Where can you order a pile of elephant dung, an Egyptian mummy, a beautifully calligraphed love letter, and enough thrones, sofas and banqueting tables to furnish a palace? Answer: at our purpose-built Prop Shop on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon. Here, in the quiet Warwickshire countryside, is a fascinating treasure-trove of precious, perplexing and downright peculiar props.
The definition of a theatrical prop is very precise, as Deputy Head of Property Shop, Sharon Foley explains, 'A prop is anything that appears on stage and is not scenery, and not a costume or a hat. Props are things moved on and off stage.'
The RSC's team of seven full-time workers make, source, or find props for all RSC productions, at home and abroad. John Evans, Head of Property Shop, began working in the department over 30 years ago, aged just 15. 'I started off sweeping the floor, making the tea and cleaning the offices,' John remembers. Like four of the other Props staff, John quickly went on to learn all his prop-making skills on the job, and now can make just about anything, though he insists his speciality is cabinet-making and joinery.
Sharon Foley took a different route into the department. She started her career with a BA degree in Wood, Metal and Ceramics. 'Theatre isn't where I thought I'd be,' she says. 'It just happened. I found out they were looking for someone in the soft props department and I applied.' She has now been with the team for over 10 years.
Prop-makers require a multitude of skills: carving, sculpting, basket-weaving, plastic moulding, cabinet-making, metalwork, soldering, embroidery, upholstery making, casting, to name just a few. The work is extremely detailed. Accuracy according to period is essential, and much time is spent consulting reference books, researching items on the internet and visiting museums for meticulous study.
Flexibility, imagination and adaptability are also essential, because the RSC Prop Shop is often asked to make the strangest things. 'We made some sixteenth century condoms for the production of The Tamer Tamed in 2003,' Sharon recalls. 'We had to cover a real condom in latex, to give it the texture of pig's bladder, which is what the original item would have been made from.'
From page to stage
The journey from proposal to prop begins 12 weeks before the opening of a new show. Firstly the designer holds a model-box showing, where the design is explained to all production departments using a 1:25 scale model of the stage showing the set and all the major props.
The model box is a magical assortment of tiny items. For the 2003 production of Richard III, designed by Anthony Lamble and directed by Sean Holmes, the model-box contained a tall umpire's seat, a chaise-longue, a bath chair, a Victorian rocking-horse, a decorated carpet, a wooden boat, a selection of military camp-beds and a gatling gun (mounted on wheels, a fore-runner of the modern machine-gun). 'When we're making props we meet the designer regularly so we're able to check details and ensure they're happy with how everything is coming along.'
Sometimes props can be found and recycled from the RSC's extensive props store, but usually there are hundreds of new objects to be individually made. Once an item is finished, it is often aged and broken down, to give it an authentically used appearance. Sharon remembers that the production of Three Hours After Marriage, designed by Tim Goodchild, was particularly fascinating. 'The design was a cornucopia of artefacts, showing a Victorian traveller's house. We made rare eggs, giant spiders, multi-coloured fish, snakes, lizards, Egyptian artefacts, skeletons and babies in pickle jars. It was an amazingly detailed design.'
'Sometimes we work with the actors right through the rehearsal period,' John says. 'In the 2003 production of Measure for Measure, we finished the guillotine long before the technical rehearsals so that the company could rehearse with it, and learn to use it safely.'
The technical and the preview period is used to check that all props are working correctly and looking right within the wider stage design. '99% of the time everything is fine,' John says. 'We pride ourselves on that. However, we do have to make adjustments to props to suit the needs of the actors once they have the items on stage.'
After months of intensive work, seeing the props on stage is a satisfying time for the prop-maker. John remembers watching Rachel Kavanaugh's 2001 production of Alice in Wonderland with particular satisfaction. 'We'd done so many props that I sat there waiting for every single thing to appear, and to check that it was all behaving.'
Once the props are in use on the stage, the responsibility for their care is transferred to the theatre's Property Master. The Props team are responsible for making sure all props are in the correct place to be picked up by the actors who need them - this could be in dressing rooms, in the back dock, at the sides of the stage or even around the auditorium. Like the Stage team who move scenery, the Props team can be spotted during scene changes in a show, dressed in black or even in costume. carrying or moving props on and off stage.
The theatre's Props team look after daily maintenance and have occasionally had to mend props on stage during performances. For example, a table leg was repaired on stage during a show in the Swan theatre, and the Props team are sometimes caught on stage if a prop doesn't behave as it should.
Careers in Props
Not surprisingly for such unusual and fascinating work, we receive many enquiries from people wishing to work with the Props team. John advises those wishing to follow a career in the Prop Shop to gain qualifications in one of the specialist areas the department requires. 'No-one can do it all, so they should pick a subject and from this we can see how good a person is,' he says.
Though there are lots of professional courses for design, there is no specialised course for prop-makers. Most of the team have learned their skills on the job. 'You really have to be able to adapt to make anything,' John says, 'You don't need a heap of qualifications, rather an ability to be practical, to be familiar with tools and be able to solve problems.'
For the Props team in the theatre, the key qualities for prospective employees are enthusiasm, attention to detail and a willingness to learn. Plus you must be confident going on stage during the scene changes, appearing in front of the public and staying calm in a crisis.
For the Props team in the Workshop, you'll need to be prepared to work hard. It's fascinating work but it's certainly not easy. A typical day in the Prop Shop for John can start at 7.30am, when he begins by checking the show report. This report is written by the Stage Manager to give a detailed analysis of the previous evening's performance. It details any problems with props that occurred during the show. Throughout the day, in addition to meeting designers, sourcing items, researching and actually making the props, the phone rings constantly. Every week, the team meet designers about future shows, attend regular health and safety meetings and travel to London for production meetings. At busy times the team can finish late in the evening.
Despite the long hours, both John and Sharon admit this is their dream job and they're aware there are plenty of people who love to step into their shoes. 'It's a great job,' Sharon says. 'And there's an enjoyable rhythm to it. Because of the RSC repertoire system, one show leads onto the next show and the next. We look at models, research items and then make them come to life - it's great fun.'
John believes you never stop learning in this job. 'We never know quite what we're doing next, and we very rarely make the exact same thing twice. We take great pride in their work. Our props go from being in a show to the props store. In the store recently, I found a set of upholstered stools with lion's faces carved into the side. They seemed very familiar, and I realised that I'd helped to make them as a youngster. That was over 30 years ago and they were still going strong! That gave me a real sense of achievement.'
The photo below shows puppet Es-Sindibad the Sailor with his prop ship for the production of Arabian Nights (2009) in The Courtyard Theatre dock.
The photo above shows a prop table backstage on Arabian Nights (2009) with a key and coins labelled for the actors who need them.