By: Kristina Ensminger

Elisa Malona never imagined that one day it would be her job to make dead animals dance around a spinning tree stump for Neil Young. “I’ll be rigging these taxidermy woodland creatures for a Neil Young bit or throwing water in Melissa McCarthy’s face while she’s lip syncing and I’ll think…Wow, I get paid for this,” Malona laughed.

As the head of props for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, she’s responsible for creating and curating anything that Jimmy or the guests interact with on the show. Her daily to-do list can range from making tea bags stuffed with goat meat to designing Star Wars weaponry.

Elisa MalonaMalona grew up dancing and acting from a young age, and she dreamed of pursuing her performance career professionally. In theater school, she started working behind the scenes in production and realized there were other paths into the entertainment industry besides acting. Eventually, Malona determined that her role was not on stage, it was backstage, and she dove into the world of props full-time.

Now, she spends her days at The Tonight Show fielding requests for unicorn piñatas filled with fake blood and building spinning guitar rigs. Malona spoke with CreativeFuture from her prop shop inside Studio 6B at 30 Rock to discuss her journey from the performing arts to props, why failure is important, and what keeps her coming back to the drawing board to face the next challenge.

Kristina Ensminger: Let’s start with the basics. Prop master is short for “property master.” Tell me more about your role in props and what qualifies as a prop on set.

Elisa Malona: If an item is static, then it’s considered scenery. If the actor moves it, interacts with it, or touches it – then it’s a prop. Hand props are things that actors handle or walk around with – a glass, a book, something they can eat or drink. Then there are set props that actors might interact with but are technically static, like furniture. There are also trim props that just hang there and look pretty. The list goes on and on…

KE: Who was it that opened your eyes to the world of props initially? I’m assuming you didn’t dream of becoming a prop master as a kid.

EM: I came into the world of entertainment as a performer. I’d been acting and dancing since I was a kid. When I was an undergrad in theater school, my voice teacher asked me, “Do you want to be in this industry? Or do you want to be an actor? There’s a difference.” I’d never really thought about it that way. I decided I wanted to be in the industry, so my teacher encouraged me to find a skill or a trade in production to pay the bills while I was acting on the side.

Hand Props

KE: You were already working production gigs in school?

EM: That’s how my theater program worked – it was very practical. Everyone wants to be an actor. Or everyone thinks they want to be an actor. Luckily, the school knew that there was much more to the industry than acting, so they forced us to see beyond our discipline and do a rotation in every department.

KE: When did you realize production was a legitimate career path? What were your first experiences in the world of props?

EM: When I was a teenager, I was hired as the assistant choreographer for a community theater production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The director and I were trying to figure out how to do this sequence with cows in a field and design clever costumes on a small budget. We came up with this idea to get white baseball caps and stitch felt cow horns onto them. I made patterns for the horns and stitched all of them under my desk during fourth period in high school. That was my first experience with something beyond the performance element.

KE: That was your first hint that there was something more to putting on a show than being one of the actors on stage?

EM: Yes! Technically, those hats were costume pieces, but that’s a great example of how things work in the world of props. The idea comes up (like making cow horn hats), and you have no blueprint or example of how to create this random thing you’ve never seen before. So, you get curious, you rely on the people around you who have different experiences and skills, and you put your heads together.

And, coincidentally, my second run-in with props also involved a cow! I was the stage manager for a college production of Into the Woods, and we made a papier-mâché cow that was supposed to fall over on my cue. On opening night, I went to pull the cow over, and the line snapped. And…the cow did not fall over. The actor saw what happened and he kicked the cow over without looking, turned around, said his line, and the show went on.

KE: So, you already had a few production gigs on your résumé when you graduated. Did you go straight into production work from theater school or were you still pursuing acting at that point?

EM: After theater school, I moved to New York for grad school. While I was studying for my master’s in acting, I took a class with the associate artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club, Michael Bush. By the end of grad school, I’d mostly transitioned out of the acting world. After I graduated, I got hired as a production assistant at the Manhattan Theater Club – that was my first paid gig doing props.

KE: And how did that translate into working in television?

