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Behind the Scenes – Royal Shakespeare Company’s theatres

Setting the scene

More than a million people flock to Stratford-upon-Avon every year to visit the Royal Shakespeare Company’s world famous theatres. Mandy Appleyard went along to meet the people who help to bring the Bard’s plays to the stage…

Back in 1875, an eminent Stratford-upon-Avon brewer, Charles Flower, donated a plot of land beside the river to build a theatre where a permanent subsidised company of actors would perform the works of the Warwickshire town’s most famous son, William Shakespeare. That same year saw the creation of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Limited Incorporated and, four years later, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened.

Today, the complex has grown to encompass the main riverside theatre, the Swan Theatre, which rose from the metaphorical ashes of the original 1879 theatre, as well as The Other Place, a purpose- built contemporary theatre which opened in 1991.

With make-up, costume and wig departments in the main building, as well as the box office and a theatre shop, cafes, a restaurant and bar, this is a thriving community. Many of the workshops where scenery and sets are built and costumes and props are designed and made are housed in buildings across the town. We paid a visit as the RSC prepared for two productions: a contemporary adaptation of the early-1600s Shakespeare play Measure for Measure, and a rarely performed political thriller from the Restoration period, Venice Preserved.

Aladdin’s cave

Work on the RSC productions begins at the workshops on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon, where all the props and scenery are made inside three hangars. In the RSC’s new four-floor prop hire store, people, partygoers, television companies – and other theatre companies – can hire RSC props. It’s stuffed with artefacts such as stuffed sheep and a pig’s head on a platter, lanterns and lights, and countless gowns and thrones. “If you’re after a wimple, a three-tier faux birthday cake, a severed head, a medieval hooded cloak or a stuffed stag, I will be able to find it,” claims prop hire manager Zoe Skinner.

Pat a cake

Props supervisor Jess Buckley holds one of her favourite items – a lavish three-tier ‘cake’ from last year’s production of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich. “Although it looks huge, it’s actually not that heavy,” Jess says. “This is one of the RSC’s popular hireable props.”

Made to measure

The sets and props take shape at the Scenic Workshop. From drawings and a 1:25 scale model presented by the designer, the team create a set – usually made out of metal, clad with wood – that will last a whole season of performances. Scenic carpenter Dave Watson (left) and Scenic Workshop deputy head Andy Hilton are crafting the wooden sets for Venice Preserved and Measure for Measure. Once the show is over, the sets are dismantled, then recycled, reused or discarded.

Special effects

It’s 31 years since Paul Hadland, the head of scenic construction, served his apprenticeship at the RSC. “Sets used to be made out of wooden flats with canvas and paints; now, it’s a lot more technical with magic effects and automation.”The automated elements rely on mechanics, engineering or computers to work on stage. Sometimes, they need to be able to ‘fly’ members of the cast in on wires or suspend them above the stage. A recent production of King Lear needed to create rain. Once it has fallen, the water needs to go somewhere. “On a sloping stage, gravity will draw the water towards the front. Instead the team devised pumps and gutters to draw it away, ready for the next performance,” Paul adds.

Not to scale

In the paint shop, freelance scenic assistant Jonny Brown, Amy Rodger, who’s on work placement, and scenic artist Dan Roblin are filling, sanding and distressing flats, ahead of bringing a model version of a set to life. “The director and designer decide on the look of a production, then put the concept together using a model. They bring us the model, then we make samples and the designer picks what they want,” Jonny explains.

Just the job

RSC apprentice props maker Rosie Milwall is making tables. “The most unusual thing I’ve worked on was a giant puppet for As You Like It, made of lots of different types of wood in different thicknesses,” she says. “It was huge – it filled the back of the stage completely and had people operating it from inside – so figuring out the process of how to make it was really interesting.” Rosie is two years into a three-year apprenticeship with the RSC and says, “I can’t think of a better job in the world!”

Rising to the challenge

Scenic engineer Carl Simmons is hard at work in the scenic engineering workshop, where metal elements of the set are being soldered and welded. Unlike shows, which stay in the same theatres for years, the RSC’s sets are part of a season of productions and often move between venues. Carl explains, “Often, the sets that look the most simple are the most demanding to create. In Romeo and Juliet, the balcony might look basic but it needs to support two people, and is designed to be climbed. It might also need to move sideways on tracks, as well as up and down. This might involve building up the stage to accommodate the tracks.”

Tailor made

In the costume workshops in a temporary home in central Stratford, costumier David Wood is one of 40 people at work. “Today, I’m sewing pinstriped men’s suit costumes for Venice Preserved,” he says. The workshops make as much as they can in-house, occasionally hiring from other costume houses or buying in, depending on what’s required. It can take anything from a day to four or five weeks to make a costume, depending on its complexity.

To cap it all

Head of millinery and jewellery Alexandra Thompson is crafting felt and woollen Austrian military caps for Measure for Measure. “It’s hard work but great fun,” she says. There are more than 30 craftspeople working in the RSC’s in-house costume workshop. Costumes have been made on-site for the past 132 years for everyone from Peggy Ashcroft to Mia Farrow, John Gielgud, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench and David Tennant.

Creative spark

Senior theatrical milliner and jeweller Charlotte Hobbs has worked at the RSC for 20 years, having arrived from university, where she studied graphic design. Today, she’s working on creating a complicated and detailed mayoral chain of office for Measure for Measure, set in early 17th-century Vienna. “When I arrived here, I’d never made a hat in my life.You’ve got to be good with your hands because we’re working in 3D, and you need imagination, creativity and the ability to create something from nothing,” she adds. “Every day is different in this job. One day you’re making a crown, the next day silk flowers, the next day a mayoral chain of office.”

Colour-coordinated

Senior costume painter and dyer Jenny Cowgill has worked at the RSC for 11 years. Today, she is trying to match up a new batch of wool fabric to an existing pair of trousers so they’re a close match.

Wig world

Wig maker Kate Garrett has worked with the RSC for almost three years. Today, she is making wigs for Venice Preserved and Measure for Measure. “They’re made from human hair, which we buy in from a specialist supplier, and we make the wigs ourselves. It takes a week to make a wig. We’re also on hand to do the dressing and prepping of wigs while productions are underway.”

On tour

The RSC runs backstage tours that have taken more than 19,000 people around traditionally off-limits areas to glimpse the reality of theatre life. Bobby Moore takes up to five one-hour tours a day, which might include the laundry rooms – all costumes need to be washed after each performance – the lighting area, the props cupboard and, if you’re lucky, a scene change. “I’ve had a few people pass out after they’ve seen a blood bag, so I make sure to warn people that what they’re seeing isn’t blood – it’s a kind of syrup dyed red. We buy it in. The exact ingredients are a secret but it’s very sweet and sugary so you could put it on ice cream if you wanted to! There aren’t many jobs where you just talk for a living but that’s exactly what I do. And I get to see a lot of different productions.”

Wardrobe master

Costume hire manager Pip Stoddard oversees a treasure trove of items including petticoats and crinolines, chain mail and real fur coats, eagle head masks, bejewelled capes and more than 100 crowns. At the last count, there were more than 40,000 RSC costumes in the hire room. “I make sure everything is where it should be, and in good condition,” Pip says.

Just the ticket

Kerry-Sue Peplow works in the box office in the main building. “I’m constantly kept busy dealing with the public as well as email or telephone enquiries as we have more than one million day visitors plus all the audience attendees visit us every year,” she says.

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