Montana Cymbeline: Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

Montana Cymbeline: Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Aug 04, 2021 at 12:47 PM in Project News

After a holiday break in July, Cymbeline in the Anthropocene is back with a lively and insightful blog-interview with the designer of the visually striking and beautifully crafted props for the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks production of Cymbeline, currently on summer tour until early September.  

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: How did you get into the business of designing props?

Nova Grayson Casillo: I got into it by going to college to become a math teacher and combining it with my love of theatre from high school, where I discovered the behind-the-scenes technical work of theatre, and that technical theatre fit more with my love of math and allowed me to be creative. I realized I could bring a mathematical mind for detail to the designing and crafting of props in many areas, such as woodworking, carving, sewing etc.

CA: Are you a Montanan?

NGC: No, I’m originally from western New York state, and I’ve worked with Montana Shakespeare in the Parks since 2018. They approached me to work with them. My fiancée and I now live in Cumberland, Maryland.

CA: Had you worked with Cymbeline before?

NGC: Not at all! But joining the production later than the rest of the team, I fell in this year with Denise [Massman, costume designer for MSIP’s Cymbeline; see July 9 2021 blog, “Denise Massman on Costuming Montana Shakespeare in the Parks] and followed the three worlds she used to think about the play visually [the court, Rome, and Wales]. They helped me to picture the things that people have with them even if they are not specifically requested props, and to make the characters stand out. For example Cloten’s cane-sword [which serves as a kind of military swagger stick]. They are the kind of things that place a person in society. And specifically in relation to the switch of Belarius to Belaria, and the contrast [to Cloten] of her being kind of like mother nature, and reusing everything and being thoughtful. That’s the major shift for me, of being conscious of what you are using and how you are using things, and in contrast to using this [cane-sword] because it’s cool.

CA: Can you tell me more about the cane-sword?

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo
Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

NGC: We decided to give Cloten a cane-sword to indicate his upper-class status, like a walking stick, something that they do not need, and also to serve as his secret weapon. And we also put a skull on it, carved out of antler, and that was a decision between me and Andrew Rathburger, the fight choreographer, and actor and Tour Manager, Riley O'Toole.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

The skull can be a lot of things to different people, but I think for Cloten it means that he knows he has this weapon of destruction and death, it’s just hidden.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

So that when it’s revealed, you can think back to other moments when he had his cane, and if he had thought of pulling it out. I made the shaft out of oak and I carved it in a spiral to emulate a narwhal tusk. I kept the natural wet look of it to fit into the palate of the [court] world. I’ve always been fascinated about things that Victorians had made of narwhal, it’s so ridiculous, and beautiful, but wasteful. 

CA: Absolutely, it’s conspicuous consumption, like the ethos suggested by the garish colours and over-accessorized world of the court [in Denise Massman’s costumes].

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

That’s also interesting because a cane is a crutch, a sign of weakness, and suggests vulnerability and defensiveness, as well as empowerment as a secret sword. Something he can pull out to intimidate “lesser” beings, as he does with Cadwal in Wales.

NGC: Yes, and, in the way Cloten was turned into a bit of a clown [in this production], it becomes a kind of drum-major stick.

CA: In one of the photos, I saw Cloten holding a lime green ball with studs in it. What is it?

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

NGC: Oh, actually, it’s made from a neon softball, and it has studs (upholstery tacks) in it, because the text references Cloten playing bowls, which is sort of like a version of bocce. It wasn’t necessary for the scene, but the actor asked for something to justify [his character]. And so there were two of those [larger bowls] and the ball that you would aim at. It’s based on antique ones, they were made of wood, but they were destroyed too easily. So they covered them with nails so that they would be more durable. I liked keeping the neon over-the-topness of that [court] world, and still having an antique look to it….

CA: You mentioned that over the course of the summer tour, the production will evolve. Did any or your props evolve, in performance or in your creative imagination?

NGC: There was definitely a lot of evolution. Some of it was narrowing down what was physically possible, and within the time constraints to build all of this. For example the Romans fight with quarter-staves with a kind of diseased wood look.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

Like the squiggly pattern made by termites or worms underneath bark. I used a method of staining to get that gnarly look. And with the British we went with an octagonal staff, alternating sides with copper and black [the colour palate of the Roman world]….

CA: Imogen in this production is one the characters whose costume changes with different locations and situations. For example her fanny/waist pack when she travels to Wales…. And at her burial, she has some herbs on her chest, put there by Belaria and Cadwal.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

NGC: There’s nothing specific about those herbs, but I did pick something that looked more like wildflowers, not outlandish. For Cadwal and Belaria it has beauty by itself, and it doesn’t need to be anything more than that….

CA: And Cadwal carries in a fox and Belaria has a pheasant and rabbit.

NGC: The idea was that they had come back from this three-day hunting trip, where they had gathered all sorts of berries, herbs, and edible flowers, that they would use.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

CA: So they go foraging, as well as subsistence hunting. That suggests regeneration, recycling, and renewing, of which Wales is the centre of the play.

