This weekend the United Kingdom will mark the 400th anniversary of the death of perhaps one of the greatest playwrights that has ever lived, William Shakespeare. His plays have been watched, studied and enjoyed by generations for more than 400 years. They need no introduction; Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet. Macbeth. These are just a few of the plays that have become household names. In total, William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, many of which are still performed on stages across the world today.
One organisations still bringing William Shakespeare’s plays to life in 2016 is the Royal Shakespeare Company. From the Royal Shakespeare theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to their travelling shows in London, the United States and across the globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company has been bringing Shakespeare’s plays to the masses for over 50 years.
We recently visited the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon to find out more about the world of William Shakespeare’s work and plays. And, with props the main feature of the three new Shakespeare UK £2 coin designs, we spoke to Alan Fell, Head of the Props Department at the Royal Shakespeare Company, on our visit to find out more about the role props play in bringing Shakespeare’s work to life.
Here’s our full interview with Alan Fell, Head of Props at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Hi Alan, tell us a little bit about yourself…
My name is Alan Fell, I’m head of the props department hear at the Royal Shakespeare Company and my role is to look after all the props, furniture, soft props, documents, money – that kind of thing – for each individual production.
How long have you been making props?
I started in 1981, so it’ll be 35 years this year.
How did you, or how does anyone, get into prop making?
It wasn’t something that I’d actually considered until I finished my degree course in Sheffield, and an ex-student had become the head of the props department at the crucible in Sheffield. He invited me to go and have an interview with him and promptly gave me a job to do it and I’ve never really done anything else since.
How long have you worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company?
This will be my fourth year with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Tell us a little bit about the role of a prop department at the Royal Shakespeare Company…
The department is made up of nine of us at the moment. We have two full-time supervisors who look after each individual production and they liaise with the designer and director and also the stage management teams. They’re given a list of props at the beginning of rehearsals and it’s their job to kind of pull all that stuff together, and decide whether it’s bought or whether we make it in house. Then we have six or seven makers with different disciplines. There are carpenters, people that are good with metal work, there’s also the people who make the soft props and all the paper props and documents that you’ll see in each individual production. It’s then my job to look after all of that but also look after the made props, they’ll be specific things that are needed for a each individual show. The designer will come with an idea, a concept, a reference photograph, whatever and then we make that into the actual finished subject that the audience sees on stage.
So how do you transform a prop from the initial design to the finished article?
Well, the designer will present a model – they’ll give us a model showing – which would be a 1-25 model of the set, hopefully with the furniture and the props that are required. That will give us a flavour of what they’re trying to achieve in a production and it’s then split down into different areas, so the scenic guys will look after the actual standing set and we’ll look after all the furniture and the small props. We’ll also be given photographic reference and sometimes we get scale drawings. It’s then my job to pull all that reference material together and translate that into CAD drawings for the guys who work on the benches in the props department and we decide what materials we’re going to use, what’s the best way of doing it, how to make it durable, and make sure it’s going to stand up to the abuse it is probably going to get during each individual show. Once we’ve decided how we’re going to approach each prop, we then start work on realising the thing from the small scale model through to the finished object.
There’s a constant consultation that goes backwards and forwards between myself, the props team, the designer, and the production managers get involved as well because they’re the glue that holds us all together.We’re constantly talking about what’s the best way of achieving whatever it is at the end of the day.
What is the prop department currently working on?
We’re currently working on the next production will be Hamlet, designed Paul Wills and directed by Simon Godwin, that will be in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Are there any particular elements within that production that are quite challenging, or that are new to you?
A lot of it is props that we’ve done before. There’s a lot of woodworking, some upholstery and some soft props. So there’s nothing that’s particularly unusual about this particular production of Hamlet – well, from a props point of view anyway.
What’s the difference between the props department and the props store?
The props store here at the Royal Shakespeare Company is a little bit of an Aladdin’s cave and a lot of the stuff that’s in there has been there for an awfully long time. But it’s great for us. There’s an awful lot of furniture that we’ll take and reuse. Sometimes we’ll adapt, change and re-upholster the furniture as well. A lot of the props are also used in rehearsals. We rehearse in London usually for anywhere between four and eight weeks, and we send a lot props for them to use in rehearsals and sometimes it comes back, sometimes they keep it, sometimes it even makes it into the show, it all depends.
What skills do you think are integral to a good prop maker?
A good problem solver, is probably the first thing we look for! We get asked to do all sorts of weird and wonderful things and it’s our job to take realise the items and props and figure out how we’re going to make them and make them work.
Obviously we also look for strong skills in each discipline, such as carpentry skills or metal work skills, and an ability to interpret a drawing or a reference is always a good thing.
How important are props? How do they set the scene? How do they help to tell the story?
