Kaleideum's Prop Shop inspires a young generation of artists

You’re never too young to become a theatre kid. At least that’s the case at the Prop Shop at Kaleideum Downtown, an innovative makerspace that combines theatre, science and creativity for children of all ages.

The Prop Shop, funded through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), opened this past spring and has quickly become a favorite exhibit of the Winston-Salem museum’s young visitors.

For UNCSA Scene Design alumnus John Bowhers (D&P ’12), the space brings the creative problem-solving he learned as an undergraduate into focus for some of the youngest and most enthusiastic members of the community. And it’s a natural extension of his work as co-founder of the Winston-Salem children’s theatre company Peppercorn Theatre, also part of Kaleideum.

Every production should be magical and invite a child to learn how the process works.

John Bowhers

“Every production should be magical and invite a child to learn how the process works,” Bowhers says. The Prop Shop space is filled with opportunities to make that magic happen—through creation, collaboration, exploration and performance.

“We make things that tell stories,” says Becca Drew Ramsey, Kaleideum’s Creative Making and Learning Manager. “I love it when kids come in with an idea,” she says. “I’m just amazed at the ways they come up with to use the materials and invent their own designs.”

The Prop Shop is largely project-based, all about getting kids to solve challenges and learn new skills. Projects usually take the form of a question, something like “How can I turn a sock into a puppet?” It’s not a craft, Ramsey says, but an opportunity for kids to make their own designs.

Projects like puppet-making, paper wig-making or circuit-building rotate on a weekly basis, giving visitors ample opportunity to try out new designs or come up with multiple ideas using real tools and real materials that might be found backstage at any theatre.

“The reality of the space is something that’s very important,” Bowhers says. “It’s not just an imitation of a performance space or theatre. We give kids access to all of the actual tools.”

To that end, the exhibit director consulted with members of the UNCSA Design & Production faculty in the Wig & Makeup, Lighting, Sound Design and other departments during the design phase of the Prop Shop itself, seeking to answer a single question: If you were going to let a 4-year-old into your space, what would you let them play with? 


More #maker fun crafting #paperhats #kaleideumdowntown #thepropshopkws #youthmakerspace #makeit

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Today we are exploring how marionettes work in #thepropshopkws @kaleideum - #whatstorywillyoumake

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The result includes interactive exhibits like the Prop Shop stage’s fly system—complete with counterweight rigging, pull ropes and a curtain—and a lighting booth with controls for color mixing, dimming and projection.

For Ramsey, seeing kids discover the Prop Shop’s elevated lighting booth is always a favorite moment. “I just love to see kids come up here who don’t even know each other and witness the collaboration between them,” she says.

Another Prop Shop star is Stanley the Chameleon (pictured at the top of the page), designed and built by former UNCSA faculty member Michael Meyer. The animatronic reptile head changes colors when visitors press clothing or color swatches to his skin. Visitors can also see what the inner workings of Stanley look like with a “skeleton” version of the chameleon.

The space is constantly changing, Bowhers adds, much the same way that an actual theatre is a neutral space that changes according to the performance and story that’s being told. During Peppercorn’s production of “The Sky Game” this summer, renderings and models from the show were displayed in the Prop Shop, giving parents and kids the opportunity to make the connection between the production they saw on stage and the behind-the-scenes work that brought the story to life.

Since the space opened in April 2017, the response has been impressive. In the world of museum exhibits, 20 minutes of engagement with an exhibit is seen as a barometer of success. The average visitor to the Prop Shop stays for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half.

The space is continuing to evolve, with Ramsey adding more projects and learning opportunities in the months to come, including hiring part-time Teaching Artists and volunteers to help guide students with projects in the space.

The Teaching Artist position is not restricted to any certain discipline, Bowhers says. “We’ve had actors, visual artists and educators work as Teaching Artists. Sometimes they are learning new skills that they are able to teach to the kids.”

In October, The Prop Shop will be hosting a workshop series called “Monday Makers: Complete Costume Creation” for children ages 5 and up to imagine, design and create their own Halloween costumes.

And for current UNCSA students who might be interested in working with The Prop Shop or Peppercorn Theatre, take note. Bowhers says they always attend the annual D&P Job Fair in the spring semester.

by Corrine Luthy 

September 06, 2017