Its been a while since I’ve made a prop. Lets be specific: It’s been a while since I’ve developed a prop. Which is a very different process. Making props happens all the time. Whenever you hand an actor a piece of paper to be a letter, or an umbrella or a hat or whatever, you made a prop.
Developing a prop involves thinking about what the thing is used for and why, and then through a process of trial and error, coming up with a thing that will do the one very specific job the prop has to do onstage. Unlike real things, props are often not what they seem, and built incredibly specifically for one purpose.
Which is to say that I recently developed a pie for a production of Titus Andronicus. If you don’t know the play, you should. It is a dark and difficult story about the disintegration of a man, his family, and his country. Unlike most Shakespeare plays, Titus is almost completely in verse, meaning that the rhythm of the thing drives inexorably forward to its conclusion.
A quick summary of the relevant parts of the plot: Titus comes home from war and a revenge cycle is very quickly instigated when he kills the firstborn son of Tamora, queen of Goths. She, through various machinations, becomes Empress of Rome and sets her sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to avenge the death of her first-born. Ultimately they rape Titus’ daughter Lavinia and cut off of her hands and tongue so that she cannot reveal their identities. At the end of the play, Titus has discovered who was responsible for the rape, murdered Chiron and Demetrius, and baked them into a pie which he has fed to their mother. Then everyone at the table kills everyone else at the table.
In short, a heartwarming romp into Roman history.
The set for this production was super raw. I wanted it to feel bleak and neutral so that the elements that really told the story popped. Essentially, it was a raised platform that connected with the gallery of the theater. Both the platform and the gallery had white ceilings with fluorescent lights added, and we built a goalpost upstage with strip lights to create trees in the forest scenes.
There are 14 deaths/wounds/dismemberments in Titus, but in order to highlight the sense of disgust at Titus’ pie-revenge story (it comes pretty late in the play), we chose not use blood until he kills Chiron and Demetrius.
The blood rig is another story, but all of this is to say THE PIE WAS REALLY IMPORTANT. I wanted the whole audience to feel like it really was made of dead people. It should be deeply uncomfortable to watch them eat the pie in the final scene — all of a sudden, the story should become real, physical, relatable. For me, the design was about the real-ness and texture of the blood when we finally see it, and the pie, juxtaposed with the cold, unforgiving set.
So, I basically wanted a giant medieval meat pie that was stiff enough to cut into slices.
What I learned about these concoctions (actually, the top one is a prop, and not edible, but thats totally what I wanted mine to look like) is that traditionally, the meat pie is a crust made in a huge heavy dish, baked first, then the meat is added on top, and a lid is put on. They were actually more like a medieval “bread bowl” — at large feasts they were brought out with a course in them, then taken back to the kitchen and refilled with the following course.
In fact, they were sometimes used jokingly where the pie would be brought out, the lid lifted, and live birds released… then it would be taken back and refilled with food. Just imagine what a scared bird would do incise a pie crust. Ew.
Anyways, I was into it, except I wanted mine to slice, so the inside needed to be pretty stiff. And we also would need a new one for each performance, so it would have to be cheap to make. Eventually, I was budgeted at $10 per pie.
Oh, and did I mention that the pies had to be gluten and lactose free? You know, to make it more of a challenge.
So heres what I ended up doing:
Using a gluten free baking mix, and crisco instead of butter (I also added an egg for extra stickiness), I made dough. Gluten free flour is very very brittle (its made mostly with rice) and because I also couldn’t use butter, my dough was extremely fragile. I was careful to keep everything very cold as I was rolling it out.
Ultimately, I laid it out on a piece of parchment paper and used a white marble (what better for Titus) rolling pin, so that it could stay very cold. I ended up having to kind of press the dough in pieces into a casserole dish, in which I baked the at 45o degrees for an hour or so.
While it baked, I made the filling. After much deliberation about stiffness and color, I eventually decided on a filling made of mashed potatoes (again, with an egg added for stickiness). I kept the skin on the potatoes for a gristly look, and used beets, ketchup, and gluten free soy sauce (also called tamari) for color. And I just played it by ear in terms of proportions. My hope was that because mashed potatoes get so hard when they are refrigerated, they would also provide some structure for the flaky, flaky crust.
Then, when the crust came out, I added the filling, made a lid, and baked for another 45 mins or so….
I’m pretty sure the sprig of rosemary basically sells the whole experience.
Then, the most important part: I refrigerated the thing for at least 24 hours. I learned the hard way not to freeze it, cause freezing does really weird things to mashed potatoes (one of our tech pies kind of looked like a sponge). Don’t freeze it. Can’t repeat that enough.
Anyways, after 24 hours, I tipped the pie out of the casserole (which was lined with parchment paper so it couldn’t stick), flipped it over again… and voila!
The one above is a test pie (when I was considering a white center)… and heres the real one onstage.
And yes, people groaned. And I grinned in delight.