A day in the life of... Props

  • A day in the life of... Props - 1


    The crew (the Stage and Props teams) arrive, ready to crack on with the 'changeover' from As You Like It (AYLI) to The Winter's Tale. Darren, Head of Props, is working with Simon, Steve and Kev today. Although the audience won't see them, they are a vital part of putting the show together to deliver a top performance tonight. The crew prepare meticulously but problems occur every day which they have to solve. What will happen today...? In this photo gallery, we'll follow the team through every step of their day - from broken booksheves and food thieves to a grumpy bear and a confetti crisis.

    Last night, the Running Wardrobe team removed their items (rails of costumes, shoes etc) from the backstage area so the two teams don't get in each other's way. The backstage area has several sections but the main home of the crew is known as the MSD. Before the Courtyard Theatre was created, this room was a rehearsal studio named after French director Michel Saint-Denis who was artistic advisor to the RSC from 1961 until he died in 1971, so the name has stuck. Between here and the stage there are two sets of double doors so it's not necessary to be silent during a performance.

    Darren removes poetry on paper and cardboard leftover from As You Like It in the foyer and auditorium. Last night, two of the crew stayed behind to remove sheets of poetry which they pin along Southern Lane after the interval. This creates a magical moment when the audience leaves the theatre. Most of the poems are taken as souvenirs (which is fine!) but they collect up the few remaining to keep the street tidy.


    Everyone knows the routine for this changeover - they work quickly and quietly, helping others where necessary. Four of the Stage team remove the floor for AYLI and fit the shiny black floor for The Winter's Tale.

    At the side of the MSD there are several small rooms, about the size of a walk-in cupboard: a shower and loo, a quick-change area, the Props kitchen and a small workshop. All tools are returned immediately to their correct location on the wall or shelf, so that everyone else can find them. At Prompt Corner (upstage right, where the Stage Manager works during the show), the crew has a metal tool chest and they stride back and forth to it, knowing exactly which drawer to find each item, and then returning them the instant they finish. Nothing is left lying around or forgotten about.

    Behind the stage is the back dock - a warehouse-like long room with very high ceilings. In here, Darren is elbow-deep in a freezer counting his stocks of rabbits to be used in AYLI. In another freezer, he checks there is enough vanilla ice-cream for tonight's performance, then adds a new Wanted poster to a stake and starts separating loose book pages in a box. The Props team coated them in a sprinkling of non-slip dots (like on the soles of non-slips socks) so the actors won't slip on them, but it does mean they stick to themselves in the box...

  • A day in the life of... Props - 2


    The Props team have dragged large cardboard boxes ('skips') labelled 'Winter's Tale' into the MSD. These three boxes are filled with all the props for the show. Simon unfurls black cloths from the skips and lays them onto the props tables which line the wall of the MSD nearest the stage. Labels stuck on the cloth indicate the position of individual props. The labels are written the day the props arrive and are moved during technical rehearsals when exact positions are decided. The Props team can easily see if an item is missing because there will be a gap next to a label on the cloth.

    All the items are also listed in the show's 'props bible' - a folder with printed lists and copies of the 'cue lists' - the rough time of each props cue and what needs to be done.

    Simon lays cloths and sets out props at four points around the stage: behind Prompt Corner, Up Stage Left, and Down Stage Left and Right (behind the stalls). (For detail on this stage labelling, see: Wikipedia)

    At the back of the stalls there are two Props cupboards. Actors often retrieve their props from the shelves unless the transition is difficult or quick, in which case a Props person will assist. Some directors like the Props cupboards to be open when the audience are coming in; others prefer them to be closed. For The Winter's Tale, the cupboards are closed.

    Steve is checking 'personals' - props which are carried by the actor and might cross-over into being part of a costume - for example, pocket-watches, cigarette cases and some jewellery. These are looked after during the show by the Assistant Stage Manager. Steve can't find the binoculars for Darrell d'Silva's character Polixenes so he goes to check in Darrell's dressing room. The binoculars have been neatly packed away in a box by Darrell's dresser so Steve takes them back to the MSD and replaces them on the cloth.

    There are regular backstage theatre tours for the public - the participants are told not to touch anything but it's just too tempting to pick up objects from the props tables and handle them. The Props team always removes any swords or blades when tours are due, but they also remove items like prop money (coins and notes) which might get fiddled with, or unusual small items which are difficult to replace, such as the bird whistle Simon's placed on the table today.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 3


    Steve goes to Sainsbury's to buy dried apricots and raisins. The company usually enjoy tasty 'consumable' props. Simon remembers that for A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2005, he had to buy several portions of fish and chips for the Mechanicals. One actor in particular relied on this as his dinner!

