Bringing a production to life

Henry IV Part 1 (2006) - Entrance with swords. Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

As well as our regular performances in Stratford-upon-Avon and across London, we performs our work internationally, throughout the UK and during the annual residency in Newcastle upon Tyne. But before the audience takes its first steps into the auditorium, much of the hard work has already been done.

During the months of preparation that takes place prior to the opening of a production, hundreds of highly-skilled staff are busy working behind the scenes. We have the huge range of specialist skills required to bring a play to life. Each department works together over a period of months making sure the production is ready for the opening night.

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Choosing which play to stage
The Artistic Director chooses the productions the company performs. Many productions run side by side in Stratford or London, out on tour or are in preparation in rehearsal rooms. Certain projects may have been under discussion for 2 - 3 years. More than one production may open at any one time and as soon as one production opens the next is already well underway with future work being carefully discussed and planned with the Planning Department.

The Casting team works closely with a director to ensure that the right actors get the right part. Actors are contacted via agents, auditions are held and a shortlist is drawn up. This can be complicated because we often 'cross-cast' - that is, actors work on more than one production, directed by different directors, so it is important that they are able to perform in a variety of roles.
Once they join the company, the Company Manager then looks after the actors' welfare, throughout their life with us.

Planning the production
The Director and Designer have numerous discussions about the style and period in which the production is to be set. Once key decisions have been made, the model box is produced. This is a three-dimensional miniature version of the set with all scenery and props at a scale of 1:25, a sketch of ideas that will evolve throughout the production process and is often restricted by the tight budgets! This model acts as a tool to help everyone create the vision of the Director and Designer on stage - it's the main point of reference when building the set and the props. The model box is presented to the Production Manager who makes an assessment considering finance and logistics. It's then evaluated by our workshops and costume departments.

Making the set
The Construction Manager and Drawing Office provide detailed drawings of how the set should be built. The workshops and Production Manager highlight any budget difficulties and suggest alterations and practical solutions that may have to be made. Every item of scenery has detailed construction drawings produced with Computer Aided Design (CAD).
Each set may be required to used in many different venues and be capable of being taken off stage quickly to change over to a different production the following day. The plans are handed to the Scenic Workshop, Paint Shop and Props teams so they can start the task of construction and achieving the desired finishes.
(For more about these departments, view the Spotlight on Scenic Workshop and Spotlight on Paint Shop.)

A prop may be a hand prop, furniture or small items, which can be moved and carried. These can range from huge casts for tall statues to a bunch of flowers or a letter. Attention to detail is crucial and reference books are used to ensure accuracy to a particular period. (For more about Props, view Spotlight on Props.)

In collaboration with the Costume Department, the Costume Supervisor and Designer decide on the best way to create the costumes. This may include the shoes, hats, armour, underwear, jewellery, buying the fabrics, booking the costume-makers and setting up the costume fittings to make sure everything comes together for the dress rehearsal. To create a particular period feel or a design with a particular colour scheme, neutral fabrics often arrive direct from the factory to be treated by the Dyeing Department as the fabrics cannot be readily bought. Approximately half of our costumes are broken down in some way to look worn or to show general wear and tear. The common tools for this include a cheese grater, sandpaper, Stanley Knives, a blow-torch, emulsion-based paints and fabric paints. A creative approach is essential but, despite the 'breaking down', all costumes must stand up to maintenance and washing over a long period.

At the beginning of rehearsals all the actors' measurements are taken. The Men's and Ladies' Costume Departments work closely with the Designer to discover the best way to interpret a costume. This can be done with the fabric itself or the cut of the costume. If it is a show using modern dress, it's often easier and quicker to buy items but for period shows, most of the costumes are made in-house.

The Armoury and Boot Department make, recycle or adapt boots and shoes for a production. A supplier in Nottingham makes any swords required but there are no real blades involved. Guns are usually bought and retractable daggers are sometimes used but these have a tendency to jam!
(The RSC holds a Firearms Licence and Warwickshire Constabulary must be notified when our guns are being transferred to another theatre.)
(For more about the Armoury and our craftspeople, view Spotlight on Armoury.)

The Hats and Millinery team works from the look of a design and not from patterns. Felts and straw, wire, buckram, plastics and veils are regularly worked with to create a particular look. Steam is used to get a correct size and the hat is then pulled over a wooden head-shaped block before being sprayed to make it firm, trimmed and decorated. (For more about our costume-makers, view Spotlight on Costume.)

Hairdressing, wigs and make-up complete the final look. An actor often uses their own hair in a production, which creates difficulties, as the look required will differ in each production they appear in during the season. The wigs team may have to cut, curl, dye, or add extensions or hairpieces to the same actor. The majority of wigs are made in-house and can be created using anything from real hair to wood shavings. The wig designs are received only six weeks before the production opens and each production has on average five to ten wigs. Each takes one week to make. Real hair is bought from a hair merchant and is very expensive therefore artificial hair is often used or mixed with real hair. The team has a huge stock of materials that can be adapted, altered and changed continuously.

