MC graduate Brian Prather pursues dreams in set design
Maryville College Theatre alumnus and professional set designer Brian Prather has made a name for himself in the world of professional theatre.
His current show, “Freud’s Last Session,” is centered on the legendary psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud, who invites the rising academic C.S. Lewis to his home in London. Set on the day England entered into World War II, Freud and Lewis argue about the existence of God, love, sex and the meaning of life—only two weeks before Freud chooses to take his own.
“The set is a recreation of Freud’s study in London before he left Vienna before World War II,” Prather said about his design. “His daughter later recreated it within her home.”
Prather explained that he and his crew researched photographs of the study in order to reproduce all of its elements with accuracy.
“Of course, we took a few liberties as well to make it successful onstage,” Prather said.
Reviews for Prather’s set from famous publications like Variety, the Chicago Theatre Beat, the Chicago Critic and others have been nothing but praising for his reconstruction of Freud’s study. Bloomberg called it an “expert recreation,” and Time Out New York judged it “gorgeously imagined as a room straddling the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Prather said that in order to design the setting for a play successfully, he follows a strict process.
“The first reading of the play is important because that is the only time you can experience it like the audience does,” he explained passionately. “It helps you to know how the audience should feel.”
During Prather’s second reading of the script, he asks the question, “What’s important for the action of the play?”
“I converse with the director on what it needs for the action of the play and what his or her vision is,” Prather said. “Then we proceed to all of the elements of research.”
Prather explained that he did a lot of research for Freud, because Freud had many paintings and sculptures.
“Freud was a collector of antiquities,” he said. “I really enjoyed researching the small pieces of what might be in his London office.”
The last step in Prather’s design process is to build a model. After that and collaboration with his director and crew on a finalized model for the set, the next step is construction.
When asked which of his sets he enjoyed the most, he said, “That’s like asking a favorite child!” and laughed.
Apart from “Freud’s Last Session,” Prather said that he enjoyed designing “Burnt Park Boys” because of its “creativity.”
“That play is on the other end of the spectrum,” he said.
“The set is a completely open stage and a recreation of a mountain,” Prather continued. “There is a cyc, which is a plastered wall, across the back for a mountain texture. They even climb the mountain during the show.”
Prather has even worked internationally, having designed the set for the world premiere of the Shownote musical “Minywo-neun Goerowo,” in Seoul, South Korea.
“It gave me a change to differently approach design and learn how the business worked,” Prather said of his work abroad.
Before Prather was an international set designer, however, he attended Maryville College.
Prather graduated in 1995 with undergraduate degrees in both theatre studies and English literature. He went on to receive his M.F.A. in design from Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
“There were only two theatre degrees awarded the year I graduated for theatre,” said Prather of his time at MC. “The department was very small.”
“My first year there, I fell in love with working in the shop and building sets,” Prather explained. “Alan Reihl was a huge inspiration to me.”
Reihl, the current technical director of the Clayton Center for the Arts, has taught at Maryville College for over 20 years and is retiring this spring.
“My education [at MC] helped me get where I am today,” Prather said. “We had to build and work on every aspect of the show.”
He said he knew by graduate school that stage design was what he wanted to do.
Now Prather is the one teaching. He is an assistant professor of scenic design in the B.F.A. program in theatrical production arts at Ithaca College in New York. He teaches courses like introduction to design, hand drafting, set design and many others. He also mentors student designers in advanced or senior projects, as well as individual theatre and other independent study projects.
“One of my favorite directors had gone [to Ithaca College], and I decided to apply for a position,” Prather said. “I love it, too.”
Prather traces his love for design to high school arts class, where his teacher insisted that he help paint a set for a high school play. He said he found that design was really something he “wanted to do.”
“But you have to understand that you must jump into the business,” he advised future generations of theatre students. “Because there is a lot of competition and you will be passed up.”
“It’s a lifestyle,” Prather said firmly. “Not a job.”
Prather said that his favorite part of being a set designer is “watching his creation come to life.”
“You can dream and have a vision,” Prather explained. “But after everyone collaborates and works so hard on the show, you can watch that vision become reality onstage.”
He used as an example his experience watching the Barrington Stage Company’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the set of which he had created.
“It’s everything,” he said with passion. “I’m part of it. I’m leading them to a feeling and helping them to think of things in a new way.
“It doesn’t matter that [the audience doesn’t] know me, because I designed the set,” Prather continued. “Hearing their gasps and seeing their reactions—it’s just fantastic.”
This MC alumnus’s passion has led him to the big stages of Chicago, and he is an inspiration to all college students to pursue their dreams.
Brian Prather’s designs can be seen on his website: www. brianprather.com.