From four-poster beds to severed heads and bespoke musical instruments, the props from our shows begin life in our Prop Shop in Stratford-upon-Avon where a small team of skilled craftsmen and women work with a huge range of materials and techniques to create the items you see on our stages.
The set and props begins with the model box – the show’s designer produces a scale model of the set and will talk the team through it. Then there will be a drawing of each prop, showing what it should look like, how it should work and its dimensions.
Prop Maker Mel said: “We go through the drawing to clarify how the designer would like it. We need to know what it has to do to make it work – if someone has to stand on it, if it has to be thrown over. We have to make sure it will stand up to whatever happens to it onstage.”
Throughout the process the Prop Supervisor is constantly in touch with the creative team in the rehearsal room, bringing new information back to the team that will inform the way they build the props.
Props make items in any size, from towering giant puppets, to wooden mice that fit in the palm of your hand.
The item Mel is most proud of is a grand piano that was used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016. The piano wasn’t just a piano – it was a vehicle for moving actors around, it was a bed for Bottom and Titania (filled with roses) and a podium for Oberon. And it was played as a piano. All that meant they couldn’t just use an existing grand piano.
It took Mel six weeks to build the piano from scratch. It used an electric keyboard in the body of a grand piano, it had four legs instead of three, so it wouldn’t tip when actors climbed on it.
In the past few years Mel has built three pianos and two harpsichords. They use electric keyboards in a wooden frame, so the prop can be wheeled around and it won’t affect the tuning, and it means there doesn’t need to be a piano tuner coming in every day.
Tea party tables and shrinking furniture
One of Mel's biggest achievements in the Prop Shop was the shrinking table for Alice in Wonderland. To create the effect of Alice shrinking and growing they created a table that would change in size so it would look as if she was changing.This 2001 show tested the team more then any other with the huge number of props it required, including a 7m table and six chairs for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene.
The effect was created by making three different tables exactly the same, but using different angles to give the effect of shrinking. The three tables were 450mm, 1500mm and 2400mm – the largest table posed its own unique problems.
Mel explains: “It was just a massive thing to do – the largest thing I have turned for the theatre. When you put it in the lathe it was like a helicopter turning round.”
Mel has been making props for 24 years. He trained as a cabinet maker through an apprenticeship, then moved into self employed work fitting kitchens and conservatories, before getting the job in our Prop shop, based in our workshop on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon. Mel works alongside Rosie, a Technical Theatre Apprentice who has been with the company for 18 months and works with a full range of materials so she can develop skills in all areas of props.