to be rewarding when you do get the job.

[In this field] I’ve had a life that has been very fulfilling but I work really hard. And you don’t really stop. I have a friend you says it’s like joining a motorcycle gang; it’s not like you turn it off at five, it’s on all the time.  When you’re not making something or developing something, you probably should be.

RM: How has teaching impacted you as an artist?

MC: Initially, when Professor Gardener, who used to be the Chair of the [Art] department, came and visited our studio, and then invited me to teach here, I was grateful for the opportunity but uncertain about my ability to communicate in the classroom environment. We [at the studio] work a lot with kids in hospitals so it wasn’t like I hadn’t been teaching, and I’d had a lot of interns in the studio over the years. But when I started teaching more formally, it made me even more aware of everything I do intuitively. I have to re-identify everything and reconsider everything I’d been doing over 30 years. I have to meet this demand in order help students sort out the problems in their own personal artwork, in a manner that’s appropriate and specific to their individuality. It’s challenging, but it can be really rewarding and feeds into my own work practice.  Now it seems like the obvious next step in my Artistic and Professional development.