NGC: Yes, and I tried to give Belaria visually more of that focus on foraging as opposed to Cadwal’s more physically active hunting. In her backpack she has some herbs tucked into the back pocket.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

Because she is a mother nature figure. She has learned to see powers in all those small things, and the way that everything is useful and has its purpose. For example the little bone-chime on the back of Cadwal’s backpack.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

It’s one of these little delights, it serves no practical purpose, but (s)he (or maybe they, I’m not sure if it was every officially decided that Cadwal was female, but I know not male) can do something different with the materials now, for beauty and pleasure.

CA: So, Belaria is a wise woman of the woods, not just of bad experiences of the court, which she’s tried to escape, but she has learnt from nature, because she started off as a courtly person, and Cymbeline’s queen, originally. So she’s gone through a local education in nature. I also noticed she has a prominent jewel in her forehead, like a third eye.

NGC: Yes, and I think that really shows when Cadwal brings back Cloten’s head in a game bag, and she just drops it, and then Belaria says, no, we have to respect these bodies even if they did us wrong.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

 And then they gather the flowers and everything for the burial.

CA: I love the way you’ve built up these textured historical and contemporary layers of character, background, knowledge, and experience that characters carry with them through these props, and are suggested visually. Early in play, for example, the Queen is carrying round a box with her “medicines.”

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

Gretchen Minton [MSIP dramaturge] told me that one evening in rehearsal the bottle inside got so hot [during the June 2021 heatwaves and wildfires in western North America] that it partly melted.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

NGC: Yes. Are you familiar with the antique poison bottles that have the raised patterns and shapes on them so they are identifiable in the dark? So, I wanted to match the Queen’s appearance with a personalized neon orange bottle (which does not exist in real life! So I couldn’t reuse something), and I made one out of resin, not realizing that Montana heat, just at 90F, would start to soften the resin. It started to get a little squishy. And the stopper was also made of the same resin, and they would stick together.

CA: There’s the Anthropocene reaching in right there. Because as this season has been showing us, it’s more than just a hot summer. There’s been extraordinary heat. In BC the previous Canadian record for heat was smashed by nearly 5C, from 45 to nearly 50C – 122F. This is Death Valley stuff. That’s not just, oh well, we’re having a hot summer, things are going on. It reminds me of the MSIP performances of Macbeth in 2017, during the widespread wildfires and smoke that year, when the actors had to wear masks. It’s extraordinary that climate change is now affecting the props.

NGC: And I’ve heard they [MSIP] have sometimes had to move to their indoor, rain locations before because of wildfire smoke [a problem also affecting California theatre festivals; see our March 18 2021 blog, “Outdoor Shakespeare and the California Wildfires”]. Also an issue is the sourcing of materials, and buying the chemicals to make the resin poison bottle, and having it not work as well as intended, and struggling with the waste the melting unexpectedly created. Not much waste, but every time I had to make a new prop or redo something. It made me more conscious about everything.

CA: You sound as if you are very careful about sourcing things you can reuse, that are not wasteful or disposable. There’s a material conversation happening in your production. Is upcycling a practice you’ve observed for some time? [such as the network, EarthShakes Alliance, in which theatre companies voluntarily pledge to pursue best practices and reduce consumption].

NGC: I think definitely. I always been conscious of it, but the more I do this and the longer I do it, I’m realizing the tricks, and also just being able to see things in a different light. Because for instance for [Cloten’s] bocce balls/bowls, I just gave him softballs as rehearsal props, but then I looked at them and I said I don’t need to buy or make anything else, I can adorn these a little bit more, and that served my purpose more than I meant it too. And I do try to reuse and pull things from stock as much as possible. But when you are creating a different world like this, it definitely gets harder, or making speciality things, like Cloten’s cane-sword. I could buy an antique, but then we can’t use it to fight with….

I am constantly digging through the machine-scrappings. The wood that I used came out of there. And fabrics, because I often need so little, not a yard…. Pisanio’s shoulder-bag and cloak-bag, which he brings disguises in, are made of recycled vinyl billboard bags, and we found ones that matched his colour palate.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

I thought, if anyone in the court world is going to be conscious of that practice, it would be Pisanio.

CA: Has this production been particularly meaningful or valuable to your professional life?

NGC: Definitely. Specifically having a focus on what humans past and present are doing to your environment. It’s made me think about what that looks like, and what it means to me making the props. Because before this I’ve always tried to be eco-friendly, but it’s made me hyperfocus on that. And in some ways I started finding a balance of, I can make this thing and source it eco-friendly without being wasteful, [and] without making it look like it is. In some things I achieved that, and in some things I didn’t, they were just sort of wasteful for the purpose of looking that way for the production.

But the process has made me think of different ways of building and where to source things from. Like the metal I got for making Cloten’s cane sword from, I had never worked with brass before.

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo

But instead of just ordering a bar of brass, I went down to Pacific Steel & Recycling scrap in Bozeman and dug through their brass scrap until I found the right pieces I needed. And just realizing that there are all these local supplies and services that we have but I would sometimes overlook for convenience.

CA: So you were discovering new pathways of foraging yourself. Wonderful! That does sound like a growing experience. And it also sounds like that’s been true for many people on this production. They’ve been energized by the fact that it’s an unfamiliar play, so they had to become inventive in stretching ways.   

This has been so interesting, Nova, and I’m really glad to have met you. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time today.

NGC: Thank you, you too!

Montana Cymbeline:  Interview with props designer Nova Grayson Casillo