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"On Prop Design" Course Gives Students the Opportunity to Make Connections with Experts, Build Their Own Props

Halley Sutton

This spring, Otis College of Art and Design juniors and seniors interested in product design had the chance to develop hands-on experience in the creation of film and theater props. The On Prop Design course taught in the spring 2018 semester by Perri Chasin, faculty member for the Creative Action and Liberal Arts and Sciences Departments, and Karen Regoli-Arthur, faculty member for the Product Design Department, connected students with experts in the field of prop design for film, theater, and will feature a unit on props for television and commercials in the last part of the spring semester. Students were also given the opportunity to create their own prop bibles and develop their own props for each type of visual medium.

One of the unique features of the course, besides putting students in touch with experts in different fields of prop design, and hands-on experience, was that it offered students the opportunity to study prop design in an academic setting. “There’s no art institution of higher learning that teaches prop design on the west coast. The people who do props on are all on the east coast. If we can teach the students prop design, and they can join a union, there is work for them,” Chasin said.

Legendary "Star Wars" art director provided prop coaching

During the first part of the semester, Chasin and Regoli-Arthur brought in Alan Rodrick-Jones, award-winning production designer and artist who worked on such films as Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, and Nicolas & Alexandra, among other projects. Rodrick-Jones spoke to students about his expertise and tasked students with creating props and set elevation based on his specifications.

Rodrick-Jones, who is originally from the United Kingdom but is based in Malibu, visited students in the course three times, bringing with him original Star Wars art direction drawings. First, he visited to introduce himself to the class and share his expertise, then to review student projects, and finally, to evaluate student final projects.

Prop design students tour Center Theater Group's stage

Students get a chance to put skills on display

Next, Chasin and Regoli-Arthur partnered with Marianne Nedreberg, Associate Prop Director for the Center Theatre Group, to develop curriculum and a project to teach students about theatrical prop design. “Otis students are learning so many cool skills and in the prop world, there’s so much to learn. If you have sculpting experience or InDesign or Photoshop experience or experience with a laser cutter, you are valuable to a prop department,” Nedreberg said. Center Theatre Group is one of the nation’s most influential nonprofit theater companies.

Nedreberg took students on a tour of the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, allowing students onto the catwalk and to see the stage free of any set design. “They got to see the things that no one else gets to see,” Nedreberg said. Nedreberg tasked students with reading one of the upcoming plays from Block Party, a series of three one-act plays, that will run from March 30 – May 20, 2018 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Then, students had to make a prop list based on the needs of the play, create the play’s prop bible, and finally, create one prop based on the prop bible they had created. Student-created props included:

  • A bottle of arsenic, with a custom-created label featuring witty copy that tied into the play.
  • A laser-carved box used for storing jewelry.
  • A peace pipe.
  • A bottle of beer with water inside and its own custom-created label.

Prop design students tour center Theater Group's stage

The props that were created were so unique and successful that CTG decided to display them at the Kirk Douglas Theatre for the run of the Block Party plays. The experience has also helped create a bridge between Otis College and the Center Theatre Group, one that can hopefully lead to even more opportunities for Otis students interested in theatrical prop design going forward. “I think the whole point of this bridge [between Otis and CTG] is that we are constantly seeking skilled individuals, and maybe we can open the minds of students to the possibility of working in a field they might not have considered,” Nedreberg said.

In the final segment of the spring course, students will learn about how the needs of prop design differ for television and commercial spots and have the opportunity to create their own medium-specific props as well. 

See the props for yourself at Center Theatre Group's second annual Block Party as they remount 'Bloodletting', 'Ameryka' and 'Die Mommy Die' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre from March 20 through May 20, 2018. Visit www.centertheatregroup.org for more information. 

Top Image: L-R: Valerie Spencer, Danielle K. Jones and Drew Stafford Harper in the original production of Critical Mass Performance Group’s “Ameryka.” Photo by Turner Munch.