The backstage area at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House is exactly as cool as you’d think. Everything here is tilted, huge, or floodlit, and the roof is invisible.
Dawn Roth-Golden is walking coolly across the stage. Of the Opera House. It’s clearly her accustomed habitat, and she obviously knows where she’s going and why, but it’s still the stage of the Opera House.
“If a handkerchief begins a scene in the pocket of a performer’s costume," she explains, "and they walk onstage, drop it, and leave without it, then that handkerchief is wardrobe.” I gather my forces and follow; she’s explaining her job as a craftsperson in the props department here, where she has worked on and off for 19 years, and where, she says, it’s her joy to actually build things, to construct and sometimes design them from nothing. “On the other hand," she continues, "if the handkerchief begins the scene onstage, and the performer walks out, picks it up, and leaves the stage holding it, then it’s a prop.”
And if it's a prop, then Dawn Roth-Golden probably made it herself.
Today, as she leads me up stairways and into so many elevators and warrens of offices and workshops that I lose any sense of direction, she motions me over to a railing. We look down onto the world-class stage we'd just been standing on, partially set for the current production of Lucia di Lammermoor. “So we’re on the 2-F shelf right now. The ‘F’ stands for fly-floor, so there’s 2-F, 3-F, 4-F, and then ‘the grid’ is above there.” She points up, and we can see curtains, screens, pipes, and wires, going up higher than the eye can track. Roth-Golden tells me the larger pipes hold electrical wires, and the smaller ones hoist both scenery and the drapes that create the proscenium. “They create the depth,” she says.
Roth-Golden has the kind of energy so many theater people share -- she’s visibly strong, and capable to a near-intimidating degree. You know instinctually not to make a mistake around her, because if you do, she’ll read it back to you, fast. But as with all the other people we meet -- stage electricians, woodworkers, video editors, stagehands, grips -- she’s also battened-down calm. You may depend on her. Always.
“So mainly I do a lot of the soft works, like I did all of that bedding," she says, pointing to a giant set piece identifiable only by the outsized “pillows” at one end. It’s big enough to be a little frightening, like a dream or a nightmare of a bed, very white. “And I upholstered that sofa.” The sofa is a black leather construction, square and mod. From the side, you can see its skeleton is askew, as if it had been blown or pushed backward. The stage is raked, so in order for people to actually be able to sit on the sofa and sing, it had to be made custom. Same goes for the matching metal-frame desk, and chairs, and lamp. From the front, it looks like expensive designer furniture.
Roth-Golden eyes the sofa as we pass, and leans over to smooth an imperceptible puffiness. It’s supposed to be flatter across the front, apparently. And the row of covered buttons on the bottom cushion -- they ought to have been two inches further back to be really authentic, she says. I literally can’t see what she’s talking about and I’m standing right next to her.
I wonder about the longevity of her tenure here, and she immediately brightens to talk about her union. From her earliest involvement in theater -- she went to junior colleges, worked with Luis Valdez’ El Teatro Campesino, and spent many “we did everything ourselves” years with Thunderbird Theatre here in San Francisco -- she says she always knew that to consider herself a professional was to move up and into a union job. “What I love about I.A.T.S.E., and Local 16 especially, is that it’s so apprentice-based. You spend many years going through an apprentice program, where you learn about sound, you learn about rigging, you revisit a lot of mathematics that you in high school swore you would never use again, but then find yourself using on a daily basis.”
As we tour the craft shop, where Roth-Golden’s colleague Sarah Shores is using rainbow-colored children’s tunnel-toys to make a two-headed snake/dragon, my host’s walkie-talkie crackles: “Hello Props. Is there anybody free upstairs that can come hang on the deck? The Patch is a beehive of activity; we’re needing magneting and sweeping.”
Roth-Golden responds instantly, cutting herself off mid-sentence. “I got it. I’ll do it.”
She turns to me, smiling. I don’t know what magneting is, but it’s something she thinks is going to be fun. “Copy that,” she tells the machine.