This is the time of the year when Rebecca Jo Malmstrom starts shopping for Christmas dinner.
As props buyer and fabricator for the Guthrie Theater, Malmstrom’s job is getting food on the table for the Cratchit family feast in the theater’s annual holiday play, “A Christmas Carol.” It’s one of those jobs where nobody notices if everything is perfect. But it can be a showstopper when things go wrong.
Malmstrom, of St. Paul, is in her seventh season of spending her days making fake jelly doughnuts out of upholstery foam or trying to find a supply of dead bushes.
The 41-year-old has been in showbiz all her life, beginning as a newborn with a gig portraying baby Jesus at a Christmas pageant. She has also acted in TV commercials and community theater. But she got her start in the tech side of theater when she failed to get a part in a play as a student at Mahtomedi High School and was asked to work on the props instead.
Now she works in an office full of boxes and cabinets with labels like “leather gun holsters,” “special effect knives” and “billy clubs, real & faux” while shopping for stuff that actors will sit on, eat, smoke, smash, shoot and throw at each other.
Her suppliers range from antique and craft stores to Alfonso’s Breakaway Glass Inc., “the go-to breakaway glass and ceramic source for the entertainment industry since 1986.” Food and florals are her specialty. For a theatrical run, it’s much more economical to reuse fake flowers or a dozen artificial jelly doughnuts than to buy the real thing.
It’s often sticky work. “A lot of my job is sticking things to each other, or in each other or on each other,” Malmstrom says. “Adhesives are a huge part of my job.”
Recently, Malmstrom posted a message on an online forum asking her St. Paul neighbors whether they had any dead bushes they weren’t using. That was for a production of “The Bluest Eye,” where the set called for dead and dying vegetation.
“You can’t just buy dead bushes and we didn’t want to buy bushes just to kill them,” Malmstrom says.
On another show, Malmstrom created a fake Dale Chihuly glass sculpture that the director thought was too expensive to replace. It was actually a plastic bowl from Party City melted with a heat gun.
Props rarely get praise in theater reviews. But in live theater, people notice when the details aren’t right. Even the make believe needs to be as authentic as possible, because, Malmstrom says: “We don’t want to take you out of the experience.”