    Other food used in shows is always sourced locally where possible and the team are regulars at Barry the Butcher and the bakery sections of local supermarkets. They also keep a supply of cigarettes for the shows and have to keep these away from opportunist fag-pinchers.

    Simon and Darren discuss buying more towels to soak up fake blood in the current production of Julius Caesar. Fake blood is not looked after by Props - the Wigs team apply it, Running Wardrobe have to remove it from costumes, but the crew have to clean it off the stage. It's sweet-tasting syrupy stuff which can dye clothes. The crew had a stock of black towels but all the ones they bought in 2009 have gone missing. Why would anyone want to 'borrow' black towels which have been used to wipe up fake blood and dust for months? Yuk.

    Some Props supplies are kept locked up: fire gels, torch wicks and flammable 'grandmasse' paste. Props look after fire-bowls, candles and torches but the LX team (Lighting and Electrics) manage 'anything with a plug on it' (eg: fans, haze machines) and pyrotechnics, which are triggered by an electric charge. Props also look after items with batteries such as lanterns.

    The crew have a make-do-and-mend attitude and maintain all the props. Safety is top priority though so Darren will occasionally call the Prop Workshop to help repair or replace a prop.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 4


    The Winter's Tale opens with a winter festival scene - Leontes and his guests celebrate Christmas. As the audience comes in, the stage is set with two long tables set for a Christmas dinner.

    The tables are stored one on top of the other on a 'truck'. They asked the RSC Workshops to make this specially, to make storing and moving the table easier. The Props team can't wheel the table onto the stage until just before the doors open to the public so they set it backstage.

    Simon finds matching tablecloths and lays them on the tables. The cloths join with hook-and-loop fasteners to make sure there are no gaps. Kev decides the cloths look crumpled so - just as fine dining restaurants do - he irons the tablecloths as they lie on the table. Simon and Darren check the plates and cutlery, removing bits of wax, and lay both tables. It doesn't matter that the plates are not spotlessly clean, nor that the cutlery is cheap stuff from Ikea - from where the audience are sitting, it looks convincing. Robbie the Stage Manager has a very sharp eye for detail and will occasionally insist that the Props team give the tableware a thorough clean and polish. Not today though.


    There are three candelabras on the tables which have long rods underneath to fit into holes in the table. This neat trick prevents them being knocked over. Plenty of other safety precautions are taken too - the cloths are sprayed with a flame-retardant liquid, plus the candles are attached to the candelabras with wires. (The candelabras are recycled - they were used in our production of Great Expectations in 2005.)

    Due to the air conditioning in the theatre, the candles burn at different rates so have to be replaced at different times. Simon uses a hacksaw to cut down a new candle to match the others. He then wires it into the candelabra and uses a blow-torch to create the melted-wax dribbles down the sides of the candle. The Props team use church candles because they last longer than ordinary tapered candles.

    Darren lays the table with 13 crackers and paper hats. The crackers are supplied as kits and made up when the Props team have a few quiet moments. The supplier discontinued the crackers chosen by the show's designer but the replacements came with modern wavy-edged paper hats rather than the traditional pointy spikes! Darren had to source the correct pointy hats elsewhere because the wavy hats were not popular with either the designer or the actors.

    Darren sets two table decorations of plastic fruit, cinnamon sticks and ribbons then refers to a diagram made by the Stage Managers showing the correct table layout. It specifies the colour and location of each hat. There was some worry today because one actor prefers to have an orange hat but there weren't any to be found in the bag of spares. Simon decides to set two green hats instead...

  • A day in the life of... Props - 5


    Kev and Steve unroll long black mats covered in book pages. These are a new addition to the set for 2010 in response to a suggestion from the Props team to make the interval change and set-back after the show quicker. Instead of covering the edges of the stage in individual book pages, they simply lay these mats. The mats get creased when they're stored rolled up so the Props team lay them out flat in the back dock ready to be carried on during the interval.

    The crew are always pleased when a suggestion from them like this is implemented. Back in 2003, they had to make nine portions of candyfloss for the actors in Beauty and the Beast, hiring a machine and buying the sugar. The Props team suggested that the theatre could sell candyfloss alongside the usual drinks, sweets and ice-cream during the interval, so the Front of House team took up this idea and served hundreds of happy customers - and the Props team had an easy way to obtain their prop candyfloss!


