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Crafting his own history

Seán McArdle ’94 fashioned his career through a love of theatre, handiwork as a props designer.
 

By Lucas Fahrer

 

New York City’s Joseph Papp Public Theater is a theatre lover’s paradise.

 

Opened in 1954, its stages—and Delacorte Theater, The Public’s summer retreat in Central Park for Shakespeare in the Park—have played host to some historic showings, from the musical “Hair” to the off-Broadway debut of “Hamilton.”

 

(Yes, that “Hamilton,” which netted 11 Tony Awards including Best Musical this year.)

 

So when a theatre aficionado like Seán McArdle ’94 set foot in The Public for a job interview in 2002, he was awestruck—but also painfully reminded of his short attention span in his theatre history class at Doane.

 

The production manager led him on a tour of each of The Public’s stages. First, a stop in Anspacher Theater where “Hair” premiered in 1967.

“Wow,” Seán thought to himself, “maybe I should’ve paid attention in theatre history class.”

 

Next, the Newman Theater, where “A Chorus Line” opened off-Broadway.

 

“I really should’ve paid attention in theatre history class,” he thought.

 

And for the final act, he was led upstairs to the administrative offices where karma struck a third time. Hanging on the wall was a poster of Raúl Juliá as Mack the Knife in “The Threepenny Opera.” It was the exact same poster that used to hang in the office of one Dr. Charles Railsback, the former head of Doane’s theatre department.

 

“Charles taught that theatre history class that I didn’t pay attention in,” Seán says. “When I saw that poster that I’d been seeing since I was 12, I went ‘I really should’ve paid attention in theatre history class! It might’ve been relevant to this job interview.’”

 

As luck would have it, it wasn’t the industry’s history that he needed to get the job. It was his ability to make his own.

 

Now, 14 years later as a master props craftsman in Minneapolis and the owner of his own prop fabrication business, Seán has his own history in the field.

The Public was the kind of challenge that built him into the artisan he is today.

 

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I had the resume for it,” says Seán, who won Doane’s 2007 Young Alumni Award. “I look back and I didn’t have the experience for it, but I didn’t know anybody else who was crazy enough to do the job without an assistant.”

 

It’s one chapter of many in what he calls his “theatre origin story.”

 

Act I

In which Seán searches for a “viable career path.”

 

It all started in Crete, where Seán grew up in a family deeply tied to Doane.

 

His parents, Pat ’68 and Eunice Kemper ’70 McArdle, were among several family members that attended Doane.

 

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Seán fondly remembers the Nebraska Theatre Caravan—the touring arm of the Omaha Community Playhouse—starting its annual roadshow in Crete, and he was always there, ready to lend a helping hand. He volunteered to unload their trucks, full of props and costumes and equipment.

 

When he was 12, he latched on to Doane Summer Theatre, a community program that put on a show every summer.

 

At Crete High School, he stayed involved in school theatre productions, but it just wasn’t enough. He wanted more work. Bigger work.

 

“When I got into high school, the theatre bug was biting me harder and harder,” he says. “I figured out that I could go over and actually volunteer for Doane College Theatre when I was in high school. I started doing that my sophomore year.”

 

So he crossed 13th Street and pitched in for a few hours after school, working in the theatre prop shop. Sometimes, he even spent his Saturdays there, too.

 

That’s how he met Juli Burney, a former technical director for the department (1986-91) and now an organizational communication instructor at Doane’s Lincoln campus. She took him under her wing and showed him the ropes of what goes into a theatre production.

 

He quickly found an affinity for not acting. Behind the scenes is where Seán always felt at home and how he could tap into his imagination.

 

“He was very creative. He was wonderful to turn to for brainstorming ideas,” says Juli, who still dabbles in theatre from time to time with the Lincoln Community Playhouse. “Plus he had a true talent for art, whether it was building props or drawing pictures. He just had a great visual eye.”

