In the first of a new series of interviews going behind the scenes at the theatre, OLT talks to props supervisor Lisa Buckley.
Lisa Buckley, 40, Props Supervisor, Calendar Girls
What tends to happens is that the designers – in this case Robert Jones – ask me to be the supervisor on this show. I then meet with the designer and we have a look at the model box, which is usually 25 times smaller than the stage. It’s pretty much the finished piece. It’s our job to make it look exactly how Rob wants it to look. As soon as the show goes into rehearsals, every day they issue a set of rehearsal notes. So we have to work with the stage management team quite closely to really facilitate those rehearsals. Then we have often a mad scramble for about four weeks, trying to create the full-sized version that everybody sees. And it’s really, really important to us – myself and Lizzie [Frankl] who I work with – that it’s a real environment. It’s really important for people coming to see the show that they walk in and they think that this is a village hall. And it’s really important for the actors as well, that they feel they are in the right environment. [We spend] four or five weeks trying to get everything together and following the rehearsal notes, before the technical period. That’s how the whole show comes together. And then when the show is actually open, very often it is then down to the stage management team to maintain it.
With this one, Rob had done an awful lot of research. He had been and looked at the village hall and seen what he wanted to create because obviously a village hall you can have everything from mother and toddler groups to bring-and-buy sales to badminton classes to Kung Fu. He had got all of this referenced together, so we could try and make it really feel like the real thing. So what was then brilliant for me was that we could actually go to some WI groups and have certain things made. Where I live there’s a very active WI so for the photoshoot we had all WI cakes and I’d asked a lady to do some knitting for me and had some bunting made. With all of the shows that we do we try and make it look as real as possible. That’s the bit that really interests me.
I went to drama school, was a stage manager, loved being a stage manager, but the thing that I loved doing was props. I worked for a long time as a stage manager at the Almeida. There was a particular designer called Rob Howell who really encouraged me. I think I was saying to him one day that I wanted to think about doing something else and he said ‘well have you thought about doing props?’ So a little while later I said to him, ‘ok I’m going to leave stage management’ and he said ‘well will you be the props supervisor on Our House?’ So that was a bit of a baptism of fire. [Then] he said ‘I’ll also give you another job straight after that so that you know that you’re fine for six months’, so he asked me to supervise an opera of his at the opera house. So that was just an incredibly fortunate start.
There aren’t many of us, there’s probably only about half a dozen props supervisors. Touch wood there has been certainly enough work, though I’m always really nervous that any job I’m doing is going to be my last job.
I like working on anything that’s like a domestic interior, so that you can absolutely suggest a time and a place. I really loved Mary Poppins. That was enormous. It was a real test, because it’s got lots of trick props, all the magic stuff that comes out of the bag. So you are working with those specialists in different fields, and of course you’ve got a whole house to furnish but you’ve only got a little area of set, so you have to have things made that fit.
In Calendar Girls I had to have a two-foot penguin knitted. This poor woman stayed up for about a week knitting it from a pattern; I could only find one which was about 20cms tall. She was staying up at night, sweating over it. She was from the Midhurst WI. Hamish [McColl], the director, really wanted to get this penguin in. It only made it to, like, two shows and then somebody phoned me and said ‘Lisa we’ve got really bad news but the penguin has been cut’. That sometimes is really heartbreaking, if you’ve really put a lot of effort in. This poor woman came to see the show and she was so upset that her penguin had been cut.
In Mary Poppins there are two or three Victorian prams and they are really difficult to get. That’s the thing, I don’t think that the majority of people who come to see a show realise the kind of lengths that we go to to get the right thing. If something is in a script then you have to get it, of course, and it can drive you crazy. I did Entertaining Mr Sloane earlier in the year at Trafalgar Studios. There is a reference to a china shepherdess with a broken arm, so you have to get that. Or there was also a glass ashtray in the shape of a seashell. In Mary Poppins there’s a very special vase that they take off a shelf. A comedy moment; somebody gets off the step ladder and the vase smashes. We had them made. So it looks like a porcelain vase with an intricate design on it, but in fact it’s made out of fibreglass or something like that.
