Props Design with Lisa Imbryk

Lisa Imbryk is a guest designer for our production of Come Back by Neil Haven, and this is her first time working for the Commonweal. She holds a B.A. from Hamline University and an M.F.A. from the University of Georgia. She works as the Membership Coordinator at the Dakota County Historical Society and is a costume and props designer with a variety of companies around the Twin Cities. All photos in this post are by Lisa.

Ashley Graham on the set of Come Back. Bruce’s cage and the vacuum in the foreground, Erin’s shrine sits on the platform.

What were your first impressions and ideas for Come Back?

I love this show. It’s a lovely piece on found family, which is a concept very dear to me. I try to always read a show first just to read it, and then go through a second time to mine for design requirements and elements. The Bruce situation and collaboration was probably the first thing that jumped through on the second read, followed closely by “Oh my gosh, the wheel chair and the vacuum.” But I was invested in seeing this piece happen, so it was great.

How did those first impressions change as you collaborated with Adrienne (the director) and the other designers?

Annie’s [costume] design boards really drove how I thought about Erin, who is so present in the props in this piece. Making her this bright, attention-grabbing element was a little scary at first, but I grew to love the idea that you were always seeing her—in the packet, in the cage cover she made for Bruce, and in the things she gave Sky for this trip.

What props are mentioned in the script and what did you add?

The biggest departure from the script was with Nevada Ned, and that was a great result of Adrienne and Ashley’s [the actor playing Ned] process in the rehearsal room. All of his gags were pieces they developed from the lines, and I had a blast finding joke shop items and making Grandma’s coffin. Ashley is incredible, and can really work a prop, which is such a joy as a designer to get to support.

Where do the props come from? Did you make any of them?

It’s a big mix! Lots of things are sourced or borrowed from other theatres, or from stock at Commonweal, and my own collection. We also buy some pieces, and make others. I try to put a hand on most things that go on stage—Nevada Ned’s X-Ray specs were bought, but I gave them the feather eyebrows, and Bruce’s cage was purchased but I stitched the cover. The big builds for this show were the shrine at the end, the grinder, and the cake, which still makes me laugh every time I see it.

Come Back has a fair amount of contemporary paper props (brochures, maps, the “adventure binder.”) Care to elaborate on those specifically? It seems like a lot of detail went into them.

Those were a blast. I spent a lot of time trying to get into Erin’s head for most of them. I started the packet with two pieces—the map, and the letters—the one in the packet, and then one written into the play at the end. I went through the script and sat with the map and charted, based on highways, what the 15 stops they do make in the play are, and then I had fun imagining where the other 15 stops might be (I grew up in Eastern Washington State, so a stop at 10,000 Silver Dollar in Idaho on I90 was mandatory). 

For the letters, I first wrote out the one at the end in her handwriting. Then, I really put that character work for Erin into play, and wrote out what I thought I might write if I were her, to help me get in that head space. And then I decorated everything, because I felt like she would. I had some fun with little bits—the map says “Don’t panic!” on the front, and originally the paper bags said “You panicked, didn’t you?” on them, though it wasn’t readable and the bags do get used, so we let it go for the actual run.

What’s been the most challenging prop

The wheelchair. It was a scary thing for some moments. But, in a beautiful moment of synchronicity, Paul [Epton, lighting designer] found a lead on one, and I connected with a guy on Craigslist who had a dear friend who was moving into a hospice situation, and he had stepped up (as chosen family) to sell the items his friend no longer needed and get him taken care of, and that included the wheel chair. It was like it was meant to be!

Jeremy van Meter and Jaclyn June Johnson in Come Back

What’s your favorite prop in Come Back? 

“Dead Grandma” just kills me, as does the cake. I can’t choose children!

Come Back by Neil Haven is now playing at the Commonweal Theatre until November 14. For in-person and virtual tickets, click here.

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