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An Interview With Jenni Lou Russi

Properties Designer, Cry It Out

Three new moms from different backgrounds bond over parenting babies. Simple? Friendship, marriage, careers are anything but simple in Cry It Out, a comedy with dark edges. Cry It Out takes an honest look at the absurdities of navigating women’s choices, family life, and job security in modern day America.

First, what is your theatrical background? What is your history with Theatre B?
My first job in Theatre was over forty years ago. I was a hairdresser. I’m now a professional stand-up comedian who’s chair of the Department of Communication Arts at VCSU.

I moved to this area from Salt Lake City when I accepted a position as the Director of Theatre at Valley City State University in Valley City. In Salt Lake my students had a number of options for shows as part of the classes I taught – and shows I directed/designed at Westminster College. Valley City doesn’t have a community theatre so I was thrilled to find Theatre B, then in Fargo. Each semester we took at least one field trip to see shows in Fargo, and Third at Theatre B was our introduction to theatre in the Fargo/Moorhead area.

Though I’ve worked in Theatre as a generalist for decades, my MFA is in Acting at Kent State University, and most of my professional work has been in performance, so I’ve participated in performance-focused workshops with Theatre B. As a practitioner with productions I designed costumes for The Art of Bad Men (set in the 1940’s), and designed sound for Hand to God and the staged reading of A Beautiful Hell.

What does a properties designer do?
Stealth Context. When I design I hope that audiences don’t notice my work – but that my work fills in the story for them in ways that make the experience richer and with a deeper connection.

A well-chosen/designed prop, sound, costume  . . . informs the audience of where and when the action is taking place, the conditions in that setting, how things are used, what has happened before. Props provide context in ways that the text dictates, and the production team decides many of the details for the props, but the audience is not privy to any of this, so the finished prop product must stand on its own within the story.

It’s not as simple as buying or choosing items. In this show, I’m paying close attention to branding with the props because this informs the audience of the location of the action, the time period in which the audience is experiencing this story, and the social status of the characters who use these props. I hope the audience doesn’t remember the branding so much as they feel immersed in the world of the play.

What part of the props design process do you find to be the most fun? What about the most challenging?
1) Attention to detail.
2) Attention to detail.

What are some specific aspects of the Cry It Out design that make you really happy or proud?
Working with a team – even if it means that I come to the production team with something that doesn’t work! If I have to re-think something I’ve thought was finished, I know that after I revise it, the prop works for the story as well as the director’s vision, AND the actors can USE the item as part of their own work in creating their characters.

What is something an audience member should pay attention to when they see the show?
The story. The props support the story.

Anything else about you or the show that you would like to share?
As a professor in Theatre I have often had students express that they felt they were being diminished within the department by being assigned props. Just as there are no small actors, there are no insignificant props. Professional practitioners at every level of professional theatre include prop designers. Some universities have professors in props as part of their Tech Faculty. Props are not afterthoughts. They’re stealth and they put the story into context.