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Thursday 12 March 2020, 12:40pm

The world of props encompasses an extensive and seemingly limitless amount of materials, techniques and skills. What you see in front of you in a production is the result of many weeks of planning, experimentation and creative processes.

Technical Theatre and Stage Management students embarking on a voyage through the props training find that each day and each prop has a new challenge and a new set of rules to work within. There is no correct way of achieving the design; students are encouraged to use their robust skill-base taught in the first year to inform their own approach to their making. RADA’s Head of Props, Deryk Cropper, explains how their training begins:

“The assumption is that students coming to us for the first time know very little how a props department works. I like that – I like to introduce them to materials that they may never have used or even heard of. Once their interest is stimulated, they begin to open to the world of opportunity.

First we get them to cast faces and hands using alginate and casting plaster, which is a good introduction to a few basic materials of any props department. This starts to build their confidence for later projects, which might involve working confidently with actors to produce a gory bloodied head (think Cymbeline, Richard III or even 1917). Then it’s time for breakfast: a full English with a fried egg, or maybe a pain au chocolat with a double espresso and milk on the side. Of course, whilst we follow the cookbook meticulously, it’s our expanding foam, silicone and resin cupboard that is being explored.

Each student then takes it in turn on the lathe: candlesticks first, then goblets, then a set of table legs. The real skill is in accurately creating four identical pieces, but with a little practice this becomes second nature by the end of the training week. We finish the week with a visit to the prop hire houses and an introduction to buying for film and TV, delivered by a professional prop buyer.”

Collaboration is the key, so students are encouraged to work alongside other technical theatre disciplines: a crying baby needs a remote-control speaker, the articulated jaws of a mythical sea monster need an LED strip light, and a marionette requires a costume. For a sustainable career it’s good for students to work with different specialised experts to enhance their portfolio of skills.

Escape Room One is a chance for the props students to really express their own creativity and inventiveness in a richly furnished workshop, using technology such as the 3D printer and vacuum-forming machine alongside traditional wood-working. Without giving too much away, there have been some interesting challenges. For example, an unearthed Roman coin is the key to a secret code – but how is the coin released? That’s for you to find out…!

Deryk explains: “We have also been kept busy researching, liaising with the rehearsal room and manufacturing for Neil Bartlett’s prop-heavy production of The Importance of Being Earnest designed by Grace Venning. It has props which cover all definitions of the word: from consumable props (food and drink) and hand props held by the actor, such as paperwork that is seen at close quarters and is so important to the actor’s characterisation, to period-specific furniture and set dressing.”

Throughout their training students build practical knowledge and confidence, from being an assistant maker to an integral part of the stage management team. If they choose to specialise, they will then take on the role of lead prop maker and props supervisor, and will enhance their career pathway with a placement such as the Royal Opera House, National Theatre, at all levels within the vibrant London theatre scene and indeed nationwide or internationally.

This is a constantly developing industry which keeps pushing the boundaries with new technology: the 3D scanner, ideal for copying that missing chess piece; the chrome sprayer using eco-friendly water-based materials, producing a finish fit for an Oscar (literally); or indeed a computerised pattern-cutter which recently came in extremely useful for 650 scales on a sea monster.

After a year or so in the industry, our graduates often specialise further: as mould makers, sculptors, props supervisors on film or theatre, and even a head (and body!) renovator at the Natural History Museum, Oslo! Many have established their own businesses in the multiplicity of opportunities that exist in the world of props.