 

Seán put his skills to work back when all of Doane’s theatre productions were in Heckman Auditorium, while Whitcomb Lee Conservatory—now a sort of black box theater space for all of the department’s shows—was just used for storage. He remembers being at the forefront of experimenting with productions in new spaces on campus, like Gaylord Hall’s DCTV studio.

 

In the technical side of the theatre, trial and error is commonplace, and he learned that skill early and often. To test his skills in video design, before he even knew how to work the proper technology, he took some ... creative liberties.

 

“I was literally stealing VCRs from quad mates and editing back and forth on general, old VCRs. It was terrible,” Seán says. “I figured out how to hook it up to my computer and I did a weird computer morph animation, and it was just enough that we were proud of what we came up with with so little resources.”

 

Those small victories kept him fascinated with the craft, but it also led him to become much more involved in Doane Theatre than the rest of his education.

 

“I did theatre to the extent that it got me in trouble with other classes,” he says, “because I was one of those guys that had a tendency to spend all of my time in the theater rather than lab time for geology class.”

 

Juli set him straight. She was the one that finally steered him from considering theatre a passion to a career path. After a show, he and Juli were talking with his parents, who had their hesitations that Seán could actually make a living in theatre.

 

His dad, Pat, wasn’t so sure it was a “viable career path.” Juli thought otherwise.

 

“I said that he had the potential to do whatever he wanted to do and to make some good money,” Juli says. “He and his dad, that’s a conversation we had on a couple of occasions. I’m kind of proud that I proved him right on that one.”

 

Then Seán got serious with his career path. He became the department’s student unifying technical director, working as Juli’s second-in-command in the scene shop 4-6 p.m. every day after school and 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. on Saturdays. He took a year off from Doane to study abroad in the United Kingdom, taking fine art and Shakespeare classes at the University of Sunderland in Northeastern England.

 

When he was back stateside, he kept picking up experience wherever he could find it.

 

Juli connected him with the Lied Center’s Nebraska Repertory Theatre in Lincoln, getting him into an assistant prop master position. By the end of that summer, he took over as the head prop master.

 

He worked on the shift crew for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, his first large-scale, professional summer stock job in theatre.

 

After graduating from Doane with his bachelors’ in theatre and fine art, he picked up a few theatre jobs but decided to audition for theatre graduate school.

 

Despite what he calls a “rough portfolio,” Seán was accepted into the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s set design program even though he had little experience in it. His graduate assistantship placed him in UI’s prop shop under the tutelage of Jim Guy, who had worked at the Cleveland Playhouse and later went on to become Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s prop master.

 

Within a matter of a months, he convinced Seán to switch into his Master of Fine Arts prop design and management program.

 

“I was working everyday with Jim anyway and it was obvious that was where my heart was and it was much more interesting to me,” Seán says. “I had landed in one of the only MFA (prop design) programs in the country by complete coincidence.”

 

It was an intensive three years, but again, he’d found the mentor that steered him closer to his career path.

 

“Juli got me on the first leg and Jim got me on the next,” Seán says. “I came out of that program like I’d gotten six years of education in three because of how much information Jim crammed into my head.”

 

Act II

When Seán reaches the stars.

 

In the world of props, the best prop is one that doesn’t make or break the show. It simply functions according to plan.

 

Seán’s seen both sides of the coin.

 

In Sam Shepard’s “Kicking a Dead Horse,” he built a dead horse puppet out of a taxidermied horse form and installed a remote control system that helped it fall into a grave on its own at the end of the play.

 

He’s made Jell-O eyeballs for “King Lear.”

 

Compressed air rifles that could (safely) imitate gunsmoke for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Les Miserables.”

 

“I had to build this stuff and make sure it worked every single time so that it was dependable and something they didn’t have to worry about,” Seán says. “That’s the entire point.”

 

The actor-activated blood packs he worked on for “Macbeth” at the Delacorte weren’t dependable enough. The actor could never get them all to burst over the course of the play.

