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Q&A with Karin Rabe

Alley Theatre suffered some of the worst damage in the Theater District during Hurricane Harvey. The building took on more than 31 million pounds of water in the Neuhaus Theatre lobby and basement level, damaging more than 84,000 props and 60 years of Alley history. The Alley’s properties master Karin Rabe explains the extent of the damage, the hard work that went into salvaging the props, and the moving support of the Houston community during one of the most challenging periods in the Alley’s history.

How long have you been the properties master and what exactly do you do?
I am closing in on 14 years as the properties master. If you imagine when you move into a house or apartment, it’s just an empty space. The prop department provides everything that makes a home: rugs, furniture, hand props, china, etc. We do a lot of murder mysteries here, so we provide a lot of weapons as well! We make sure every object is specialized for how the actor needs to use it, and that it works correctly each time.

What was your first thought when you were able to get inside the theater and see the damage?
Harvey hit Sunday; and Friday I saw the prop stock for the first time. I went down with Ten Eyck Swackhamer, our general manager. He was concerned with how I would take it, but I’d had a few days to imagine what it would look like. When I saw everything it actually wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. I equate it with going to an open-casket funeral. You put all this time, energy, and love into all this work and then once I saw what was gone, I could start accepting it and get to work seeing what could be saved.

What was lost, and what were you able to salvage?
A week after Hurricane Harvey hit, most of the water had been pumped out of the Alley. We had 84,000 props in our basement. We ended up salvaging about 7,000 of those – primarily china, glassware, vases, and decorative items. Basically, things with hard surfaces that could be cleaned. We lost all of our luggage, foliage, rugs, paper goods, and all of our technology. We are in our 71st season, and there were props down there that go back 60 years. Many of our items were used and reused, so they’ve been in many shows.

Talk about the restoration process.
We spent eight days in the basement inventorying and salvaging items, then spent four weeks cleaning. This left us with about two and a half weeks to start getting ready for our holiday production, A Christmas Carol. It took us three months to build the original props, so two and a half weeks was a bit tight. We bought a lot of items and built the rest as quick as we could. I have an amazing team of artisans. We have six people on staff, and they put their hearts into it. Fortunately we were able to save the big pieces by moving them before the storm. That was our saving grace.

How are you moving forward?
We’re going to have to, as each show comes up, adjust the expectations of what we can provide for rehearsal. We’re going to be doing a lot more shopping, building, and soliciting of donations. It’s going to take a while. While I’m not surprised at the resiliency of the Alley, or my staff, I am happy to see how quickly we’re bouncing back and how my shop, in particular, fared when faced with an enormous challenge. Change is not easy, but everyone is taking it with such grace and providing so much assistance. It’s overwhelming and incredible at the same time.

Final thoughts?
The community has been instrumental in the recovery of the Alley as a whole, and of the prop department. I cried the first night of A Christmas Carol to see the audience back in our theater. It was an amazing reception. Beyond that, there were a few groups integral to recovery we could not have done without. Steve Pine from Museum of Fine Arts Houston contacted me within days after Harvey to offer assistance through National Heritage Responders. They brought in three experts to help us determine what could be saved and how to clean it. When we first went in our weapons room we had all these gorgeous swords that were rusting. A gentleman from College of the Mainland, H. Russ Brown, volunteered himself and his students to clean the swords. They cleaned them, restored them and brought them back. I can’t say enough about how much all of this means to me, to the prop shop, and to the Alley.

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