A vast warehouse on the edge of Stratford is home to our Scenic Workshop, where our sets and props take shape.
The Scenic Workshop team 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.
It all starts with the carpenters
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, 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.
Technical and mechanical
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 Romeo and Juliet, the ever-important balcony might appear basic, but it is in effect a piece of working architecture. It needs to support two people, and is designed to be climbed. It might have 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.The balcony might also need to move sideways on tracks, as well as up and down,which is a complicated effect for the workshop team to create and might involve building up the stage to accommodate the tracks.
Automated elements of a set may rely on mechanics, engineering or computers to work on stage. 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.
Some plays need water on stage, or even rain as in King Lear. Once it has fallen to the stage, the water needs to go somewhere. 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.
Moving the set in
The workshop is faced with a whole set of challenges when it comes to working with the thrust stages in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan Theatre. 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.
Modern productions in the Swan and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre often use a great deal of scenery. This is fine in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre 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.
A show will start off in Stratford but may well end up in theatres as far afield as the US and China. 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.