EM: An old contact from the Manhattan Theater Club called me and brought me in for a random gig at The Today Show as a prop shopper. They realized pretty quickly that I knew what I was doing – I could do outside props and I could build things – so they hired me as a full-time freelancer. I was working for The Today Show during the day, and I was still running theater productions six nights per week, and that went on for about two years.

Eventually, it was time to make a choice. After a couple of years straddling both worlds, I met my partner, who is now my husband, and he was on a daytime schedule, so the choice to segue out of my nights in the theater seemed fairly obvious.

KE: And that choice is what led you to the opportunity with Jimmy…

EM: The woman who initially hired me at The Today Show got a job as the outside prop master on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. She asked me to join the Late Night team, and that was when I decided to leave theater behind and focus on props full-time.

KE: Did you ever imagine when you started working as a freelance assistant for The Today Show that you’d be the head of props for The Tonight Show?

EM: There was no way anyone could’ve predicted that Jimmy would become the host of The Tonight Show back then. About two years into my gig as a freelance assistant at Late Night, the head of studio props who’d hired me left for another show, so they were looking for someone to fill that role. I applied for it on a whim, and they hired me as the head of props. Later, when Jimmy was chosen as the next host of The Tonight Show, that was a huge stroke of luck. Not for him, he was born for that role, but it was lucky for me.

KE: What is the studio setup like at 30 Rock? Is it like playing a game of Tetris with all the moving parts on set?

EM: It’s like creating a theater performance every single night, including rehearsals, tech, show, and tear down – all inside an office building! This particular studio filmed local news before The Tonight Show returned to New York, so there was no infrastructure to support the amount of production we do on a daily basis. Now that we’re in our third year here, all the support details are finally falling into place.

KE: Tell us about some of the items inside your prop shop.

EM: We have a whole kitchen pantry – there are definitely more food props on this show than I anticipated. Rhett & Link from Good Mythical Morning were on the show, and they did a segment with tea. So, we made a bunch of weird teas – taco tea, ghost pepper tea, deodorant tea, and others. We also cranked out some ‘90s ice cream treats in record time for another bit, but that got cut and didn’t make it on air.

KE: Is it disappointing when you’ve worked so hard to create something, and then it gets cut for time?

EM: My team and I have discussed this, and we don’t mind when things get cut. Because for us it’s about the challenge – being presented with this strange task, finding a way to bring this idea to life. We’re perfectly okay if it never sees the light of day. The real satisfaction comes from figuring out how to solve the problem, not necessarily from the use of the prop on air. Although, it’s nice when we nail something.

KE: Tell me about a time when you and your team nailed it.

EM: One night at like 7 PM, as we were closing up shop, we heard from the producer that Felicity Jones [Rogue One: A Star Wars Story] wanted to show Jimmy some of her battle moves. Rogue One wasn’t out yet, so we didn’t even know what her weapon looked like, and the studio couldn’t send us the one she used in the film.

So, we had to recreate Jyn Erso’s [her character’s] baton from scratch in a matter of hours just by looking at a photo. This one had me sweating. I mean, it was Star Wars! I’m sure the prop people at Lucasfilm are some of the best in the biz. And they probably had more than a few hours to figure out the design. So, you know, no pressure!

KE: Where do you begin with a project like that? Do you just stare blankly into the prop closet until you get an idea?

EM: Well, we found this super fan online who’d done a 3D rendering of the baton, which helped us understand the scale a bit better. I started digging around in this bin of sticks I’d been collecting in the prop shop. Prop masters are kind of like hoarders – we’re really good at knowing the inherent worth of trash. Then we found this counter grip you line drawers with, and I asked the scenic crew to wrap the baton in silver vinyl and varnish it.

We literally pulled pieces out of the trash to make this baton that someone probably spent a lot of time and money to create for the film. When Felicity used it for rehearsals, and I think this even made it on air, she was surprised by how realistic it looked and told Jimmy he had a great studio team.

KE: That seems like a gold star moment. Especially since the praise came from Jyn Erso herself!

EM: The baton looks simplistic when you see it. And sometimes it’s hard to share these moments of pride because people see the prop and they’re like, “Yeah, whatever, my son could make that.” But we’re limited by so many factors, and we’re always racing against the clock, so it’s pretty amazing that we’re able to create anything under those circumstances.

