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REAL PEOPLE: The performer behind the performance
Anjee Whitnah has been the stage and props manager at the Elgin Opera House for the past three performances, and the La Grande woman wields a mother’s authority over the current 25-member cast.
When she speaks, they listen.
On opening night when the actors are scurrying up and down the narrow stairway from the green room in the basement to the wings of the proscenium stage, she’s never far away. Right to the last moment, she is zipping up zippers, securing wigs, putting on hats or crowns and handing the actors props for the scene. They are all put together — thanks to someone they call “mom,” the performer behind the performance.
“Stage manager is the person who runs behind the scenes,” Whitnah said. “She is the one who makes sure the cast is all there. That they’re all on time and are in the places where they need to be during the scenes. The stage manager works out the schedule so we can figure out what we’re going to be rehearsing throughout the run.”
Among her many duties, Whitnah is always prepared for the inevitable emergency. When that zipper rips open on the leading lady’s dress or the toilet-paper roll hats start to unglue, “mom” is in the wings with the hot glue gun, putting the hat together and with safety pins gripped between her teeth, she’s pinning that dress back together just in the nick of time.
She might be heard whispering, “That’ll have to do, now go,” and off the actor runs to the next scene on stage.
Managing Artistic Director Terry Hale said Whitnah is “the queen behind the scene” and indispensable to the success of the performances at the opera house.
Being a stage mom comes naturally for Whitnah.
In real life, she’s the mother of five children, between the ages of 5 and 19. She works full time as a paraeducator in the La Grande School District. Then, after school, she’s off and running to her next five-hour job as stage and props manager at the opera house. Her children often come with her, bringing their homework with them.
Her job starts as soon as she gets her hands on the play script. Immediately, she’s planning the list of necessary props for the cast, working closely with the director. If she can’t find the props at a second-hand store or from donors, she’ll make them herself. In that regard Whitnah has to be creative and resourceful.
“We have a prop room with a ton of things in there from past shows,” Whitnah said. “But I’ve made purses, crowns, hats and spears when I couldn’t find them anywhere else.”
Without a doubt, the busiest props musical for her was “Shrek.”
“That was a 10-person props show, and I only had a couple of extra helpers,” Whitnah said. “That was a massive costume show. We had a eight-person costume department for ‘Shrek.’ In ‘Guys and Dolls,’ I have about 70 props to prepare, like gardenias, carnations, 1950s hat boxes, bracelets, martini glasses and silver filigree trays.”
Some of the most unusual props that Whitnah has created were from “Shrek.” She and her prop helpers had to make most of the props for that musical because they could not be found anywhere. After all, where would you find a gingerbread man puppet named Gingi? Whitnah said it was a lot of fun to make the puppet.
The stage “mom” has a busy year of productions ahead of her.
“We start rehearsals for ‘Oklahoma’ on Jan. 6,” Whitnah said. “I won’t be reading the script, though, until after ‘Guys and Dolls’ is over. But when I start looking for props, I’ll see what I can find first. Otherwise, I’ll put the word out on my Facebook page.”
She’s done that before with good results. In the dream scene in “Grease,” Whitnah had to make bonnets out of the cores of toilet paper rolls. These were painted and glued together and then worn on the heads of the girls.
“I needed about 400 to 500 rolls, and we don’t use that much toilet paper before a show, so I put the word out on Facebook. Pretty soon I had bags of them donated to me,” she said. “Now that was an unusual request.”