 

A few years later, he worked on “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” by Rajiv Joseph and found the solution for a similar prop. He patched together a blood rig system macgyvered out of CO2 cartridges, camping equipment and a “DIYers remote for your own garage door.”

 

“Oftentimes, if we’re doing our job right, people shouldn’t know,” Seán says.

 

It’s a lot of trial and error, but over time, it gets easier.

 

Before The Public, he bounced around theatre jobs, starting at Prism Production Services where he built props and shipped them off to plays and movie sets. (One of his first props—a keypad—appeared in the Academy Award-winning film “A Beautiful in Mind” in 2001.)

 

And on any given production, his job means working side-by-side with big names: The late Robin Williams on “Bengal Tiger.” Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage in “Richard III.” Liev Schreiber in “Macbeth.” Sam Shepard and Stephen Rea in “Kicking a Dead Horse,” “Ages of the Moon” and “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations).”

 

In New York City, he worked his way through freelance gigs and plenty of jobs where help was sparse, like his stint at The Public, where he spent the first two years as a one-man prop department.

 

Nevertheless, he got to work with big-time actors. His first day at The Public was a meet and greet with the cast for “Twelfth Night.” Names like Julia Stiles, Oliver Platt, Christopher Lloyd, Jimmy Smits and Zach Braff were on the playbill.

 

“I was like ‘What job did I just get?’”

 

Seán worked on show after show. For productions of Shepard’s own play, “Kicking a Dead Horse” starring Rea, he built props at The Public and then abroad for its London showings. Down the road, Shepard hired him on for the production of “Ages of the Moon,” another play starring Rea, in Dublin.

 

By 2007, his impressive young career led Doane to name him the recipient of the Young Alumni Award.

 

But for the two years after he left The Public, 2008-10, his career became a juggling act of several jobs while he struggled to afford living in New York.

 

“It became a rollercoaster, because I’d either be doing these really super cool gigs that were out of town or I’d be taking every possible gig I could take in New York to make ends meet,” Seán says. “I was off-Broadway prop mastering as many as three shows at a time at theaters like The Atlantic, New York Theater Workshop and The Roundabout.”

 

Eventually, it “priced him out,” but he realized that the best shows he was working on and his favorite projects weren’t in New York anyway. With an extensive network from freelancing, he could afford to set up shop elsewhere and still take jobs around the country.

 

For Seán, Minneapolis became the natural choice.

 

Act III

When Seán goes full circle.

 

Alpha Pi Epsilon fraternity is an artsy bunch.

 

Year in and year out, they take in pledges often seen in Doane’s fine arts programs, whether they’re singing on tour for Doane Choir or putting together productions for Doane Theatre.

 

Seán was that way. And so was Chris Owens ’11.

 

The Benkelman native came to Doane with hopes of going into broadcast journalism only to find his calling with directing in theatre.

 

He used his video editing skills from journalism to land his first job after graduation as an intern at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Through the media and technology team, he ended up working with Seán, a fellow APE who was a guest prop designer for its Humana Festival in 2012.

 

For their show “How We Got On,” Chris watched as Seán bounced around Louisville picking up vintage DJ equipment—and getting it to actually work and function—to bring the show’s 1980s hip hop scene to life.

 

“He makes the most amazing stuff for shows,” Chris says. “The amount of effort and time he puts into his work, and the payoff, is amazing.”

 

Their friendship and professional relationship grew from there. Seán connected Chris with several of his contacts in New York theatre and helped him learn how to network. A few years later, Chris repaid the favor by helping him and some of his friends on a labor of love, “Outopia for Pigeons,” by providing video editing for the show.

 

That’s the kind of thing that his fraternity brothers come together on.

 

“I think it’s what brought us together,” says Chris, who now freelances in theatre while working at Kehoe Designs, a full-service event company in Chicago. “I think the APEs are just a group of creative people, and when you get a bunch of them together, more creativity happens.”

