Out of the Spotlight #3

A costume is made of more than just fabric: it can also be the weapons and props our actors carry, and the armour and shoes they wear.

We are the only theatre in the country that makes these four elements - armour, costume props, footwear, and weapons - in one in-house department. Our specialist team of armourers usually work with plastic, leather and sometimes metal to create their pieces, but materials can include everything from window blinds to table mats. Having the right armour means our actors look and feel ready for battle when they march out on stage.

Alan Smith, Head of Costume Props, Footwear and Armoury, started out as a trainee leatherworker and learnt everything on the job. He talked to us about his most memorable work during almost 30 years in the department.

A man in black armour holds hands with a woman in a white dress.
The Shoemaker's Holiday, designed by Max Jones.
Photo by Pete Le May © RSC Browse and license our images

Career highlights

There are two costumes that really stand out for Alan: "I enjoyed making the black armour for The Shoemaker’s Holiday (2014). We had a 16th-century portrait for reference. He had a black breastplate with etching and engraving down the front. The way we recreated this was by having a breastplate and cloth for the body and all the engraving created using hand-tooled leather, dot by dot. I got halfway through the toolwork and wondered what I had let myself in for! It had to cover the front, both the arms, and the back as well. The infill is dotted with a tiny stamp.

"My best known costume is Alex Hassell’s armour from Henry V (2015), which was in the posters for Stratford-upon-Avon, London, New York, China, for cinemas worldwide and even on the DVD cover. I’ve seen it seven foot high and I’ve seen it in London, China, and America. The armour is now in our museum collection."

Henry V in red and black armour, brandishing a sword.
Alex Hassell in Henry V, wearing armour made by Alan in our Stratford-upon-Avon workshops, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis.
Photo by Keith Pattison © RSC Browse and license our images

A challenge

Alan recalls that for Doctor Faustus (2016), there was a box at the back of the stage containing two knives, one real and the other a trick weapon: "The actor [here, Sandy Grierson] went into the box, picked up the real Stanley knife, used it and returned it to the box. When he comes to sign his name in blood with Mephistopheles, he picks up the blood-knife Stanley knife, 'cuts' his arm and then signs his name, saying ‘Now my sons, this is a wound.’ Making the knife was a challenge, but the method I used I’ve now adapted for other shows."

Man kneeling on stage cutting his own wrist with a knife
Sandy Grierson as Doctor Faustus.
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC Browse and license our images

A strange tail

Alan doesn't see any of his work as particularly strange - "It’s just what we do!" - but some of the items have been quite unusual: "For The Witch of Edmonton (2014), I made a skeletal dog’s tail – no skin, fur or muscle, just the bones. The support belt looked like a pelvis and then the latex spinal cord stuck to his back. The Wigs team then stuck the tail onto the actor and blended it into his headpiece. It was almost like making a prosthetic, and the tail wagged!"

An old woman leans over to touch the face of a man dressed as a dog.
The skeletal dog's tail in The Witch of Edmonton.
Photo by Stewart Hemley © RSC Browse and license our images

Planning ahead

To come up with the best designs and costumes, Alan recommends not rushing into anything: "Think about what you want to do and have a clear plan of what you want to achieve before you start.

"Your only restriction is what you think you can’t do. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work so try a new way of doing it. I always prefer to ponder something, thinking it through thoroughly before I say it can’t be done. And don’t be afraid to change methodology halfway through if the plan isn’t quite working."

hands in a workshop making a crown

Out of the spotlight

Out of the Spotlight gives a voice to the people who work behind the scenes to make our onstage magic happen. From costumiers to carpenters our skilled teams of people are working in our Stratford-upon-Avon workshops to create and build costumes, props and sets that help bring our shows to life. We share the challenges and triumphs that take place away from the spotlight.

Stitch In Time

Alan works in our Costume Workshop, Stratford-upon-Avon. We are restoring and redeveloping our workshops to give our skilled costume makers 21st century facilities to help them continue to create stunning costumes for you and audiences around the world to enjoy.

Support Stitch In Time

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