Getting to Know You: 20 Questions for Geva’s Props Master

Readers of GevaJournal hear mostly from Sean Daniels, myself and a few other staff members at Geva. But because we create the shows you see on our stages, Geva employs over 50 full-time staff members, many more part-time employees, and we work with hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. I wanted to try to introduce some of them to you, so this summer, I’ve asked members of the Geva staff to take a break from their preparations for next season for a little “20 Questions” activity…

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Anton Chekhov is famously quoted (and I’ll probably misquote him here) as having said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Great advice for writers, and a signal of the importance of props onstage – if it’s there, it should be there for a reason. Mark Bissonnette is Geva’s Props Master, which means that he and his staff are responsible for finding, buying, building, borrowing or otherwise acquiring the props required by each production. That includes the big things (furniture, rugs, etc.), set dressings (books, flowers, etc.), and almost anything an actor needs to use during the play (the list here is kinda endless…). He has a fascinating job – and his part of the building has the most interesting collection of oddities you can imagine…

So, without further ado – 20 Questions for Mark Bissonnette!

JW: Give us your basic details – who are you, where are you from, etc.

MB: I was born and raised on Lake Fenton –  a fairly good-sized lake about 20 miles south of Flint, Michigan. My first job out of college was with Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. I spent 11 seasons there, then went on to my only summer season at Utah Shakespeare Festival before coming to Geva in 1997.

JW: What’s the first play you remember seeing?

MB: Peter Pan, and yes I clapped to save Tink.

JW: Where did you go to school?

I am a graduate of the University of Michigan-Flint with a BA in theatre, and I functioned as the Props Master for the Theatre Dept.

JW: When did you know you were destined to work in a theatre?

I guess that would have been in high school. I was part of the theatre club where I was encouraged to design and act and direct. The theatre advisor was very encouraging and the technical director was a great leader who assumed we could do anything if we had the right mindset.

JW: What would you say is the best part of your job?

I get to do a lot of shopping around the antique and thrift shops and get to have relationships with many of the owners who try to help keep an eye out for things Geva might be interested in. In the shop itself, I enjoy group creative problem solving.

JW: Tell us about a favorite project.

I was assigned the self-flagellation machine for a play in KY. It ended up being a bike with an added sprocket driven hub on extended poles with whips attached. It was a comedy and the bike got a huge reaction every night.

JW: Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Which theatrical giants’ shoulders do you stand on?

Alice Bristly, my high school TD, Paul Owen the resident scenic designer at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and my dad who was forever remodeling our home. That’s where I learned a lot of the creative problem solving.

JW: If you had a job in theatre that wasn’t the one you actually have, what would it be? (Talent for this role is not required…)

Yours. I think it is fantastic that you get joy out of what would drive me crazy. I would be hard pressed to spend as much time as you do in research to have so little of it acknowledge and followed.

JW: Awww. Thanks Mark. (Are you telling me you don’t read my research packets???? I didn’t feel bad about that before, but now…ah, the life of a dramaturg.) When people ask you to describe Rochester, what do you say?

It’s not that different from where I grew up. It’s a small city that has a certain charm and nowhere near as much snow as Buffalo or Syracuse, they get nailed and we generally get off pretty easy as far as winter goes. I guess I talk to a lot of warm weather people.

JW: What’s your favorite Rochester-area attraction?

The parks and Charlotte beach. I like to walk, so all the rails are a big plus for me.

JW; If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only bring a playwright with you (I know – that’s sort of random, isn’t it?), who would you bring?

Bertolt Brecht. I would assume there would be lots of drinking chatting and laughing at very inappropriate things.

JW: Is there a place you haven’t yet been that you’d most like to visit?

Machu Picchu.

JW: What books are on your nightstand right now?

Been there a while but Me Talk Pretty One Day. I don’t read in bed often but if I do I want to laugh myself to sleep.

JW: What are you looking forward to most in the upcoming season?

Clybourne Park. It seems like a good place for us and the audience to visit.

JW: There’s been a rash of kitten and puppy adoption amongst the Geva staff this summer. Are you a dog person or a cat person?

DOG!!! I won’t have another but I do love a good dog. I am happy now that Vetter comes to visit my shop every now and then.

JW: Vetter is adorable (for our readers, he’s facilities manager Kris Stengrevics’ dog). What person from history most interests you?

Leonardo Da Vinci. Duh?

JW: Our first production of the 2013-2014 season features pie – what’s your favorite kind?

Mrs. Bradley’s sweet potato pie. Mrs. Bradley is one of my neighbors and she can bake a pie.

JW: Imagine you are placing an order at a restaurant, and they ask your name for the order. You don’t give them your real name. What name do you give?

I always use ‘Sparkle’ You can hear it and they remember you.

JW: What would we find in the backseat of your car?

Wegman’s bags and my photo shopping bag. It has all the stuff I use while out shopping props.

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