Stephen Kolack’s relationship with the theater started very innocently. His two brothers, Greg and Jeff, were part of the Riverside-Brookfield High School theater scene, so when he attended the school from 1977-81 it was only natural he’d gravitate there, too.
“Greg got started at RB and all of us just got bit by the bug,” said Stephen. Later all three worked at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse on Harlem Avenue in Summit before going their own ways.
While his brother Greg liked being out under the spotlight, Stephen and Jeff preferred the action backstage, building sets and running props. Decades later, the Brookfield native is still running the show backstage.
For the past 20 years, Stephen Kolack has been prop head at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, working on every major show the company has produced, both back in its old digs behind the Art Institute of Chicago and its new digs in the Loop.
But at the end of the month, Kolack and his boyfriend, Walt — who’s a set designer — will take on a new challenge by moving to New York City.
Before leaving, however, he took the Landmark on a tour of where the magic starts for the Goodman Theater — the theater’s scene shop, located inside a converted pickle factory just a couple of blocks south of U.S. Cellular Field.
The main area of the scene shop is a vast open space that looks more like a lumber yard than something connected with the theater. In among the stacks of lumber, you can hear the whirr and buzz of table saws making new sets.
There are a couple of storerooms for props and a smaller one upstairs that look like a garage sale from another world, packed with shelves filled with old, leather-covered suitcases, fake weapons, lamps and other one-off props.
On the main floor is a vast storeroom for furniture, everything from modern tables and chairs to throne-like seats that would look comfortable in an Elizabethan-era drama. Other areas of the building are devoted to painting, upholstery and electrical work.
Kolack doesn’t spend a whole lot of time working at the scene shop, maybe just for a couple of weeks in between shows. He is a carpenter, so he’s chipped in on building, as he put it, “making lots of luggage.”
But principally his job has been to “run the shows,” making sure every prop is in place and ready to roll before and during the shows. That includes solving particular problems.
“For King Lear there were 50 dead bodies,” said Kolack, “How do you store them off in the wings?”
For the show Smokefall, there’s a character who eats dirt and drinks paint, so Kolack and company were tasked with making edible dirt (crumbled Oreo cookies and graham crackers) and drinkable paint (yogurt and coconut oil mixed with food coloring). And Kolack has become something of an expert on how blood bags work.
If there’s an actor with dietary restrictions — as inevitably actors will, Kolack said — they have to make sure any food props work around those issues.
In short, Kolack is responsible for making sure everything from chairs, flowers, foods, blood and swords are ready to roll when the curtain goes up for the eight weekly performances.
Throughout his 20 years at the Goodman, Kolack has gotten to work with a number of notable actors and actresses. He’s worked many times with Riverside actors Paula Scrofano and John Reeger.
“They’re both just fantastic,” he said.
He also crossed paths many times at the Goodman with Brian Dennehy and admired the work of Linda Lavin, who starred in Carol Burnett’s Hollywood Arms and Arthur Miller’s Finishing the Picture.
“She’s a real powerhouse,” Kolack said. “She was demanding, but we got along great.”
But his favorite was Chita Rivera. The legendary actress, dancer and singer starred in the Goodman’s production of The Visit, which premiered in Chicago in 2001.
Among the odd props necessary for that show were a sedan chair and a coffin-like box containing two artificial legs, which can still be found on a shelf in the scene shop’s main prop storage area.