There’s a little team of us, so whenever we’re doing a show, there’s myself and Lizzie, who works with me full time, and then we’ve got a brilliant team of makers. We did Priscilla, so we had a team of four makers on site the whole time. You can imagine, so much fun. We just had people with a glue gun and feather-boas and sequins and glitter. That’s an existing show that started off in Australia obviously. That came over as a finished design. If I’m totally honest, that doesn’t give me quite as much pleasure because you are not actually involved in creating it, you are following a set plan of what’s gone before.
I think you have to be quite patient, I think you have to have pretty good detective skills to find some of the stuff, I think you have to be pretty tenacious because you can spend days and weeks literally looking for somebody who will agree to knit you a two-foot penguin. You have to be calm about the fact that once you’ve done all that work it might only be on stage for 10 minutes and then they might cut in. And also that the right information sometimes doesn’t get to you. So somebody will say ‘oh, the shepherdess with the broken arm, the one that you found, the right arm is broken and it actually should be the left arm.’ But then, what a brilliant job? It is great. I spend my life going shopping, going to big antique fairs, and trying to make pieces of old junk look interesting.
I’m doing a show at the moment and I know that the budget they have given me isn’t going to be enough, so straight away you have to go back to them and say I don’t think it’s going to be enough money. I did a show at the Royal Court a few years ago. The designer particularly liked this sofa and of course we couldn’t afford the sofa, which was a real drag, so we ended up having to get the sofa made, try and find the fabric, get the fabric dyed, and make what she’d seen and wanted. But it’s never as good.
You are often thwarted by money. Very often I can cost a show and it can be twice what there is in the budget and then you have to, as a cost cutting exercise, go through it with the director, designer, production manager. They might say ‘well why are you spending that much money on those chairs?’ or ‘why are you thinking of having that made, are you sure you can’t find something, have you looked on ebay?’, which is the most irritating thing somebody can say to you. Actually not as bad as ‘oh have you tried John Lewis?’ It’s like, oh no I hadn’t thought of that massive department store at Oxford Circus, what a good idea! It’s not a grumble, it’s just sometimes…
Mishaps and mayhem
I had a bench made for The Sound Of Music. Beautiful bench, but it was too heavy for anybody to lift up, that wasn’t very good. Very often you can be asked to find a prop that does several different things. All the chairs in Billy Elliot, they have to be light enough for seven-year-old girls to pick them up but they have to be strong enough so that a 12 stone miner can stand on them. So things like that they take a while to really work out, the research and development time.
The breakable vase in Mary Poppins didn’t break. The brimstone and treacle bottle was
meant to have smoke coming out of it. I don’t think it had smoke coming out of it for the first three months because we couldn’t get it to smoke at the right time, but suddenly a little puff of smoke would come out, like, when it was in the suitcase.
Sometimes I’ve ordered things off ebay and not realised that I’ve actually ordered it from a doll’s house website and it comes back a 12th of the size; I’m so excited because I’ve found it – only 99p, great!
I had to do a show once and somebody was eating kippers, which is revolting enough except they didn’t eat fish. So I had to make a mold of a kipper and then stuff it with like mashed potato or something that was coloured to look like kipper, and they had to sit and eat this bit of kipper, it was just revolting.
All in the details
Things like paper props actually are so important. If an actor has to write a cheque, we get cheque books made up with the character’s name on them. It’s something that I can do as a props supervisor that makes the actor feel like you’re doing everything you can to help them build up their character and their role. It would be very easy to have blank pieces of paper, but you do want them to feel, when they’re signing a cheque, they sort of believe what they are doing. It can be really time consuming but it’s great when you’ve done it.
So much time and effort goes into creating what [audiences] see. It really can take weeks to find something. I think a lot of people would be really interested to find out the history of how we get some stuff. I don’t think for a minute they would have any idea.