She’s mastered the art, craft of setting the stage

Kristine Holmes is right at home backstage as the Huntington Theatre troupe prop master. Kristine Holmes is right at home backstage as the Huntington Theatre troupe prop master. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / March 21, 2010

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Brockton resident Kristine Holmes is the ultimate scavenger hunter. She has to be: For the past 18 years, she’s worked for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company as the prop master, responsible for finding or fabricating every item that actors wield and work around on stage.

Over the years, she’s supplied everything from an assortment of telescopes and 19th-century hand-held lanterns to a 3-foot-long Slinky dog and a World War II parachute.

“You have to have an eye for this,’’ said Holmes, who has nearly 100 theatrical productions under her belt, “and you have to be able to collaborate with a director and a designer, who have very specific visions for the world they’re creating. If a detail is off or an object is not from the right time period, the audience won’t believe anything the actors might say.’’

The Huntington’s artistic director, Peter DuBois, said Holmes goes way beyond simply gathering items for actors to carry.

“I want the room on stage to tell a story,’’ he said, “and Kris really embraces that and invests in it.’’ For the Huntington’s production of “Becky Shaw,’’ which runs through April 4, DuBois said he was quite specific about its apartment setting. “I told her where these people are in their lives, and Kris came up with the perfect combination of furniture and accessories to reinforce the mood.’’

Holmes admits she could be described as an interior decorator. “Anything that’s not walls or ceilings is my responsibility,’’ she said. “The joke is that if it’s smaller than 10 feet, it’s mine.’’

The Huntington mounts between five and seven shows each season, using the Boston University Theatre and the Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, which adds up to an awful lot of props. With the help of one assistant and an intern, Holmes has to be more than a little creative, and extremely organized. Between the Huntington’s prop rooms, a storage container, her own basement, and a trading arrangement with other area theater companies, she has an extensive assortment of items to draw from, she said.

Still, Holmes said, “There are things I always have my eye out for, like a really cool cigarette case, or a nice set of china, because they break a lot.’’ Plus, every play requires a few things that aren’t so easy to come by.

“Luckily, there are great antiques shops in Norwell, Taunton, and New Bedford I haunt regularly,’’ Holmes said. “The Taunton Antiques Center has multiple dealers on three floors, so the variety of stuff is great and always changing, and Stone House Antiques in Norwell also has unexpected things.’’

Freelance set designer and Boston University professor James Noone said he has worked in nearly every major regional theater across the country, and sees Holmes as one of only a handful of prop masters who grasp what the job entails.

“Kris understands the technical aspect of the job, but she has an artistic soul,’’ he said. “She has such insight, she often sees things I haven’t. Plus she’s sensitive to the actors’ needs, and knows how to find props that help make them comfortable.’’

DuBois and Noone both agree that her unflappable nature is also a major asset. “Colors or shapes may seem perfect until the lights are on them and the actors sit next to them during a final dress rehearsal,’’ said DuBois. “Kris is always ready with a solution, and she really cares about making the props be truthful.’’

When the Huntington mounted a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,’’ where the stage was designed to look like a ship, Holmes had to come up with 19th-century ship’s wheels, compasses, barometers, portholes, spyglasses, and other items to help create the seafaring atmosphere.

“It was great to be able to go to New Bedford, visit several shops specializing in nautical antiques, and really get a feel for the kinds of detail needed,’’ she said.

Knowing where to shop is only part of her responsibilities, though. She also has to know how to build items.

“Being licensed to carry a glue gun and work with spray paint is a prerequisite,’’ she said with a laugh.

Holmes said she got some intensive fabrication training while working for Disney Cruise Lines. “They have a series of shows, including ‘Pirates,’ ‘Disney Dreams,’ ‘Hercules,’ and ‘Castaway Key,’ ’’ she said, “and I built most of the props for those several years ago.’’

As if she weren’t busy enough, Holmes has spent the last eight summers, while the Huntington is dark, working for WGBH’s “Antiques Roadshow’’ as the popular PBS show crisscrosses the country with a 53-foot truck loaded with easels and drapes and other backdrops for the assortment of treasures that are discussed and appraised.

“I don’t clean anything up,’’ she said. “I just want to present the objects in the best possible light, so that the color and texture come through on camera.’’

The schedule for the TV show is hectic, with one travel day, one day for set up, and then one day of taping, but Holmes said she’s used to it.

“I usually spend about three weeks pulling props together for the theater,’’ she said, “but there’s always one or two things that come down to the wire. That’s what makes it fun.’’

Terry Byrne can be reached at

Stage dressing
Here are just a few of the wackier items Kristine Holmes found or fabricated in her long career as a prop master:
► Well-behaved live goat
► 1950s TV cameras
► 3-foot-long Slinky dog
► Dozen oversized bird cages
► 45 ladies’ fans that pop open, snap shut and match the actors’ gowns
► World War II parachute
► 1940s lemonade pitcher
► Replica of the gun used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln
► 19th-century nautical gear
► 1920s bicycle