A vast warehouse on the edge of Stratford is home to the RSC's Scenic Workshop where the majority of the Company's sets and props start to come alive.
Alan Bartlett, Head of Construction and Technical Design, and Paul Hadland, Scenic Workshop Manager, co-ordinate one of the largest technical departments in the RSC. In trying to describe what they do, Alan says, 'It's like building giant dolls' houses.' The Scenic Workshop team, like all other technical departments of the theatre, has to adapt to the working style and demands of a stream of very different designers. It's up to the members of the design and drafting team to interpret the sketches and make the design a reality. Using the drawings and 1:25 scale model presented by the designer, the challenge is to create a set that will last a whole season of performances.
In the carpentry shop at the warehouse, our carpenters usually work on scenery for two productions at a time. This skilled group of 'chippies' is perhaps one of the most unlikely teams of theatre enthusiasts at the RSC. They may keep a low profile, doing most of their work away from the actual theatre, but they are passionate about the sets they create. Sets are usually metal frameworks (made off-site), which are then clad with wood. While the team is working with apparently immovable pieces of metal and wood, they also need to be flexible enough to be altered at short notice should changes need to be made to the set.
The paintshop and props teams, designers, actors, director, and lighting technicians all have to be involved at some point during the creation of the scenery. Even during rehearsals, elements of the set may need to be changed and pieces of scenery that took weeks to design and build may - for artistic reasons (often the way it's used by actors) - be scrapped altogether or altered beyond recognition. For example, Humpty Dumpty's wall for Alice in Wonderland went through various technical modifications to enable the actor playing Humpty to fall off it, but in the end, the action was scrapped and the complex technical capabilities of the wall became obsolete.
Modern productions are a far cry from the old-fashioned collections of backdrops and painted canvas flats that theatre sets used to be. Modern sets feature far more technical and mechanical elements, partly to compete with the visual effects we are used to seeing in film and on TV. This all has to be brought in on budget, because unlike big London shows, which stay in the same theatres for years, our sets are part of a whole season of productions, and are also often required to move between several venues.
Often the sets that look most simple and minimal are in fact the most technically demanding to create. For example, in the 2004 Romeo and Juliet, the ever-important balcony does not seem to be particularly fussy or complex. However, while it seems basic, it is in effect a piece of working architecture. It needs to support two people, and is designed to be climbed. It also has doors that operate manually and automatically. Doors - such a basic element of a real building - are actually quite difficult to create on stage: they need to have a frame to slam against, and must open smoothly, even when hanging on a sloping stage.
This production of Romeo and Juliet also requires that the balcony move sideways on track, as well as up and down. This was a complicated effect for the workshop team to create. As Paul says, 'Wherever we go, we had to build the stage up an extra nine inches to accommodate the tracks.' Automated elements of a set may rely on mechanics, engineering or computers to work on stage. For example, the 2000 production of The Secret Garden featured 24 separately-tracked overhead objects and featured various doors and perspex screens, which were operated automatically by a specially-written computer programme.
Some plays feature items of scenery suspended above the stage, and other productions take this a step further by 'flying' members of the cast in on wires or suspending them above the stage. For example, the sets of The Taming of the Shrew (2003), As You Like It (2005) and Love's Labour's Lost (2008) included a working swing, which must be very carefully designed and rigged.
Other plays have called for water on stage, or even rain as in King Lear. This is not a problem in itself, but once it has fallen to the stage the water needs to go somewhere - preferably not onto the audience or into the orchestra pit! This is not always an easy problem to fix because on a sloping stage, gravity will naturally draw the water towards the front. Instead the team use pumps and gutters to draw the water away, ready for the next performance.
The workshop is faced with a whole set of challenges when it comes to working with the thrust stages in the Courtyard and the Swan Theatres. The shape of the stage does not lend itself to ordinary scenery set-ups so stage designs often feature large-scale backgrounds and unusual floors. For example, in the 2004 season of Spanish Golden Age plays in the Swan, the floor was metallic gold and for the Histories Cycle in 2007-8, rusted metal towers were built for the Courtyard stage inspired by gasometer storage tanks.
Alan says, 'The Swan was never designed to be a scenery house - it was originally designed for productions using little or no scenery.' However, modern productions in the Swan and the Courtyard often use a great deal of scenery. This is fine in the Courtyard which has a full-height scenery dock, but the old Swan had no proper loading doors so sets had to be designed in sections small enough to fit through conventional doors. For storage, all scenery was taken apart and fed through a 7-foot hole into a basement beneath the stage.
The Workshop team includes an experienced management and logistics crew. They have a complex and responsible job - moving huge sets is like a large-scale military manoeuvre. During a 'fit-up', the various pieces of the set are transported on huge 40-foot trailers to the theatre one mile away. Once the trucks have arrived, the Stage team and Workshop carpenters move pieces into the theatre and construct the set. Due to the space limitations of the workshop itself, this is often the first time all the pieces and elements of the set have been put together. As Paul says, 'You only need to be missing one element, and you can lose a whole day on the fit-up.'
A show will start off in Stratford but may well end up in theatres as far afield as the USA and Japan. It is vital that a member of the technical team, usually the Production Manager, goes ahead to recce the venue and measure it. Shows in the UK travel by truck, and in the past, moving a whole season of shows from Stratford to Newcastle has required up to 40 trucks. Sets needed abroad are sent by sea in containers. Some sets have to be made in duplicate, or even in triplicate so that during the UK run, the second set can be already on its way to the next venue.
The Workshop runs like a huge efficient machine, constantly producing new scenery and moving productions from one venue to the next. This is only really possible because the Workshop team have years of experience.
Most of the Workshop team have been working in theatre all their lives. In fact, Paul has worked out that if you take the ten most senior members of the team, they can claim over 280 years of experience. Bob Hinton was the longest serving member of the team until recently - he started at the Workshop in 1961 and retired in early 2010. He worked his way up from tea boy to his final position as Logistics Manager.
Although there are modern college courses teaching theatre design skills, the best training of all is to learn on the job. For many years, the Workshop employed only experienced set builders, but they recently taken on young apprentices. Paul comments, 'It's a very specialised trade. To learn it properly, you need to start young. We realised that a lot of the skills were being lost, so in 2009 we took on three apprentices.' (Learn more in Work with us »)
With years of experience behind them and the future always in mind, we can rely on our Workshop team to continue to be our creative manufacturing powerhouse for years to come.