Unknown Soldier is a musical that traverses time, following Lucy and her granddaughter Ellen from 1918 to 2003. Just as the characters move through the decades, so do the many props that help tell the story of the show! Take a look at some of the amazing things created by the hardworking artisans in the Arena Stage Props Department. 

The Paper Trail

Paper plays a key role in Unknown Soldier – from the letters written by Lucy to her family, to the newspapers documenting the mystery of the “Living Unknown Soldier,” to the medical records Ellen and reference librarian Andrew track down when trying to discover the soldier’s identity and Lucy’s connection to him. Creating and maintaining all this paper – some of it meant to be new, some aged, some well preserved in a university archive – presented a unique challenge for our Props Department. 

Five similar newspapers are used throughout the production to document the story of the titular unidentified World War I soldier. The newspapers were specially designed to feature both the fictional articles referenced in the show and real stories from the era, drawn from sources like Newspapers.com and The New York Times. They’re printed on real newsprint, which Properties Director Jenn Sheetz orders specially from a supply store and picks up in person, to avoid the paper being wrinkled or rolled in the mail. 

Several of the newspapers were created to be “danceable” for the musical number “Where in the World,” where the show’s ensemble portrays reporters following the soldier as he goes on a cross country tour to try to identify his place of origin. The production’s creative team did not want the newspapers to move when the ensemble members dance so double sided carpet tape was placed in the centerfold to hold them together.

Two of the WWI-era newspapers, along with other letters and mementos, are aged, as they’re meant to be discovered in the 2003 timeline. The Props Department aged the paper with a dye toner paint, much like wood stain, to create the proper color. One newspaper gets ripped every night (you gotta see the show to find out why!), which means the team has to keep the production in a continual supply of newspapers. It takes a full day to print 10 newspapers, and with dozens of performances, our plotter is constantly at work printing new papers. 

Fun fact: A prop that gets used and replaced after each performance is called a “consumable.” 

From the Archives

Much of the 2003 action takes place in the Cornell University archives, as Ellen and Andrew try to find out what happened between the soldier and Ellen’s grandmother, Lucy. The archival storage boxes contain prop documents, but they’re also used for the cast to stow objects or to stand or lean on. The boxes are each specially designed for their particular use and many bear a customized Cornell University label. Archival storage boxes typically come in light gray, which dictated the look and feel of many other set pieces. Since the Props team couldn’t find quite the right color to match the boxes, they mixed two kinds of paint to create the perfect combo. 

Of course, we’re not just looking at the formal archives at Cornell; we’re also looking through the personal archives of Lucy and Ellen. That means the set is decorated with lots of letters, postcards, and newspaper clippings, each carefully handcrafted by our Props Department. In fact, for Young Ellen’s history report on the Great War which kicks off the show, Jenn Sheetz painted the cover and wrote out the report in cursive herself.  

A House Is Not A Home

The notion of home and belonging is a key theme in Unknown Soldier. The set is decorated with small model buildings and houses, each painted in the archival grey perfected for the show. They represent the town of Troy, NY, home to the characters of Lucy and Ellen and famously dubbed “The Worst Town in New York.” The Arena Stage Props Department received many of the handcrafted houses from the show’s previous production at Playwrights Horizons but had to supplement with dollhouse kits purchased from Etsy. The small houses capture both the childhood of young Ellen and how the older Ellen feels surrounded and suffocated by her return to her hometown. 

There are so many details that go into making the word of Unknown Soldier come alive. Some are easily perceptible to the audience; others are only really seen by the cast. Join us for the show to see how many you can spot! 

Photos of Jenn Sheetz and the Props Department by Clare Lockhart.

Candice Shedd-Thompson, Sumié Yotsukura, Taylor Witt, and Ronald Joe Williams in Unknown Soldier. Photo by Kian McKellar.

Adam Chanler-Berat and Lora Lee Gayer in Unknown Soldier. Photo by Teresa Castracane.