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From Product Design to Props

Otis College of Art and Design Partners with Center Theatre Group to Introduce Students to Working in Theatre

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Block Party props designed by students studying product design at the Otis College of Art and Design.

A peace pipe. A vial of arsenic. A mango-wheat beer. A necklace that can ward off evil spirits. An intricately carved jewelry box.

These are five of the props that appeared in Center Theatre Group’s three 2018 Block Party productions—and for five students studying product design at the Otis College of Art and Design, five homework assignments.

Otis professors Perri Chasin and Karen Regoli-Arthur reached out to Center Theatre Group in the fall as they began to develop their spring course, “On Prop Design.” A brain-picking session quickly evolved into a partnership where Center Theatre Group staff helped introduce the students to prop design for theatre.

The partnership began with a class field trip to The Shop, our costume and prop warehouse in Boyle Heights. Associate Prop Manager Merrianne Nedreberg gave the students a tour and explained the process of creating props for a show. Students also saw the set for Bloodletting (the first show in Block Party) being built, and got their assignment from Nedreberg.

Nedreberg asked them to read all three Block Party scripts, highlight every prop used, create prop lists, craft prop bibles (with details on how every prop was purchased or built)—essentially the process she goes through with each new show—and then choose one prop to research, design, and build. After completing the assignment, they arrived at the Douglas with their props, lists, and bibles, and explained their choices to Nedreberg, who also gave them a behind-the-scenes tour.

When you give students an assignment, you don’t know what they’re going to come up with or if they’re going to enjoy it, said Nedreberg. I was impressed with the props they came up with, and with the thought that they put behind it. One student—a home brewer—designed a beer bottle that appears in Bloodletting. She chose to make the beer mango-infused because the play is set in the Philippines. Sometimes in the prop world we are allowed to put a piece of ourselves in the prop versus doing it solely based on a design or a script, added Nedreberg.

Otis was equally pleased with the results. There are a lot of parallels between prop design and product design, and that’s why this is such a wonderful partnership for us, said Karen Regoli-Arthur. Product design encompasses creativity and design for a specific use or demographic, while for the theatre the students apply the same skills to a specific play with a particular time and cultural setting.

Both organizations see the potential for further collaboration and workforce development. Props is an area we have difficulty hiring into; there are no props programs at colleges or universities in the western states, said Center Theatre Group Next Generation Initiatives Director Camille Schenkkan.

Nedreberg added, The awesome goal would be to build a bridge with these talented young people, teach them what theatre props is, and if they’re interested, they could intern for a semester. I think it would be beneficial to them and their career growth.

The students came into the project with little experience with theatre; most had never before read a script. Now, they’ve seen how a play is produced on the ground from start to finish—the experience culminated in everyone seeing Bloodletting at the Douglas—and learned how well product design skills like laser cutting, sculpting, upholstery, and graphic design translate from the product design to the prop world.

I was just delighted with the partnership, said Perri Chasin. This has turned out to be a win-win experience for all. The students loved the process, they loved making the props, and they are so excited that Center Theatre Group is happy enough that they’re going to display them in the lobby during the run of the show.

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