The scenic resources department at the RSC has to realise a director’s vision on time, intact and on budget. Its head, Becky Cubitt, tells Fergus Morgan that when it comes to the sets and props their tagline is ‘Made in Stratford’ and how they’re expanding into the West End
On Timothy’s Bridge Road in Stratford-upon-Avon stands an unremarkable corrugated grey building. It could be an industrial warehouse or a mail depot, were it not for the letters ‘RSC’ stamped above the entrance.
Inside, the building that houses the Royal Shakespeare Company’s props workshop and costumes store is anything but unremarkable. There is a suite of offices where sets for RSC’s productions are sketched out on paper. Beyond these are a series of warehouses where those sets are brought to life in wood and metal, and then there is the archive of props stretching back decades.
It’s all overseen by Becky Cubitt, the RSC’s head of scenic resources. It’s her responsibility to realise a designer’s vision, and to make sure it arrives on stage on time, intact, and on budget. She heads an in-house team of about 50 dedicated to the task.
“I find it very hard to describe my job, because it’s very different, show to show,” she says. “Day to day, I’d say it’s playing Tetris with large pieces of scenery.”
Born in Wrexham in 1982, Cubitt has been involved in theatre since she was a teenager, although never as a performer. “I never felt like I wanted to get up on stage,” she says. “I hate public speaking. I had to be persuaded to do this interview.”
After a BTec in technical design, and a stage management degree at the Royal Welsh College of Speech and Drama, Cubitt began working backstage professionally, first as a freelance, then for companies around South Wales. She joined the RSC in 2015.
“I sit on the technical senior production management team, underneath the technical director, and alongside the heads of technical resources, costume, lighting and sound,”she explains.
• Laying the prop store shelves side by side, they would stretch from Shakespeare’s birthplace to the theatre itself.
• There are 864 chairs, 83 stools, 36 thrones and nine wheelchairs.
• The smallest prop is a toothpick, and the largest a life-size horse.
• Music can be played on devices from a gramophone to a polyphon, a wireless to a boom box.
• There is 100 metres of chain.
• There are enough glasses to give all the daily visitors a drink.
After artistic director Gregory Doran programmes the season and selects directors and designers, Cubitt is involved straight away. She sits down with a production’s creative team for concept meetings, then works with them to agree on what a show will look like and how it will be constructed.
“It’s a process of negotiation all the way through,” she says. “There are things designers want to do that we have to say no to because they’re impossible, or because we can’t afford to, or because they can’t be achieved in time, or we don’t have space in the workshops. Because a lot of our shows work in rep, sets need to be able to change over in two hours.”
She cites last year’s Macbeth as an example in which the creative team wanted the whole stage floor to be on a roller, so it could vanish in seconds. Cubitt says: “That was just impossible. We just couldn’t do it, because we had to take all that out and swap in the set for Romeo and Juliet immediately afterwards.”
Once designs are agreed upon, they become Cubitt’s responsibility. “From that point, we take it into the drawing office, where we start dissecting it, taking it apart and creating plans for our guys to work from,” she says. “We have to check if it will fit in the building, if it will fit in storage, and if it can be broken up into sizes that can be transported as well. It’s a hugely logistical process.”
There isn’t much that Cubitt’s team can’t achieve if they put their minds to it. They have the facilities – an engineering workshop, a carpentry workshop and a paint workshop, with millions of pounds’ worth of manufacturing equipment – and, crucially, a team with a wide range of experience.
“Our tagline is: Made in Stratford, and we try to do every-thing ourselves,” she says. “We have someone from Alton Towers, someone who used to be a carpenter, someone who was a welder and a lot of people from different manufacturing backgrounds. That mix is brilliant, particularly when you’re trying to problem-solve, of which we do a lot.”
And, because it can almost all be done in-house, the budget for RSC shows is only about a third of what it would be in the commercial sector.
“In a West End scenario, a show might cost £250,000 to stage, but here it might only cost £80,000, because you’re only spending money on material,” Cubitt says. “The other costs, including labour, are absorbed elsewhere in the budget.”
The standard approach to creating scenery is to build a metal frame, clad it in wood, then paint it to achieve the desired effect. But at Timothy’s Bridge Road, Cubitt and her team work with a huge variety of materials. For example, the enormous pillars used in Angus Jackson’s Rome season, which looked like heavy stone, were painted polystyrene, as was the striking lion sculpture that accompanied them. A giant puppet god, currently under construction, is made of Varaform, a lightweight thermoplastic.
The scenic resources department works on about six RSC shows at once, but, depending on capacity, it also works
commercially on shows for other production companies.
“It’s new,” says Cubitt. “We built the sets for the transfers of Don Quixote and Imperium on a commercial basis, to prove we can. This year, we’re going to build the sets for Longborough Opera Festival, and we’re starting to dabble in other commercial work because we have the resources and the capability.”
Once a show’s run has finished, its scenery can be put into storage in case it can be used for a transfer or in a different show or be recycled. “We reuse as much material as possible,” says Cubitt. “There’s not that much waste at all.”
Cubitt also oversees the RSC’s prop department. At the back of the building on Timothy’s Bridge Road is an archive of items dating back decades – a wonderland of more than 20,000 props, ranging from a toothpick to a life-size horse. From a silicon copy of Robert McCabe’s decapitated head – from when he played Cicero in Imperium – to a full-size polyphon music box, which Cubitt and her team made from scratch.
There are enough walking sticks and umbrellas for every Shakespeare character and enough books to give every audience member in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre something to read at the interval.
Some props are decided on at the design stage, according to Cubitt, but a lot come out of the rehearsal process. “We send a van to London, once or twice a week, stuffed full of props,” she says. “Actors will realise they need something, or they’ll try things out or change something. We’ve made items for hundreds of pounds that have been cut in the first week of rehearsals.”
People and production companies can now hire props from the RSC’s archive. “Absolutely anyone with any budget can come and hire from us,” says Cubitt, who’s keen to clear out some space. “Storage is an ongoing problem. If the RSC is a hoarder, I’m the person with the bin liner that wants to get rid of everything.”
The scenic resources department is even moving into catering. “We’ve started to use real food on stage,” says Cubitt, “which we often make the first batch of, so this is a bakery as well. It can get quite tricky with all the vegans and allergies in the cast.”
“It’s a bit mental,” she continues. “There’s always a new piece of scenery, always a mad idea to try to build, always a new solution to a problem. It’s never boring and to see the whole thing come together on stage is extraordinary.”
For more information go to: www.rsc.org.uk/prop-hire