    The Stage team need to carry in the set and props for The Comedy of Errors which will be rehearsing on stage this afternoon. All the crew join together to bring in boxes and items for this show - including a dishwasher, microwave and TV. These items are all stored in secure units just behind the Courtyard's back dock and just at this point, it's begun raining. The crew ignore the rain and continue bringing in the boxes. The crew have several unusual skills - here they demonstrate one of them: walking backwards very quickly.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 6


    Steve makes up a large jug of Ribena and adds a few drops of 'burnt sugar solution'. This sweet-tasting liquid darkens the colour and is also used for making up fake beer and whiskey. The Ribena mixture isn't as dark as red wine but, poured into the elegant cut-glass goblets, it does the job. During a season (six months or so), the Props team use around 10 2-litre bottles of Ribena. That is, unless any of the crew help themselves to little dashes of it every now and again...

    Steve prepares scrolls for the oracle. The scrolls are created by photocopying master text on special parchment-effect paper. Steve then uses a metallic gel pen to colour in a design at the bottom, wondering if any of the audience will notice this detail, then rolls up each scroll, sealing it closed with a blob of melted red wax.

    A wave of controlled panic hits the stage - the booksheves aren't working. These huge pieces of scenery dominate the stage in the entire play - in the first half, they are full of books in Leontes's court. Just before the interval, they fall, scattering books and they remain tipped forwards for the rest of the show. The crew should now be filling up the shelves with books but they're stuck in the 'down' position. The hydraulic mechanism is maintanined by the Automation team who are currently busy troubleshooting. The crew leave them to it, deciding to come in half an hour earlier than normal tonight to reset the books.


    The crew take a break before the evening's show. Not everyone from the Stage and Props teams are required to work on the show so some of them go home. The others escape into the sunshine. Many of the team live nearby which is handy when working a split-shift day like this. Darren goes to his allotment and eats dinner at 4.30pm - well, if you're at work from 5pm until 10.30pm, when are you supposed to eat dinner? Some of the team go to the gym; some take a long lunch or have a snooze in the comfortable crew area on the mezzanine above the MSD.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 7


    The Automation technicians have mended and tested the bookshelves mechanism so the crew work together to fill them with prop books, unpacking them from skips and passing up to a workmate on the ladder. The bottom three shelves are filled with real books - Leontes picks one up early in the play and opens it - but the rest of the books are fake. The prop books are extremely light -they're chunks of sponge with cardboard covers identical to the real books. Even up close, it's difficult to tell the difference until you pick one up. With everyone helping, the shelves are stacked in 20 minutes.


    Time for a break before the show. This evening, Steve is following Darren to learn his set of Props cues so Simon is covering behind him by doing Steve's cues. Having a good memory is vital because just like actors have understudies, Props staff have to cover for each other. Staff may be 'show specific' or provide cover. For example, Lucy and Nick cover both Stage and Props so currently they have two or four sets of cues for nine shows stored in their heads.

    The crew working tonight congregate around their hub in the MSD - a table strewn with papers and cups. Tom H clears a space on the table to put down a large pot of tea and set up a Scrabble board. Between Stage cues, he and Lucy complete several games, resolving frequent disputes with a dog-earred copy of the official Scrabble dictionary. The crew gravitate back to this table between cues, their conversations, crosswords and Scrabble picked up where they were left off. Tonight, the long-running discussion is about holiday destinations, something to look forward to during our disappointing English summer.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 8


    The crew fetch radios from the charging dock, attach the earpiece and microphone, and check they have a photocopy of their cue list in their pocket. While actors take part in a dance-rehearsal on stage, Steve and Amy, the Assistant Stage Manager, run through the pre-show check. Using the show's props bible, they walk around the various locations where props are stored with Steve reading out the list and Amy checking the items are present. A pillow is missing. Steve quickly finds it in the MSD and replaces it in the correct position.


    Now the warm-ups and dance rehearsal are complete, Darren, Simon and Steve wheel the tables into place on stage, placing them exactly on the markers (strips of red tape on the stage) and applying the brakes. There is another set of markers further upstage for the next scene, when an actor will move the table and convert it into a bed.

    Steve fixes the candelabras into the holes in the table. Simon fixes the two sides of the tablecloth together but they don't match up on the side nearest the audience - one is longer than the other. The team try to adjust it with no success. They decide to turn the table around so the dodgy join in the cloth is not so noticeable. Chairs are carried on and aligned neatly around the table.