 

“An Outopia for Pigeons”—featured in a 2014 issue of American Theatre Magazine for its set design—was a full circle experience for Seán. Working with Chris, a fellow Doane Theatre grad, and using an old birdbath from his parents’ backyard in Crete reminded him of home, where his “theatre origin story” started.

 

He hasn’t been back for a few years, but he stays connected to Doane through Juli, Chris and others.

 

When he went to Los Angeles to work on his second run with “Bengal Tiger,” he stayed with Leif Gantvoort ’94—his college roommate and a movie actor.

 

He consults with Dr. Amy Sack Vertin ’95, Crete Area Medical Center’s emergency room doctor, for fluid delivery systems that can double as props.

 

“It’s kind of hilarious to the both of us that we’ve gone on such divergent paths yet we have such weird crossover,” Seán says.

 

Now, he’s moving forward with his own art.

 

Act IV

In which Seán moves onward up-north-ward.

 

Seán’s been happy to call Minnesota home for the last six years.

 

The longer he’s been there, the less he’s traveled. For his freelance business Hero Props, he’s building out of his garage and shipping props around the country rather than traveling to work on-site.

 

He’s worked at the Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis in one role or another since 2010, but for the last two years, he’s been the full-time master prop artisan. It’s a union job, so he’s enjoying the regimented workdays and breaks after years and years of crammed schedules.

 

Under a new artistic director, Seán says the Guthrie has gone from “a dated sensibility” to “an incredibly progressive stance” with a focus on storytelling for people of color. At the theater, he serves on a diversity and inclusivity committee, one of his favorite parts about the job.

 

“We have this newfound focus and it’s an amazing thing to be a part of,” says Seán, whose most recent work for the Guthrie was on its October show, “The Parchman Hour,” which is about the Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights Movement.

 

With Hero Props, he makes both theatre and storefront props. In 2013, Tommy Hilfiger commissioned him to cover Volkswagen Beetles in seashells for displays in New York City and San Francisco. It required a lot of seashells—and a surprisingly small saw to cut the cars in half.

 

Whether it’s for shows or productions, using creativity for a prop is a perk of Seán’s job.

 

“That’s the fun of theatre,” says Chris, who saw the Beetles firsthand during a visit. “You get to work on some weird, fun things.”

 

Seán’s had about every job title possible in the theatre business—artisan, carpenter, designer, fabricator, master—and each has come with “prop” in front of it. His most interesting title? Blood effect designer from his two stints with “Bengal Tiger.”

 

“I’ve met a lot of props people in my time in theatre but I’ve never seen someone as thorough as him, by any shape or form,” Chris says. “A good attitude and a friendly personality, too. That ‘Nebraska charm,’ if you will.”

 

His artistic mind made him succeed every step of the way, and now it’s what he wants to focus on.

 

“So much of my career has been spent fulfilling the visions of other people,” he says, “and I’m starting to find out what I want to do with the skills that I have and the resources I have.”

 

“I’m so glad that we were able to put his talents to work with his artistic ability, and intellectually he’s on top of things,” says Juli, now in her 30th year teaching at Doane. “It’s wonderful that he could put all of that talent to work in the theatre world, where he loves to be.”

 

Settled in Minneapolis and a few years removed from the hustle and bustle of New York theatre, Seán’s happy where he’s at. Now he can sit back and watch the magic happen.

 

“What’s fun for me now is to watch the people who, when I was there, and would be in these roles doing Shakespeare in the Park before they find any real fame, and then watching their careers take off,” says Seán, name-dropping Oscar Isaac (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and Brian Tyree Henry (In FX’s “Atlanta”) as two up-and-comers he worked with in New York.

 

Yes, he’s plenty happy with his history.

 

And for the record, he’s glad he didn’t choose the acting path.

 

“If I wanted applause, I would’ve been an actor,” Seán says. “Last time I acted was at Doane and I got my fill because it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. To be honest, I’ve worked a lot more regularly because of that decision.”