It’s that time of year again; summer is winding down and school is about to start. If you’re one of many who are in college or graduate school, you may be wondering what classes you should take to help you be a better props person. Hopefully, I can help.
It should go without saying that if your theatre department offers a class in props, you should take it. If you go to a school that has multiple types of props classes, even better.
Other departments in your theatre program may have classes you can take as well. Mask-making, costume crafts, puppet building, scenic carpentry, etc. Even if you take a regular costume class, you will learn how to sew. You may also discover that you prefer working in costumes rather than in props. Part of going to college is to expose yourself to new experiences and career possibilities; you should keep an open mind and not rationalize your choices based on what you think you should be doing or what others expect of you.
Many props people I know who studied theatre in college focused on scenic design. They continue working in props as a way to pay the bills in between design gigs. Others, such as yours truly, find they actually prefer being a props person rather than a scenic designer. Scenic design classes are very helpful for a props person. First, the scenic designer is the main person a props master deals with on a show, so knowing how they work and how they arrive at their choices will help you deal with your designer better; it will give you a common vocabulary to speak with. Second, a designer comes up with a concept, and works out the details based on that concept and overall look. As a props person, you continue filling in the gaps of the design down to the tiniest details. Being able to think like a designer will help you take in the design as a whole and use it to decide what magnets to put on the refrigerator, or what color to stain the end table. If the designer wants a lamp, it is more efficient if the props master presents three options which fit the design of the play, rather than three completely random choices.
If your school offers a technical direction class, that is good for a props person as well; you can learn the project management skills which will help you as a props master and the ability to develop construction drawings from a designer’s drafting, which can assist you as a prop artisan.
The fine arts department is another place where you can find classes to take. Many arts departments are very particular about who takes their classes; in fact, if you are a junior or senior and not an art major or minor, they might not let you take any of their classes. But if you do manage to work your way in, classes in sculpting, mold-making, metal-work, mixed-media and found-object assemblage and the like will behoove you greatly.
In addition to practical arts classes, art history is an excellent class to broaden your prop knowledge. In fact, any sort of design history or theatre history classes will expand your knowledge base.
If you attend a liberal arts school, do not give up the opportunity that your general education classes may present. Rather than taking easy or basic courses in the other departments, look for the ones which are secret prop-classes in disguise. Classes in sociology, anthropology and history which focus on domestic life or the objects used by various cultures in the past or present. In my own undergraduate years, I fulfilled one of my humanities requirements with a class entitled, “Japanese Anthropology through Film,” which gave me a great crash course in contemporary Japanese life and pop culture, as well as some great reference books which will come in handy when I do a play set in Japan.
Remember: a props person is always learning, and every experience can enrich not just our vocation, but our lives as well. Have a good school year, and stay classy.