    Robbie the Stage Manager announces that the house is now open. From the Props team's point of view, everything is perfect and they're looking forward to an easy evening. To anyone chancing past, it might look like the crew are enjoying a sociable time around their table but like any skill which appears effortless, this is only achieved through hours of preparation: careful planning during technical rehearsals and meticulous maintenance during a production's run. However, there is an element of excitement because there's always the threat that something might go wrong during the show...


    Alison, the Deputy Stage Manager, calls for the 'Part One beginners'. This is the cue for Darren to fill up a sundae glass with ice-cream from the Props freezer. It has to be real ice-cream because the young actor playing Mamillius has to eat it! Which can't be too much of a hardship for a ten year old boy. Darren waits in the MSD for Kelly Hunter who plays Mamillius's mother, Hermione.

    Actors in costume arrive from their dressing rooms, take one of Steve's glasses of Ribena from the table and push through the doors to the wings. Two actors pick up long candle-lighters from the table and instinctively check they're working. They stroll on stage to light the candles.

    Kelly glides in, dressed in her character Hermione's long gown over a pregnancy suit. She and Darren greet each other and silently walk the route they've made every time this show goes on, around the back of the stalls. Darren hands over the glass and spoon, and a glass of Ribena, and wishes Kelly a good evening. On his way back to the MSD, he checks his printed list for his next cue.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 9


    The show begins... The Props team demonstrate another unusual skill: walking very quietly in the dark without bumping into anything.


    Steve waits for actors coming off stage to replace their glasses on the table. They are immediately washed and replaced, ready for tomorrow's matinee. Simon neatly folds the paper hats and stores them in an envelope. The team can always tell what's happening on stage - video monitors in the MSD, the Green Room and the foyer play a direct feed of the show from a camera rigged at the back of the stalls, and speakers relay the audio around all the backstage areas and dressing rooms.


    Darren receives half the table downstage from Paul Hamilton, one of the actors. Darren and Steve quietly stack up the plates, cutlery and decorations and carry them back to the MSD. This half of the table will stay at the back of the stalls until tomorrow morning. An usher is bringing three late-comers around the back of the stalls so they enjoy watching this piece of hidden theatre.

    The other half of the table is converted into a bed - the place-settings and decorations are carried off by actors and other actors collect a teddy and pillow from an alcove near Prompt Corner and carry them on.


    Simon receives the 'bed' from Paul who has wheeled it off. Simon removes the teddy bear and pillow, putting these in an alcove near Prompt Corner ready for tomorrow's show. Darren hands a prop baby in a basket to Noma Dumezweni (playing Paulina) telling her which end is the head.


    Back at the table behind the stalls, Darren receives the basket, takes out the 'baby', pins it firmly into its blanket and pops it onto a shelf in the props cupboard, ready to be picked up by the actor playing Antigonus.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 10


    The giant bookshelves collapse! Much of the work the crew has done today has gone into making this moment work. Sound effects boom around the auditorium and books tumble from the shelves, crash landing all over the stage floor. The audience gasp and burst into applause - apparently audience members often think the bookshelves are a painted piece of scenery!


    It's time for Shakespeare's most famous stage direction: 'Exit pursued by a bear'. Actor Paul Hamilton (who seems to be an honorary member of the Props team in this show) plays the bear, a 12 foot tall skeleton puppet covered in book pages, with giant glowing eyes. Paul, wearing a black shirt and trousers covered in pages, stands underneath the bear costume which hangs from the roof on a pulley. Simon lowers the costume while Amy (the Assistant Stage Manager) fits Paul into it, checking he's OK. Dave Rubin and Adam Burton, dressed in black, take up their positions, ready to operate the bear's arms.

    Everyone's ready, silently waiting for the cue. Bear, GO! Grant yanks open the central doors, speakers emit loud snarly growls and the bear stalks onto the stage. Directly behind the bear, one of the LX team has switched on a giant fan (one metre square) - Simon and Amy hold large trugs of torn book pages and toss handfuls into the powerful air-stream. The effect for the audience is incredible, a real 'coup de théâtre'. In a black-out, Paul ducks backstage and Simon winches the costume off him.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 11


    After the drama of the bookcases and the spectacular entrance of the bear, the audience can now relax in the interval but the crew are very busy converting the stage for the scenes in Bohemia. In proscenium arch theatres, this scene-change would be done behind a curtain but our thrust stage doesn't have one. Some of the audience who had got up to leave the auditorium sit back down to enjoy the spectacle of the crew hard at work.

