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Education: Teaching Props in the Age of COVID-19

Jay Lasnik • EducatorsNovember 2020 • November 4, 2020

Lasnik teaching props behind the plastic barrier and students socially distanced.

When one door closes, another opens.

One never knows when opportunities might fall into your lap. Like most of us, for the majority of my life, I have been opening-night driven. But now, with the Penn State University School of Theatre doing virtual shows, and while I am still supporting those shows prop-wise, the afternoon time that was once production time is now prop class time.

Safety First
In the age of COVID-19, we here at PSU are doing some very smart things and many students are back on campus. Those classes that do not need to meet in person, don’t. Those with labs, do. We at the PSU School of Theatre are following a strict set of rules set out by the university: masks are mandatory, a minimum six-foot distance between people, hand washing for at least 20 seconds once an hour, using hand sanitizer when washing is not available, wiping down communally-used tools before and after use. In the props shop, the students have their own tool bins, and every tool of their own has their unique color tape on it or otherwise labeled with their name and kept in their bin. I have three separate workspaces that make up the props shop, so people can be spread out. And, to do close-up demos or critiques we’ve installed a clear plastic barrier so students can get a little closer to see what I am explaining or what they are show-and-telling. By following these simple and easy guidelines, we help prevent transmission of the virus.

Elevating Props
The first thing I want to teach everyone who comes through the props shop, is of course these mandatory rules that we use University-wide. The second thing is why props are important and why props people are important. The honest truth is, props has been for far too long, (one of), the unknown, underappreciated, and under respected departments in theater production. Many directors and even (gasp!) scenic designers do not know “what it takes” to get their visions on stage. This is why our MFA scenic designers are shop assistants and the BFA designers are in the shop doing production—or now, class. Their experience in the props shop will make them better-informed designers. The research, the communication, the shopping, the planning far in advance, the being ready for any contingency, the working with too small materials and labor-hour budgets, the health and safety concerns, the inability to pay one’s staff and over hire what they deserve. But we persevere because we love what we do, and we are invested in the art form of live theater. These are important theater industry issues that college-aged students must learn; they must learn them to build a respect for what other people do as well as a respect for what they do in school and will do in their career

A Strong Foundation of Skills
These and many other skills are what I am teaching now at PSU. In lieu of production time we are going through management skills such as script analysis, how to make a props list, materials and labor-hour budgets, communication styles, and meeting etiquette. I am also teaching a boatload of artisanship skills; fake food, sewing, puppets, painting wood to look like different wood, small electronics, molding & casting, the wood shop, creative problem solving, to name a few. Anyone that knows me, knows that one of my life’s goals is to make sure that anyone who comes through my shop knows how to sew. As an adult, one should be able to cook, balance their finances, and know how to sew.

The prop list making exercise is a semester long project. For first semester students we are using a four-page prop play written by Ron DeMarco. One of the MFA scenic designers assigned to the props shop as a shop assistant is the set designer and I am the director and stage manager. Each week they get a rehearsal report just as they would in a real production, and they send me their ever-changing props list each Friday. They can use our online prop inventory for those props in the “pull” category. They have a materials and labor-hour budget and even 20 hours of an “assistant.” In some rehearsal reports I try to be a really accommodating director and other times props gets 15 notes for every one note in other departments, (like in real life!) A good props manager knows how to deal with an onslaught of demands, information, and changes in a calm, professional, diplomatic manner. In the play, (which takes place on New Year’s Eve), all the needles on the Christmas tree fall off on cue. So, one of their assignments is to sketch out some different ideas as to how this would be accomplished and then to make a mock-up of a section of the tree from their best idea.

More Opportunities
Good teaching does not survive in a vacuum, so I try to have projects come “full circle.” For example, the thumb or finger we molded and cast on the first day is used later in the Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies from Sweeney Todd. The tufting and piping sample board’s work will appear on a newly upholstered chair. 

Since we have a strict room capacity, several students who heard about the props shop wanted to join after the semester started, but they will have to start in the spring.

While the virus has thrown a wrench in our normal activities for a while, I see an opportunity to expose students to even more skills than they normally would get during production-only time. When we finally do get back to doing productions in theatres, these students will come in strong and ready to be prop managers and artisans. The virus may have changed the way we do things temporarily, but it’s created new opportunities, as well, and being theatre people, we know how to work through adversity. After all, props people are problem-solvers and I think we are facing the challenges with a lot of creativity and imagination.

Jay Lasnik is the Props Supervisor at the School of Theatre, Penn State University. He is a member of the Society of Properties Artisan Managers and the Society of American Fight Directors.

BFA Jack Briggs find the right diameter drill bit for a plastic foot bone.

MFA Bea Chung shows a foam puppet and a Wonderflex insect.

BFA Emily Simpson paints her fake shrimp.

MFA Mia Irwin shows her Smooth-Cast™ fake sushi and mochi.

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