KE: What’s one of the not-quite-possible requests you’ve received?

EM: I once got a request for a unicorn piñata filled with fake blood. And the body of the unicorn needed to be transparent so you could actually see the fake blood inside before the piñata was smashed open. It was insane, but it’s my job to execute these crazy ideas. We actually took the time to do the research – we called the vendors and the fabricators – and at the end of the day, we decided it wasn’t possible. It’s rare that something is a straight no like that, but this was an exception.

KE: That’s not exactly something you could find on Amazon.

EM: Yeah, the Amazon thing is interesting. Something that’s troubling in the digital age is that we’re moving away from one-on-one relationships. I love being able to pick up the phone, call a vendor or a fabricator, and say, “You’re never going to believe this…” There’s a human connection factor – it’s a collaboration. You can’t do that with a seller on Amazon. And it’s a lot more fun to be able to pick up the phone and tell someone you’re looking for a see-through unicorn piñata filled with fake blood than it is to search for one online.

KE: Was there ever a time when you attempted to execute something, and it failed – a moment when the cow didn’t fall over?

EM: Well, we spent a few days developing spinning guitar rigs for a ZZ Top-inspired bit. And we actually figured it out! We got video of the guitars spinning and sent it to the producers – they loved it. We had stand-in rehearsals, and we did stress tests – everything seemed great. Then the talent walked on set, spun one of the guitars around a few times, and the rig snapped.

My assistant and I were in the hallway with this broken rig and only a minute or two before we went live. We pinned up the guitar, did what we could, and the rig snapped again. That was a super fail on our end. But that’s part of what happens when you’re reinventing the wheel every day. We worked really hard on it, we failed, and we learned from it. Sometimes sh*t happens. But I was proud of every moment of that fail.

KE: What excites you most about your job? What keeps you coming back to face the next challenge?

EM: I can honestly say that every single day on this job is different – and that keeps things exciting. I’m constantly doing things I’ve never done before. And, more than anything, I’ve finally found a group of people that I love working with. The human element is a big one for me.

KE: Well, you hired them, right?

EM: Yeah, that definitely helps [laughs]. This job also encompasses so many of my varied interests – I love history, I love physical items, I love learning, I love building things, and I love research. Working in props is about being a jack of all trades and a master of none. Well, technically, I’m a master of props. But what are props? Props are…everything. It’s something different every day.

KE: Who are some of the people in this crew you love working with? Tell me about your team.

EM: I have three production designers and an art director who give me my orders. In addition to my immediate studio crew and our army of shoppers in Outside Props, I also work with a night carpenter, the scenic department, the IT department, the producers, and the writers. I might be the last person to touch the prop before it goes to the talent, but there are so many others involved in the process.

KE: Let’s talk about the next generation – the kids who dream about working in the film or television industries and might not know how many different creative paths there are in those worlds. What would you tell yourself all those years ago when you dreamed of working in the entertainment industry but didn’t know that a job like this existed?

EM: Knowing what I know now, the first thing I’d ask a young person is this: What draws you to acting – is it the process or the product? Is it the performance aspect – being on stage, in the spotlight, in front of an audience? You have to figure out what your motivation is. There’s no right answer here. There’s no good or bad. But it’s important to figure out why you want to go into this industry – that why will help you figure out how to get where you want to go.

KE: So, it’s important to discern whether your interest is in the process of bringing a film or a show to life or whether your passion lies in the performance itself?

EM: Exactly. So, if a young person were to say to me, “I want to be in the entertainment business.” Then I’d ask them what they like about the business. If they said something about the collaborative process – being part of a team or putting on a show – then I’d advise them to get some experience in another part of the industry besides acting.

KE: There is an entire world behind the scenes that makes it possible for actors to do their jobs.

EM: I always loved rehearsal. I enjoyed performing, and of course, I wanted it to go well, but it was really rehearsal that did it for me. That discovery process, world-building, digging in, and finding the character. Then I realized there was another way to build that world – quite literally. If you’re curious about the process, then explore those roles behind the scenes. When I was first starting out, I didn’t know about this whole unseen world of process. Once I found it, I discovered that I’d rather be backstage than on stage. Or, you know, throwing things at people on stage.