To the best of our knowledge, Kate Dale, a 26-year prop shop veteran, is the only crowned mermaid on the Juilliard staff. Born and raised mostly in Novi, Mich., Kate received her bachelor’s degree in speech communication and theater at Albion College and worked as prop master for the Peterborough (N.H.) Players before coming to New York and freelancing—and eventually ending up as the Juilliard Production Department’s prop shop supervisor (want to go behind the scenes at the prop shop?). As for her ascent to mermaid stardom, she describes it below. This year’s Coney Island Mermaid Parade takes place on June 22 at 1 p.m.
How did you come to work in props?
Going to a liberal arts school with a small theater department, everybody did everything. I acted, directed, did sets, lighting, everything. I thought I wanted to be a set designer. Then I realized props was the job that I’d been training for my whole life. It uses all parts of my brain, I get to make things, do math, and am actually paid to shop.
How did you get involved in the Mermaid Parade?
The first summer I stayed in New York instead of taking a summer stock job, my friend Alix had seen a poster for the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island and suggested we check it out. My life changed that day. I realized my skills had found the ultimate vehicle for their purest, most perfect expression: it was glamor, wit, craft, and kitsch all rolled into one. I knew that I would be in it the very next year, and I was, albeit not in any spectacular fashion. I continued, and six years later was crowned best mermaid for the first time. I’ve received that award and the one for best float a number of times. I’m also on the board of directors for Coney Island U.S.A., the organization that produces the parade and the Coney Island Circus Sideshow.
What’s your craziest parade memory?
The Biblical rains of 2003: it was a deluge, you couldn’t see through it. We were blowing bubbles, our costumes were glued to our bodies and we continued to catapult plastic poodles from a seven-foot champagne bottle to the die-hard spectators who remained. Then we disassembled the float in a rain gutter as torrents of water rushed across our feet and ankles. Never has a hot shower been better than after that.
What do you remember about your first day at Juilliard?
The first day I was here, I flunked the pop quiz from my supervisor on how to spell Juilliard, so I’m more forgiving than most when I see that on a job application. And I also built a small work table that’s still in use in the prop shop today.
What job at Juilliard would you like to try out for a day?
I have the best job here, but maybe development. I’m intrigued by what it takes to communicate a narrative and build the relationships that will support the vision for the School.
What is the strangest or most memorable job you’ve ever had?
This one. I am still amazed by the stunning variety of projects and requests.
What was your craziest day at work?
They’re all pretty crazy. The day of last year’s gala [April 30], we were striking Don Giovanni, building the two Shakespeare sets, and frantically hunting for a very special pencil.
If out of the blue your boss said to take the day off, what would you do?
Probably go to the beach. If it was raining, I’d go to a thrift shop.
How do you balance your job and your artistic endeavors?
Happily, my job is one of my artistic endeavors. My outside work includes the Mermaid Parade and designing Coney Island U.S.A.’s Creepshow at the Freakshow. I have an excellent support staff, so I’m able to take time to work on these while still knowing that Juilliard’s productions are in capable hands. Also, I don’t necessarily sleep that much.
What else are you passionate about?
Playing softball with my Juilliard pals! The softball team has been a great boon to the quality of life at Juilliard, and I’ve gotten to know people I wouldn’t have had much contact with in the course of my work. There are amazing wonderful people in every corner of this place. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it bears repeating.
Where would you most like to travel?
The 100-mile yard sale!
What might people be surprised to know about you?
Perhaps that I’m currently spending most weekends rebuilding the Coney Island Freak Bar and Sideshow Theater—both were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
What are you listening to/watching?
I’m watching the first season of Heroes and listening to Son of Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys.
What social media do you follow?
I look at Facebook and a little Pinterest.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’m really proud of the high quality of work my team and the entire Production Department puts on stage here on a regular basis. I’ve been told it sometimes looks like magic. But the magic is people working really hard and caring.