Chris Wych never expected to find himself affixing a remote control car to baskets of fake potatoes. But in 2018, he did just that for a production of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls.

“I was in charge of getting the remote control car underneath the baskets, and the [props] team built fake potatoes so they could go in there and get a little lift that rose up and pushed all the potatoes out,” says Wych, the properties supervisor for the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. The Wirtz Center stages theatrical and dance productions on Northwestern University’s campus, primarily with undergraduate performers.

This is just an average day in the Wirtz Center’s production shops. There are five production shops in total: scenic, paints, costumes, electrics and properties (better known as props). Without the students and 15 staff members who work there, Wirtz productions wouldn’t have the same sparkle — or as many animated, overflowing baskets of potatoes.

Wych's basket of potatoes from The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls Photo by Kathy Parsons

The Wirtz Center frequently collaborates with the School of Communication, but it is its own entity that operates largely outside the school's coursework. Master Carpenter Shannon Perry says this autonomy is what distinguishes Wirtz from other universities’ theatres.

“The Wirtz Center is actually its own kind of independent company — we’re just housed in Northwestern — which allows us a lot of freedom for picking what we want to work on,” Perry says.

According to Perry, this independence allows them to build a larger staff of professionals who have been working in production for many years prior to joining Wirtz.

For Wych, mornings usually start by looking at the previous day’s rehearsal notes for a production he’s working on. From there, he could be in the shop creating props or in the office adjusting prop lists and attending meetings. One of his favorite parts of the job is the collaborative nature of the Wirtz production shops.

“All of us work really well together, and we’re not afraid to share resources, knowledge and skills between all of our shops,” Wych says.

Costume and Crafts Supervisor Renee Werth loves collaborating with the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) students studying stage design. She works in the costume shop and specializes in non-clothing pieces such as masks and accessories.

A remote-controlled potato basket sits on the stage during The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls. Photo by Justin Barbin

Werth says her favorite part is “seeing [the graduate students] grow as designers and seeing how happy they can be with what you’ve created for them.”

The MFA students can concentrate on costumes, scenery or lighting. They design many of the pieces for Wirtz shows, and then the production shop staff bring their designs to life.

David Arevalo is an MFA student in the stage design program with a primary concentration in costume design. For a typical production, he collaborates with MFA students from the other concentrations, as well as the show's director, to create a vision for the show. Once he has concrete ideas for his designs, he starts meeting with the costume shop staff about their feasibility.

“A ton of conversations have to happen between me and the [costume] shop to make sure that my stuff is clear, I understand actually what I want and to make sure that I haven’t done something that’s impossible for them to accomplish,” Arevalo says.

One of his favorite designs was a costume for the lead in the fall 2019 production of Machinal. In the play, the character feels suffocated by her life and recent marriage, so Arevalo designed a dress with a very high collar that mimicked a straitjacket. The other actors helped change the actress on stage by putting the dress on her from the front and wrapping her into it.

Despite not being able to work on in-person shows for most of the last two years, the Wirtz production staff still had plenty to do. Perry worked on updating the safety procedures for the scenic shops and created an online training program for student workers. In March, Werth and the rest of the costume shop created puppets for a filmed production of Tomás and The Library Lady.

“Instead of having all of these actors in the show, because we were trying to not have too many people in the building, the show was mostly puppets,” Werth says. Production staff brought supplies from the shops to their homes, where they built the cardboard puppets.

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“Like me, you never know if maybe you’re going to fall in love with this space.”

MFA student David Arevalo

Rae MacCarthy, a McCormick third-year, finds that their work-study job in the prop shop helps them with their mechanical engineering major by improving their problem-solving skills. They like that their job has so much variety, whether it involves sewing together brightly colored umbrellas for Last Stop on Market Street or laying inside a casket for Fun Home to screw in brackets to make it sturdier.

“It was partly due to me that the casket did not collapse while people were dancing on it, and that was pretty cool,” MacCarthy says.

Brendan Riley, a Communication fourth-year, loves his work-study job in the costume shop because he enjoys working with his hands. In fall 2019, he was an associate costume designer for the Imagine U production of Winnie the Pooh. Riley's favorite piece that he created for the show was a winged cape for the owl character, who was played by his friend Ruchir Khazanchi.

“Just seeing him inhabit this character and let these wings be part of that, that was really gratifying,” Riley says.

Many of the production staff members also offer their help to undergraduates who are working on projects outside of the Wirtz Center's purview. Wych says that staff is open to answering questions and helping students produce "the best show possible."

“The permanent staff that work in the costume shop, we’re all professionals that have been doing this for a really long time, so our goal is obviously to give the students the best quality work that we can,” Werth says. “We’re working hard, [so] come to the shows, and you can see it for yourself.”

Arevalo echoes that undergraduates shouldn’t hesitate to stop by the production shops. He was inspired to start designing costumes after visiting the costume shop at his undergraduate alma mater. “This is your space too,” he says. “Like me, you never know if maybe you’re going to fall in love with this space.”