    Darren climbs onto the back of the bookcases with a broom to push out any books which haven't fallen onto the stage. Some of the books are fastened to the shelves but by now, Darren knows which ones these are. Tom, Lucy and Grant from the Stage team are clearing the centre of the stage by scooping up armfuls of books and tossing them into piles upstage. Amy picks up loose leaves of paper and returns them to the trugs. Steve and Simon collect the black mats from the back dock and lay them onto the three sides of the stage, filling in the gaps with loose book pages.

    Darren places a few props around the stage which can hardly be seen among the piles of blue books. They look like they're randomly placed but they're positioned in exactly the same place each time so the actors and musicians can find them easily. Robbie (Stage Manager) walks around, referring to his check-list to ensure they're all in the right place.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 12


    Part Two is underway. Actor Joe Arkley collects the stake with the Wanted poster stuck on it. During a scene change, he plants it in a hole in the stage and removes a chair. Simon receives the chair and replaces it in the back dock.


    Simon covers leftover dried fruit and stores it in the Props kitchen - if he left them on the Props table in the main thoroughfare to the stage, quite a lot of the food would mysteriously vanish overnight as people walking past often think they can just nibble a few because they won't be missed.

    One of the actors coming through the MSD announces that they are sharing birthday cakes in the Green Room. Cake has replaced fizz as the shared consumable to celebrate any occasion here! The team make another brew and have small slices of cake.


    Two actors carry off a door which is used in the show as a table. Simon collects it from them and stores it ready for tomorrow.


    Darren collects a wooden casket from the table Down Stage Left. The prop is the box of coins that Antigonus leaves with the baby in Bohemia. Larrington Walker, playing the Old Shepherd who finds the box, switches on the light inside it so when he opens it, the gold coins inside reflect a golden glow onto his face. Darren carries the box back to the MSD and plugs it into the charging bay.

    The box was made at our workshops in Stratford and fitted with a lamp by the LX team at the Courtyard. The simple circuit inside looks just like something you'd see in a school electronics lesson! The box is not full of coins - it's filled with a wedge of foam with coins stuck on the top. This means the box isn't heavy, it doesn't rattle and, if it was dropped, the coins can't be spilled.

    That's Darren's last cue so he and Steve go home.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 13


    Simon and Grant push a large box into position backstage, taking extra care to line it up perfectly with the markings on the floor. The box is the plinth for the 'statue' in the emotional final scene of The Winter's Tale. The wheels are a little wonky so it's vital they position it perfectly or it'll veer off-course like a supermarket trolley and miss the precise spotlight.

    Kelly Hunter sits near Prompt Corner in a dressing gown and slippers to keep warm, quietly focussing on slowing her breathing and heartbeat so she can stand still as the statue. She listens to the dialogue from the stage and slowly walks towards the plinth. Simon offers his hand and she steps up, standing in her pose well before the moment comes for her to enter. Four actors arrive ready to push the plinth onstage. Listening closely to their headsets, Grant and Simon wait for the cue.

    On the cue, Grant pulls quickly on the rope to open the door and the actors, helped by Simon push in the 'statue'. Simon steps away and disappears behind a black curtain.

  • A day in the life of... Props - 14


    Simon's final cue is to drop confetti from the roof as the production ends. He walks up the three flights of stairs backstage and emerges on the rig above the Gallery seats. It's dark but a few safety lights cast a blue glow and tubes of bright blue LEDs mark the edges of the gantries. Simon expected to find the tub of confetti where it usually sits - in a pile of things the Props team drop from the rig in all the current shows. It's not there.

    Simon switches on his head-torch and rummages in the pile. Red petals, black 'ash', spare ropes. But no white confetti. Steve had told him it was there but it's nowhere to be found. Rather than waste more time rummaging, Simon quietly dashes through the door and downstairs to the stock of confetti in the MSD.

    He arrives back with a plastic cup filled with small white squares of tissue paper and makes his way into the middle of one of the gantries, treading very softly to make no noise. He takes a handful of the confetti and stretches his arm over the railing. On the cue, he releases a few bits at a time, sprinkling them from side to side to create a falling snow effect.


    The show ends! The audience are still applauding but there are no guns or blades to lock away so the crew don't hang about. Simon goes home knowing most of the Props are already in the correct positions for tomorrow's show and he'll be back at 11:00 tomorrow to prepare for the matinée.

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Teaching Shakespeare