Backstage: Meet the prop makers building theatre’s illusory world
Bottles that smash in just the right way. Puppets with such life to them that their puppeteers are all but forgotten. Replica medieval armour so believable that you would swear it had seen combat. Writers, directors and designers dream up what takes place on our stages, but it is prop makers who turn those dreams into reality, creating the all-important physical context for the life of the drama.
There is no one route to a career in prop making, as the craftsmen (and craftswoman) I talked to for this story will attest, but creativity is crucial, as well as a willingness to get your hands dirty.
Not everything you see on stage in British theatres is the work of a prop maker, of course – there are plenty of scenarios in which theatre companies might buy things in – but you would be amazed how much is made from scratch. From furniture to food to fairytale creatures, prop makers are adept at making themselves disappear in their work. Here we give them their own moment in the spotlight.
Allan Edwards, National Theatre, London
My love was acting. But I was always a maker. With amateur companies I was always making props, right from day one, and getting involved with scenic construction. It was only later on that the penny dropped and I thought ‘maybe I ought to be doing this for a living’.
I went to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and interviewed to get on their design course, after having worked at the arts centre in Bournemouth as a foundation technician. I got in on my practical skills but I didn’t really realise what designing actually was until I’d got part way into the course.
The performer in me is still really relevant, particularly since what I tend to specialise in are mechanical props, particularly puppets, things that need to move, to be interacted with by the actors, stage management, whoever. I can see where problems might occur and I know from my own experience of having to deal with props how very easy it is to find a different way of breaking something.
It’s taught me not to be too precious about my making. You put your heart and soul into something when it’s on the bench in front of you, and you do the absolute best job you can given the time and money constraints, but when it comes to it, you hand that piece over rather like a writer hands over their work to a director. And they will do something else with it than you necessarily expected them to do.
We are kept busy at the National – we’re servicing three theatres, so there’s a lot of shows either in production or pre-production – but there are down times. At this moment I should be in a teaching workshop in the new Duffield Studio. We try to make them relevant to what’s going on in the theatre at the time if we can. At the moment we’re making polystyrene books. That’s a good staple prop.
I’m in fairly good view from the new Sherling High-Level Walkway when I am in the workshop. Occasionally you think, ‘what do I look like doing this?’ That momentary glimpse into what happens backstage, I think can really affect you. If you’re that way inclined, I think it can make a lot of difference. If I was a visitor here, I would definitely be up there, pressing my nose to the glass.
Peter Evans, Peter Evans Studios
I remember leaving school with not an idea in my head what I was going to do. I was waiting for my O-level results and my mother said to me, “Dad’s a bit busy, do you want to go and give him a hand?”. And that’s what I did. My father started the business in 1960 and I took over in 1968 when he died. I was 22 at the time, which threw me very much in at the deep end.
As time goes on you learn more skills and I decided that I wanted to try and do vacuum-forming as a process because it’s very versatile. You can do lots of things with it and once you’ve made the pattern it’s reasonably economical, so I developed the business along those lines.
We’ve done our best to work hard and do everything we possibly can to make as good a product as we can, and clearly we must have succeeded because people keep buying it and ordering it. We’ve sent it pretty much all over the world.
Primarily it’s either people from a construction workshop who order from us – they consult with the designer and then order – or it’s production departments at theatres. My preferred way is to talk to the designer directly, without a doubt. That way you get to know exactly they want; whereas if you talk to somebody else that talks to somebody else, it can go through too many people.
I regularly go down to the workshop and look at what’s going on, and if I think I can add something, I interfere and say I think we should make it longer or thicker or fatter or whatever.
We made a large dragon for the ice show at Wembley and although it’s 20 years ago, I’ve still got fond memories of it. I don’t think of the jobs that I made the most money out of. I think of the jobs that were most successful from the audience point of view, simply because that’s the fun thing to do. Once you’ve got the job, the biggest concern is to do the job, not to do it within budget.
Marise Rose, Chichester Festival Theatre and freelance
I did a foundation course at art college and then decided to specialise in theatre design and ended up at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School on its design course, which was great, very practical. After that I went into a world of working with small touring companies, and because there was no budget I ended up making props as well.
As I gravitated more towards prop making, I discovered I actually preferred making to designing. I picked up quite a lot of skills along the way – carpentry, upholstery, sewing, mould-making, all that kind of thing – and you don’t actually get to use them in quite the same way if you’re designing. There’s a lot of lateral thinking in prop making, because you never do the same job twice. It’s about using your imagination.
I’m currently props workshop manager at Chichester Festival Theatre. It’s a seasonal job, roughly six months a year, then I’m freelancing otherwise.
We have a really good workshop here, which is one of the reasons why I really like the job. As a freelancer I have my own workshop, which is tiny, so the things that I can tackle here are much bigger. It’s full on – I think we’re doing 11 shows this season between April and October.
I’m a bit of an all-rounder. A lot of prop people do specialise, but because of my background I very much enjoy a bit of everything. I particularly enjoy painting, I have to say: turning a bit of MDF or ply into something that looks like it’s got a lovely cross-grain finish on it, into a beautiful piece of furniture. We do a lot of furniture mending here as well. Partly because of the shape of the stage – it’s a horseshoe shape so you’ve got audience on three sides – so a lot of designers here use furniture.
Every day is completely different. There’s always some new challenge, which is why I love it.