Anne's 'ice cream' — and other secrets from the Confederation Centre props department

From fake to fantastic, the props department at Confederation Centre's collection of thousands of items from A to Z is a 'theatre designer's eye candy.'

The huge warehouse carries thousands of items, from strawberries to toilets

Anne of Green Gables, played by A.J. Bridel, gets a face full of ice cream — or is it? — during a scene from the musical. Playing Gilbert is Aaron Hastelow. (Louise Vessey)

It's a fun little game we're playing. I simply imagine an item I'd like to see, and Kathleen Ross, head of props for the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, finds it.

How about a juicy red strawberry?

"Strawberries would be over in the fake food section," says Ross, dragging me through the maze of shelves at the centre's huge prop department in a warehouse in an industrial park.

In less than 30 seconds, Ross proudly holds up a silver platter of strawberries that look good enough to eat.

Kathleen Ross, head of the prop department at Confederation Centre of the Arts, has thousands of props at her fingertips. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Unfortunately, they're made from foam. And they're glued to the tray to keep them from falling onto the stage floor. 

"In all theatre applications, it's best not to have anything on the loose," Ross said. "The stage hands do scene changes and it's very hard to get hold of a roving strawberry."  

'Everything from A to Z'

It's an indication of just how many props Ross has at her disposal. Thousands, she guesses — "everything from A to Z."

Since I didn't want a strawberry, Ross, the ever gracious host, offers me some some tasty-looking cucumber sandwiches. "Foam, and little pieces of wood. Painted."

'It's best not to have anything on the loose,' Ross says. 'Stage hands have to do scene changes and it's very hard to get hold of a roving strawberry.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

Everything looks so real, but sometimes it's a bit too real. For example, that iconic scene from Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, when Gilbert calls Anne "carrots" and she loses her temper and breaks a slate over his head. 

At the start of each season, especially if there are new actors in the roles, Anne has to practise hitting Gilbert with the breakaway wooden masonite slate. 

'Some Annes have really bad aim'

"We have experienced some Gilberts with larger heads and some Annes with really bad aim, so we've had nose injuries and a few incidents," Ross said. 

The wooden slates are now made of foam. "It's a little softer if the nose or ears get caught."

Shayna Johnston shows an oversized guitar from the props department. (Pat Martel/CBC)

And there's that funny scene where someone accidentally shoves an ice cream cone into Anne's face, and she gets her first taste of something that looks like ice cream. 

'Boom! into the face'

But, as you might have guessed, it's not really ice cream. It starts out as a a foam ball on top of a cardboard cone, Ross explained, "and then I would slather it at a certain point in the show with Cool Whip, and then, Boom! into the face."

Sometimes Ross needs to improvise, like when the actor playing Anne was allergic to Cool Whip.

"Because she was lactose intolerant, we skipped up to coconut whip."

Wobbly fake drinks glued to a tray come in handy when an actor has to pretend to be a stumbling waiter. (Pat Martel/CBC)

One other spoiler alert from the Anne musical. During the egg-on-a-spoon-in the-mouth race, the dancers never drop an egg. "Fake eggs, made by us." And glued on.

For health reasons, each person has their own prop. "They are never mixed up," Ross said. "And everything is always sanitized and washed whether it's a pipe or whether it's an egg on a spoon."

Some props are real

While many of the props are fake and have to be made from scratch, Ross often buys real items, like a fancy set of Blue Willow china tea cups. She finds many of her props online, but she still visits flea markets and antique dealers.

A huge Chinese Lion costume is Ross's favourite costume. (Pat Martel/CBC)

One of the most difficult props to find was a vintage chair for Million Dollar Quartet.

"It took a lot of searching, but then in the end I did have to go with a new one that looked old. And I could have sold that chair about a hundred times. A lot of people loved it. They loved the look of it, they loved the feel of it and it looked really good on the set."

'Catalogued in people's minds'

Keeping track of the thousands of props on the numerous shelves is daunting. Ross plans to eventually put them onto a searchable data base.

"They are in fact catalogued in people's minds right now, including mine," she said.

There's a reason dancers in Anne of Green Gables: The Musical never drop an egg during the spoon race. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Ross said props not only have to look good, they have to be built well.

"Those are all props, things that people carry, things that people eat, things that people sit on," Ross said. "If has to be on wheels, it has to be strong enough for people to stand on, dance on. It's a lot of things to consider."

'It's like eye candy'

The props department doesn't have room to keep every item that's been used over the years, but what they do keep, they use a lot.

"For a theatre designer, it's like eye candy," Ross said. 

This toilet was used in The Full Monty. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Ross has a favourite prop. It a huge Chinese Lion costume that's big enough for two people to get inside.

"They were brought in, but they've been redone quite a few times. I love them because they're colourful."

'Including the kitchen sink'

Before leaving, I ask Ross for one more item that I'm sure she wouldn't have — a toilet. She then leads me to a lower shelf where, lo and behold, there is a toilet.

"This came from the Full Monty," she said. "We have a toilet and a sink, actually. We have everything, including the kitchen sink."

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About the Author

Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning — from a writer-broadcaster to a producer. This year, Pat joined the web team with an eye to create great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He always welcomes great story ideas that are visually appealing.