By Jenny Lyons
Every WGI performer knows that after ascending to the height of their performance career on Finals night, there is one more literal mountain to overcome. After the performers have soaked in the last bit of applause, rolled up the floor, collected their props, and swept up the last handful of glitter; they–already tired and breathless–must carry all of it up the very steep ramp that is the performer’s exit at the UD Arena. It has become a rite of passage, a necessary evil, and the unglamorous crux to the flashiest of effects. The grander the prop the more laborious the exit strategy. This begs the question: is the struggle of the prop worth the effect?
As the activity moves ever forward and continues to explore more elements of time, space, and intrigue, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” Props elevate and expand the visual and storytelling components of the sport of the arts in increasingly compelling ways. Each season props continue to change and challenge what the audience expects to see in a winter production. With each prop comes a unique set of challenges and, with no easy set of instructions, each group must adapt to the logistical challenge.
One guard who embraced the challenge was Pennsauken Independent, whose Marie Antoinette themed program “Let Them Eat Cake” included a slew of elaborate props. The show sought to portray Marie Antoinette and the time period through a “flirty yet sophisticated” lens, says Director Woody Kleintz. Pennsauken sought original music and turned to Mike McIntosh for musical inspiration. The final product is laced with familiar and original tunes and snippets of French dialogue. As the idea developed, so did the 24 foot banquet table that would become the center of their production. The table created a “magnificent focal point” and a “fulcrum to catapult effects and staging,” says Kleintz. “It truly became a conversation piece.”
With the huge visual payoff, though, came the inevitable pitfalls. Kleintz emphasized that assembly and breakdown at every rehearsal and show was a major event, as was the challenge of maneuvering the prop through the halls of smaller venues. “It kept the staff and parents on their toes,” says Kleintz.
Another huge labor of love for Pennsauken was their elaborate cake props, which were all individually crafted and hand-beaded. As the show came together, trinkets and baubles were added to each by hand, and corresponding pieces were added to the casts’ hair as a reflection. Hours of individual work went into each cake. In addition, upkeep was constant, as they were in constant and dynamic use by the performers. For the final push of the season, lights were added “for an extra WOW factor” to an already charming prop, says Woody of the fun finals addition.
Watch Pennsauken’s 2018 program from the front and you see an exciting display of level changes, surprises, seamless exits and entrances, cakes that appear from nowhere, a flurry of effects that glide easily onto the stage, and a virtual spotlight in the form of the massive gilded table. Watch Pennsauken’s show from the back and you see an entirely different show in itself. Behind every great effect is a cast member army-crawling from one side to the other, or a cluster of members counting and crouched, ready to spring out in full performance regalia on their count. They pass each other cakes, they stack and unstack equipment artfully. A soloist winks at the back stands before stepping onto the table. Seeing behind the curtain of the great props and effects of the activity exposes not the messy guts of performers scrambling behind a prop, but a well-oiled machine of professionals making the magic moments of their show shine that much brighter.
Audiences often love a well-used prop, and Pennsauken’s show was no exception. “It is one to be remembered,” says Woody Kleintz, of the show, in large part to the extra conversation piece that their lovingly crafted props brought to an already dynamic cast and program. From this show and a collection of crowd favorites, championship programs, and beyond, it is clear that props, with all of the blood, sweat, and tears that accompany them, have become a symbiotic element of the activity; and it is certainly for the better.
About the Author: Jenny Lyons is a freelance writer and graduate of the Literary Journalism program at the University of California, Irvine. She is particularly enamored with nonfiction writing, archival research and reporting, as well as editing. She is an alumna of WGI, having performed with the Santa Clara Vanguard Winter Guard from 2013 to 2015. Jenny has also marched with several drum corps including Pacific Crest, The Academy, and the Santa Clara Vanguard. When she is not writing, Jenny can be found continuing her passion for color guard through teaching.