Secrets from the Props Closet

Finding new points of entry to the Kenyon theater scene.


When I committed to Kenyon, my mom told me I would be a “big fish in a small pond.” She was wrong. Yes, Kenyon is a small pond, but the beauty of this school is that nobody takes up too much space: there are opportunities for everybody. Those opportunities may just not look the way you expected.

At the beginning of this semester, I auditioned for a senior thesis play called Rapture, Blister, Burn. Because it was a thesis production, three of the roles had already been cast, and only two roles were open for audition: a middle-aged man and an elderly woman. So, I auditioned for the latter. And I didn’t get the part. I wasn’t surprised, of course: I’ve been rejected from things time and time again. I was mostly upset because I just wanted to be involved. I know all of the thesis performers very well and was upset I wouldn’t be able to work with them on stage. So, when one of them approached me in Peirce Hall and asked me if I wanted to design props, I said yes without a second thought. And I’m so glad I did. 

The list of props was reasonable, if not a little random: birthday presents, school supplies, beer bottles, martini glasses, books with custom covers, a birthday cake, and a leaf. The challenge, however, was that I was not allowed to spend a cent on any of it. I had to brave a space I’d never seen before: the prop closet under the Bolton Stage. It’s easy to miss in passing, but beyond its heavy metal doors is a wonderland of assorted items. Some props were very clearly leftovers from previous shows: a bag of soccer balls from The Wolves (2018); a Ouija Board from Stage Blood (2022); a fake skull undoubtedly from some past production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I was in the closet for upwards of an hour before I even got around to getting the props I needed for this show: I was so busy exploring all of the knick knacks and artifacts, most of which were covered in a thin layer of dust. After much gawking, I got most of my props from the closet. Now I just had to figure out the cake.

The cake, as described both in stage direction and in dialogue, is for a four-year-old’s birthday party. The characters admire it towards the end of the play, pointing out the presence of a backhoe decoration on top. I was completely lost on how to make a fake cake, let alone a grocery-store-style sheet cake completed with a construction vehicle on top. I reached out to the person who’d let me into the prop closet days before: Chris Ellsworth, Technical Director for the department of Dance, Drama and Film. I was intimidated to reach out, if I’m being totally honest—I’m completely helpless when it comes to handiness. But I took a deep breath and I sent him an email requesting help.

"I got to meet the people I’d seen many times in passing and noted in the programs of my shows but never really talked to. They became not only new connections within my major department, but friends."

Ellie Kahle '25

I met Chris in the scene shop in the Bolton Theater building. It was another Bolton space I was discovering for the first time: I admired its high ceilings, large signs from previous sets hung up on the concrete walls. Before I was greeted by Chris, I was greeted by his two companions: Cooper and Falstaff the Labrador Retrievers. I was starting to really love the scene shop, now: I have a huge soft spot for dogs. Chris followed the dogs, shooing them away from me. I shyly explained what I needed to make for this show, and he was up for the challenge.

Before I knew it, he was showing me how to use a power saw and how to mix high-pigment scene paint, mixing plaster for me, and doing it all while cracking jokes. How had I never talked to this guy before? I came in many afternoons over several weeks to see him and to work on my project. I even ordered Girl Scout Cookies from his daughter. I started talking to the student employees in the shop and Kris Conant, the Production and Box Office Manager of the DDF department. I got to meet the people I’d seen many times in passing and noted in the programs of my shows but never really talked to. They became not only new connections within my major department, but friends. 

For the first time since coming to Kenyon, I felt like I was really a part of the departmental theater community, even having acted in multiple departmental shows previously.  I was used to being in the spotlight; to receiving my friends in the green room after my shows; to being stopped in Peirce by strangers complimenting my performances. But there’s a beauty in hiding in the further names of the playbill: a lesson in being your own biggest fan.

The cake turned out just how I wanted: looking perfectly too-neon, just like the cakes you see in grocery store display cases. I even found plastic construction vehicles in the costume shop to place on top! I didn’t really care what the cake looked like, though, if I’m honest. Sure, I wanted it to look great on stage, but what I value most from that experience is not a giant cake made of foam, but the connections I made with the people that helped me make it.

At first, I saw not being cast in Rapture, Blister, Burn as a dead end, but I was wrong. It was an opportunity for something greater. That’s a reason why I love Kenyon: even if things don’t go exactly as planned, there’s always a new opportunity to get involved.

My prop design/technical theater streak is certainly not over yet: I hope to continue to participate in theater in all capacities, not just acting, as I make my way through the rest of my time here at Kenyon. I now know that involvement is rarely all-or-nothing: there are always gaps to be filled here and there, big and small, that allow you to try new things, meet new people, and discover your interests. Kenyon is a small pond, yes, but we all fit. Together we create and collaborate, and we become better, well-rounded individuals for it.