Where can you order a pile of elephant dung, an Egyptian mummy, a beautifully calligraphed love letter, and enough thrones, sofas and banqueting tables to furnish a palace? Answer: at our purpose-built Prop Shop on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon. Here, in the quiet Warwickshire countryside, is a fascinating treasure-trove of precious, perplexing and downright peculiar props.
The definition of a theatrical prop is very precise: 'A prop is anything that appears on stage and is not scenery, and not a costume or a hat. Props are things moved on and off stage.'
The RSC's team of seven full-time workers make, source, or find props for all RSC productions, at home and abroad. Prop-makers require a multitude of skills: carving, sculpting, basket-weaving, plastic moulding, cabinet-making, metalwork, soldering, embroidery, upholstery making, casting, to name just a few. The work is extremely detailed. Accuracy according to period is essential, and much time is spent consulting reference books, researching items on the internet and visiting museums for meticulous study.
The journey from proposal to prop begins 12 weeks before the opening of a new show. Firstly the designer holds a model-box showing, where the design is explained to all production departments using a 1:25 scale model of the stage showing the set and all the major props. The model box is a magical assortment of tiny items. For the 2003 production of Richard III, designed by Anthony Lamble and directed by Sean Holmes, the model-box contained a tall umpire's seat, a chaise-longue, a bath chair, a Victorian rocking-horse, a decorated carpet, a wooden boat, a selection of military camp-beds and a Gatling gun (mounted on wheels, a fore-runner of the modern machine-gun).
The technical and the preview period is used to check that all props are working correctly and looking right within the wider stage design. The Props team are responsible for making sure all props are in the correct place to be picked up by the actors who need them - this could be in dressing rooms, in the back dock, at the sides of the stage or even around the auditorium. Like the Stage team who move scenery, the Props team can be spotted during scene changes in a show, dressed in black or even in costume. carrying or moving props on and off stage.
The theatre's Props team look after daily maintenance and have occasionally had to mend props on stage during performances. For example, a table leg was repaired on stage during a show in the Swan theatre, and the Props team are sometimes caught on stage if a prop doesn't behave as it should.
Careers in Props
If you want to follow a career in the Prop Shop, then it's a good idea to gain qualifications in one of the specialist areas the department requires. Most of the team have learned their skills on the job. There are also some specialised courses in prop making.
For the Props team in the theatre, the key qualities for prospective employees are enthusiasm, attention to detail and a willingness to learn. Plus you must be confident going on stage during the scene changes, appearing in front of the public and staying calm in a crisis.
For the Props team in the Workshop, you'll need to be prepared to work hard. It's fascinating work but it's certainly not easy. A typical day starts by checking last night's show report. This report is written by the Stage Manager to give a detailed analysis of the previous evening's performance. It details any problems with props that occurred during the show. Throughout the day, in addition to meeting designers, sourcing items, researching and actually making the props, the phone rings constantly. Every week, the team meet designers about future shows, attend regular health and safety meetings and travel to London for production meetings. At busy times the team can finish late in the evening.
The photo below shows puppet Es-Sindibad the Sailor with his prop ship for the production of Arabian Nights (2009) in The Courtyard Theatre dock.
The photo above shows a prop table backstage on Arabian Nights (2009) with a key and coins labelled for the actors who need them.