INTO THE VORTEX: 5
Posted on Mon 4 Feb 2013 by Stephen Unwin
During the rehearsal process of Noël Coward's The Vortex we will be publishing a guest blog from Raker Wilson. Raker Wilson is a Classical Theatre MA student at Kingston University and will be in the rehearsal room everyday recording the development of the play. Raker grew up in the beautiful Missoula, Montana, USA where he earned his BFA in Theatre at The University of Montana before hopping the pond.
Balsa wood chairs and silver fountain pens
I recently attended a performance of Les Misérables in the West End, where I found myself thinking about how desperately I wanted a drink. I was brought crashing back to reality as one of the characters onstage smashed a perfectly fine looking chair as part of the action of the performance. The chair was completely obliterated it, in fact, and the first thought in my head was “Whose job is it to get this guy fresh chairs for every performance?”
The answer is the props supervisor, a person utterly devoted to finding the perfect prop for every professional theatre production you see; including the approximately 500 balsa wood breakaway chairs for a year of Les Misérables.
Much to the relief of Helen Fletcher, the assistant props supervisor of The Vortex, our production doesn’t call for breakable furniture of any kind. I managed to pull her away from her busy schedule to tell me a bit about where all of our props are found. “They come from wherever we can get them, at the best quality we can find, as fast as we can, and at the best price possible,” she explained, adding that it's almost impossible to find any prop that meets all of these criteria. I should clarify that a prop can be classified as anything from a heart-shaped bed to a silver fountain pen and everything in between. In a period piece like The Vortex, which is set in the early 1920s, the props supervisor has her work cut out for them.
The first place that a theatre looks for props is their own storage. The Rose has a small store room where they keep all sorts of obscure items - I saw a load of old farm tools - and common objects - like old books and glassware. Some of these items will be useful for various shows or as rehearsal props for actors to use until they have the real thing. The theatre also has an interesting way to store furniture its used in previous productions. Next time you visit the Rose Culture Café, you’ll most likely be sitting in a chair or sofa from a recent show!
The most common place to look for props are the huge prop warehouses located about London. The National Theatre boasts an especially impressive storage facility stocked full of props that they let to other theaters for use in their own productions. These warehouses burst with a myriad of random objects from modern stuffed animals to Restoration snuffboxes. They feel a bit like theatre museums when you realize you're holding a goblet that was used by Sir Ian McKellen or Dame Judi Dench.
If a particular prop is needed early in rehearsal and the theatre doesn't have it in storage, the prop will most likely be bought rather than rented from another theatre or warehouse. This means that the props supervisor spends time looking on e-Bay and through antique stores for a litany of items until they find something that meets Helen's aforementioned criteria.
These props rarely appear in rehearsal or on stage all at once. They are gathered gradually through the rehearsal process of the show; a new letter opener appearing one day, or an entire makeup table the next. Once everything is finally assembled, each item must be accounted for every day and replaced if something breaks. The props supervisor's - or in Helen's case, assistant prop supervisor's - job is never done. Even when the show finishes its run, the props person must figure out how all of these things are either returned to whomever they were rented from or sold on e-Bay – often with no hope of a profit.
In short, the props you'll see in The Vortex have a brief, but vibrant, life on our stage. At the end of the production, the props are off on another adventure, perhaps to be picked up by another props supervisor or actor who will say “Hey, didn't David Dawson use this cigarette case in The Vortex at the Rose?”