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Teaching Props Online

Jay Duckworth • Answer BoxCurrent IssueMay 2020 • April 29, 2020

The situation that we are in right now with COVID-19 sucks. I usually can spin most anything into a positive. Like the time I got shot in the arm but luckily, I had on my brother’s jacket, but that’s another story. Like the famous quote, “If you’re going through Hell just keep on going.” Right now we need to do what we can with the tools that we have. 

Going Online
I was one of the first folks to work from home from the Public Theater. I’m in prep for Richard II so I could do research at home, and Pace University had just stopped on campus classes the day before, so I was going to need a private place to Zoom my Props class.

The week before this, I had assigned student teams to do a special effect from a list of shows—Blithe Spirit, Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, Dracula, Book of Grace, along with the Pepper’s Ghost special effect. The team got to choose the play and pick the effect they wanted to do. They would have four hours of shop time and then it was due the following week. Then mid-assignment, classes were pulled off campus. I knew that the students would already be stressed since some were leaving campus to head home, as well as having the shows they were working on cancelled.

I shifted gears and wanted to change the direction of the work so that they could still accomplish a task and learn. The next class, now online, was Thursday, so I sent out an email Monday letting them know that the assignment was shifting to a proof of concept and in no way was it to try and be a show-ready prop. With that I wanted a budget and a short explanation of what worked and what failed. Then pictures of the back, front, top, and sides and a YouTube video of the prop doing its thing. I asked that they email the class all the information and the YouTube link by Wednesday at 9:00 pm. If they needed an extension, they of course could have one.

Some folks changed their projects since they couldn’t work with their partner and in the end they all turned out pretty well. We had an effect for Dracula—a motorized rat who shot out blood when its head was ripped off, and the coffin that opened by itself. Three effects from Mary Poppins—the brimstone & treacle effect, the magical iced cake, and the flowers pulled out of a painting, along with a Pepper’s Ghost effect. I was pleased with the results and the students got to work through a proof of concept for a project. Overall the assignment worked out well for a remote effort without a prop shop.

Suggested Guidelines
Moving forward is going to take some getting used to. We need to keep communication as open as possible. Here are some great guidelines that are working for me:

• Check with your students about class times. Some of your students are no longer going to be in the same time zone as you.
• Be clear to your students about how you are going to reformat your class, like syllabus 2.0
• Not every class has to be a video lecture. You can email out assignments that can be due at the end of the day.
• Share your rules of etiquette for video meetings in your class.
• Do a mix of real time class individual questionnaires and collective online discussions.
• Be empathetic with your students; we are all in a brave new world.
• A couple ways I’m engaging my students is reaching out to other professionals and asking if they wouldn’t mind getting interviewed about their start in the business. 

Some Prop Assignment Ideas
Here are some assignment activities you may want to try with your students:

• Make a fake food with the supplies that they have on hand and take process shots for their portfolio.
• Select some period plays and have them research and make fake documents for the show.
• Along those same lines have them do reports on some interesting changes to common items and why they changed. (The Lucky Strike Green cigarette pack, the steel penny, why is there fluting on the sides of coins, paper money versus gold and silver, and so on.)
• One good graphics lesson is to list some plays or musicals and have them make a poster for the show featuring an iconic prop from that show.

I hope this helps out a bit. Remember, we tell stories and as the landscape changes, we change with it. That’s how our art has survived over 2,000 years.

Dracula’s ‘self-opening’ coffin by Alicia Foster and Sasha Lysenko

Emma Nash & Tori Pierce’s flower effect

Julia Kester’s magical icing Mary Poppins’ cake

Maggie O’Donnell and Margaret Garrity’s motorized rat for Dracula


Alexander Rocky and Mack Fuentes’s Brimstone and Treacle effect for Mary Poppins

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