A look backstage with Melody Teodoro-Kurtis and Ray Kurtis

It’s a rarity to get to do what you love, but even rarer to work with someone you love. Perhaps that’s why both Ray Kurtis and Melody Teodoro-Kurtis are so effective.

“Because we do good work, our phones don’t stop ringing; Ray Kurtis said.”

Melody Teodoro-Kurtis concurred: “If I work on a set for you and it runs smoothly, you’ll hire me again.”

The husband and wife team have helped decorate sets and make props for Riverwalk plays for 17 years. They have also worked with Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., Over the Ledge Theatre Co., the former Spotlight Theatre, Starlight Dinner Theatre “and a lot of LCC,” Ray Kurtis added.

His first taste of working behind the scenes was at Lansing Community College himself. “I was running lines with friends who were theatre students, “Ray said. “The next thing I knew, I was in a light booth.”

Melody Teodoro-Kurtis first got involved with local theater by appearing on the stage, not behind it. “I was doing more acting.”

However, her priorities changed after meeting Ray Kurtis at Michigan State University. “I met him at my dorm room door.” The pair — both born in ’71 — collaborated on set dressings and props for 17 years as cohabitants — and 10 years as a married couple. “We’ve done it so much that we don’t have to talk,” Ray Kurtis said.

“A lot of people don’t understand the intricacies of the things we do. Set Dec is about turning a space into a believable place.”

And making a set into a believable space is much harder than it looks. There was a time early on in his career, when Ray Kurtis told a director how much he was annoyed with the set because “It looked like a stage and not like a room.”

But of course, Ray’s natural abilities took hold and he rearranged it. Soon after, more jobs followed.

“There’s a reason why our phone keeps ringing,” he said.

Melody Teodoro-Kurtis said that although it might not look like it at first, much of the story is told through the properties on set; it’s more than “what an actor holds in their hand,” they are there to “provide for the director’s vision.”

Ray Kurtis agrees. “If you’re going to be a prop designer, you need to be able to tell a story,” said Ray Kurtis.

One of their earliest tasks was for Spotlight Theatre’s “Crossing Delancy.”

“We had to make a really fancy chocolate cake,” Ray Kurtis said.

The director asked for something simple, like a Styrofoam replica. Instead, the duo decided to go for quality. They made a plaster of Paris cake with a realistic heaviness.

“I used all of my fishing weights,” said Ray.

And when they searched for a paint to accurately portray the icing, they found the perfect brown.

“Ironically,” Melody said, “It was called ‘Chocolate Cake.’” Their effort made difference. The realistic look and feel of that prop changed the actors’ stage deliveries. They held it differently, and looked at it like it was a real cake. Ray Kurtis said that bit of extra work taught him a lesson.

“I stopped making props for the audience and started making props for the actors.”

But the Kurtises can’t get attached to their work, even if they put hundreds of hours into their creations.”

Most of the time, the props become property of the theatre,” he said, “Except for the brain transfer machine I made.”

He specified that the prop for Riverwalk’s “Young Frankenstein” was to remain his property. That “machine,” and other kept props are “scattered all over” their house, he said.

The couple like to have a bit of fun too.

For any play they are involved in, they’ll make sure to plant some form of prank on the stage.

“There’s always an ‘Easter egg,’” Melody Teodoro-Kurtis confessed. “It’s only for the actors.”

And since the couple knows so many local actors, it has been easy for them to plant messages and references in their props that only the actors in a particular play will understand. In Riverwalk’s “Wait Until Dark,” an actor searching through letters saw a return address that referenced another play he was in. In “The Hemmingway Play”— also at Riverwalk — it was a fake news article about an actor’s past work.

“Usually,” Ray Kurtis said, “we do something more subtle.”

What might be more of a concern is how their craft might raise some flags legally.

“I find it hard to believe there’s not a prop maker who’s not on the FBI Watch List,” Ray Kurtis said.

And it makes sense. He recently shipped a fake gun and special timers were purchased to start a small stage fire.

“For ‘Anne Frank,’ Ray Kurtis said, “we had to research Nazis.”

And after his wife posted a shot of her mock ransom note for Riverwalk’s “Best of Friends” on Facebook, she had second thoughts. But their work does allow them to be creative.

Alas, their work for local theatre hasn’t been lucrative. “Some of it pays and some of it doesn’t,” he said.

“Our parents always say,” She said, “‘Please get a real job.’” But for the couple, it’s a labor of love.

Ray Kurtis said his favorite prop creation was the four diaries he made for Riverwalk Theatre’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Each one required a different look as they “aged” in the play — this included the covers and the paper inside the books. And since Frank’s handwriting changed over years, that had to change, too.

“I put 300 hours into that show,” Ray Kurtis said.

But picking a favorite for Melody Teodoro-Kurtis did not come as easily. “No!” she exclaimed. “There’s a certain aspect of every show that I love. For me, it’s like choosing your favorite baby.”