Unless specialist make-up is required, most actors apply their own make-up. The team creates blood effects for daggers, blood bags or smearing using glucose, sugar and fruit colouring. Black treacle is used to darken the blood. The team may be required to make prosthetic parts of the body such as the nose in Cyrano de Bergerac. This involves moulds being made of the relevant part of the body using dental alginate and plaster of Paris bandages.

While the set, props and costumes are being made and the word about the show is spreading, the actors are busy in the rehearsal room. We are fortunate enough to be able to spend six weeks rehearsing a production working alongside the director, voice coach, fight directors, musical directors and stage management team. Sections of the set are often built in the rehearsal room so actors can get a feel for it before they reach the stage, which is only four days before the first public performance.

Stage Management
The Stage Managers constantly monitor rehearsals because decisions in the rehearsal room directly affect the production process. Do we need an extra cushion on the sofa? Which way should a door open? How fast should a scene change? How quickly must a piece of scenery be flown in (lowered from 'the grid' up in the roof)? The stage managers record these continuous developments and the notes are passed on to the relevant workshop. The Stage Manager keeps a detailed script ('the book' or the 'show bible') with markings of entrances, exits, scene changes, actors' positions crucial for the running of the show once it gets on stage. Productions can often have around 55 sheets of rehearsal notes for a 6 week rehearsal period.

Stage department
The Stage Department deals with the nuts and bolts of the scenery and takes the set from the workshops on the Sunday prior to the first technical rehearsals. They have two days to build the stage before the crucial technical rehearsal period. The stage technicians move scenery during the production and have to solve any problems with the set if they arise during a performance.

Lighting and Sound
Our specialists work closely with the Director and Designer to achieve the correct lighting and sound designs for the production. They bring the production to life with different atmospheres for the actors to perform in.

Music plays an important part in helping the actors to tell the story of the play. We have in-house musicians who play a range of instruments and can often be seen performing on stage with the actors.

There are a number of non-production departments who are closely involved in the production process and directly support the work that takes place on stage (our show programmes list all our departments and people). Without these teams, we would be unable to function successfully.

Fit-up, technical rehearsals and dress rehearsals
These usually take place over four days. This is a critical time when the work from all the different teams come together on stage for the first time - light-rigging and focussing, sound balance, set construction - the production starts to come alive and there is real excitement around the theatre.

The actors arrive on stage four days prior to the first public performance and detailed technical rehearsals begin with every scene change, lighting cue, costume change and line spoken meticulously worked through. The team works round the clock to ensure that the majority of the problems are worked out before the first preview.

The first dress rehearsal often takes place on the afternoon of the first public performance. This is the very first time the actors, crew and technical team have run through the show with everything in place. Adrenaline often runs high in anticipation of the first performance in front of an audience. The company performs a number of previews before the official opening night when national and regional theatre critics are invited to the show. The buzz of this 'First Night' performance is often electric! As the lights go down, the audience falls silent and the first line is spoken - another RSC production is born.

Production time-line for a single production
12 - 6 months
Play selected as part of the season
Artistic Director engages the Director
Director appoints Designer, Lighting Designer, Sound Designer, Composer, Movement Director and/or Fight Director to work on the show
3 months
Casting for productions begin
13 - 10 weeks
Production Manager sees a model version of the set design made in white card
10 - 8 weeks
Workshops see 1:25 scale model of the set
Costings, planning and assessing begins
8 - 6 weeks
Budgets agreed
Begin scenic draughting
Begin making major props and scenery
6 weeks
Rehearsals begin
Finalise costume designs and purchase fabric
Discuss designs with makers
Build rehearsal set
Measure actors for wigs and costumes
Over last 6 weeks
Costume Supervisor oversees making of costumes
Regular visits to the workshops by the Designer
Scenic workshop complete sets making sure that scenery can store in changeover with other sets from other productions playing in the repertoire.
Prop shop makes props and react to changes and additions from rehearsals
Wigs made and fit to design
Painters paint to design
Lighting designer works with Lighting department to design the rig
3 weeks
Sound equipment sourced
1 week
Run through the play in the rehearsal room
Designer and sometimes Director see finished items in the workshop
Some preparatory work on stage, particularly under-stage and in the grid (above the stage)
6 days
it up of set on stage light rigging and focussing, sound balance
4 days
Technical rehearsals
1st preview
Dress rehearsal in the afternoon
1st public performance
Rehearsals continue where necessary
Opening night
The production is up and running
After opening night
Understudy rehearsals take place throughout the life of the production
Changeovers - a production will changeover to another production several times during its run

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Teaching Shakespeare