Everything that we produce and provide is there to enhance the show and the whole experience. As such we ensure that everything we produce is as accurate and realistic as possible. For example, we’re very meticulous about the documents, such as scrolls, legal documents and maps, that we produce and try to get them as historically accurate as we can. The minute an actor picks up a prop that we’ve produced, we want to be safe in the knowledge that it’s as close to the real thing as we can get it, and that it will look as realistic as possible to the audience in that particular moment.
What were the props like in Shakespearean times?
Back in Shakespeare’s time they wouldn’t have the range of materials that are available to us nowadays. We use a lot of plastic, foam, silicone, acrylic resins and material like that, which obviously they wouldn’t of had. They would have used a lot of wood, maybe some metal and natural leathers and fabrics. I can’t imagine there would have been a great deal more available to them than that.
What are the latest innovations in prop making?
I think the biggest thing that’s changed, certainly from my point of view, is the fact that we use a lot of computer aided design now. We’re able to realise props in three dimensions virtually on the CAD package that we have here before we make them. It’s great because we can pull different elements in to a finish set and make sure everything fits and that it’s all the right size.
The face casting has also improved significantly. When I first started, we used to use plaster of Paris which was okay but it was uncomfortable for the actor who was having the cast done. We now use much more sophisticated silicone rubber, which is flexible and it’s much quicker and much more comfortable for whoever you’re taking the cast from.
We also have a very impressive water-jet cutter here which is capable of cutting wood, metal plastics and even paper.
Are there traditional techniques still used in prop making?
There’s still a lot of traditional methods that are used today. Although we’re using new materials, such as silicone, for casting, the technique is still essentially the same thing. Obviously wood working and metal working techniques are very traditional but obviously the machinery and the kit that we use is much more sophisticated now.
What are the most iconic Shakespearean props?
For me, definitely the skull. Yorick’s skull in Hamlet is probably one of the most iconic props, almost everybody knows about that I would’ve thought – we’ve all studied Shakespeare at school. Another iconic prop would be the donkey head that bottom wears in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
What’s the important of the props that appears on the new £2 coins?
Well when thinking about the props that appear on the new £2 coins, I’m thinking first and foremost about the comedies coin which features the Jester’s hat and the stick, the first thing that springs to mind is touchstone is ‘as you like it’. We almost always see a jester with a hat and the mask on a stick. we wouldn’t always make those items here in the props department, they’re more costume items.
When looking at the histories coin, with the dagger and the crown, I’m thinking straight away about the stabbing in Julius Cesar for the dagger. We have a whole department here at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the armory department, who look after all of the weapons. The crown again usually falls to our costume department but sometimes it will come to us. The first play that springs to mind that features the crown is Richard II. The crown is an iconic, quite important prop in Richard II.
And the last one, the tragedies coin with the skull and the rose, is an interesting one. Obviously we use the rose, it is spoken about a lot in Romeo and Juliet. The skull in itself is a very iconic prop, particularly Yorick’s skull in Hamlet.
Are coins ever used as props in Shakespearean, Royal Shakespeare Company plays?
Yes, we do use coins, we use quite a few coins. A lot of them are replicas that have been used for reenactments and stuff like that – they’re great for us! We’re very conscious of the fact that quite a few of the audience won’t actually see the coins and what’s on them but they’ll hear them. When you hear coins clicking together in someones hand, you automatically make that reference.
The other thing that we need to take into consideration when using coins is if someone is presenting a casket full of coins, that can get quite heavy so we make some coins from acrylic resin so that they’re light.
Are there particular plays that spring to mind that coins are used?
The first thing that springs to mind about coins in William Shakespeare’s plays is the three thousands ducats that Bassanio needs in the Merchant of Venice. Bassanio wants to marry Porsche, he’s asset rich but cash poor and he needs to borrow three thousand ducats from Shylock. And that’s what the whole story revolves around, is the fact that he’s borrowed this money and he’s not in a position to be able to pay it back. Thinking about it as a prop, it probably would be represented a casket full of coins when the deal is done.
Why do you think Shakespeare uses coins in his plays?
I think Shakespeare would have definitely used coins in his plays because it was something that would have been part of everyday life, as it is now. Coins and money will have represented then what it represents today. It’s an important and obvious part of everyday life, money changes hands, people needs coins to buy and sell things, pay for services, etc.
Is there a particular prop that you are most proud of?
When we did Richard II in 2013, the David Tenant Richard II, we were asked to produce the Richard II chair that they use for the coronation. So we contacted the guys at Westminster Abbey and they very kindly let us go and have a look at the chair itself. They were very accommodating and we were able to go where the public couldn’t. We were able to get as close as you and I are at the moment to the actual thing. We weren’t allowed to photograph it but they provided us with some drawings and obviously we could look at reference photographs on the internet. We then produced the thing from scratch ourselves here at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was quite an amazing experience.
And finally, what’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
Everyday is different. There’s no two days that are the same. There’s an awful lot of job satisfaction to be able to stand back from something that you can see on stage that is quite a spectacle and be safe in the knowledge that you’ve had a little bit of a hand in the look of it.