When Sleeping Beauty takes to the stage this Christmas, the actors will be dwarfed by the towering sets – and equally, by the towering hats on panto dame Richard Gauntlett!
But don’t underestimate the importance of those smaller things: the props that are carried, thrown, dropped and drunk out of for the duration of the show.
In a little room hidden deep in the bowels of Norwich Theatre Royal, Karen Davies is hard at work producing those props. Surrounded by mounds of disturbingly real-looking Battenberg and half-painted French fancies, Karen tells us more about how she does it.
What are you making right now?
These Battenberg slices are for a scene in the panto when Muddles Midges [Ben Langley] is eating cake. He’ll have some real eclairs mixed in with the fake ones, so we have to produce enough to hide them.
These cakes are actually made from cavity wall insulation. It’s really easy to sand and carve, although it makes a bit of a mess! It’s light for the actors to carry around, and because it’s so textured, it takes paint really well. These cakes each take me around 30 minutes to create. I produce enough of these props for the stage, and then of course a lot of spares – they do get bashed around during the scene changes.
Clearly, durability is important. What else do you have to take into account?
You have to think about which actor is going to be using it. Some are more comfortable with the props than others, so they’ll need to be user-friendly. You ask yourself, how is it being used? And more importantly, who’s going to be mending it? While they’re here, I know I can fix them, but what about when they’re going on tour? They have to be user friendly and stage manager-friendly!
These props will be used this year, and then they’ll be sent off to our costume stores. They might make a return in another panto, or they’ll be rented out to other productions around the country.
As you say, Ben is eating real cakes in the show. That must present its own set of challenges?
You always have to ask questions of your actors when they’re using your props – especially when it comes to food. For example, do they have any allergies? Particularly today, do they have a gluten intolerance, are they allergic to nuts?
Also important, what do they not like? They could be eating it eight times a week for six months, so it’s important to know! For example, soda concentrate is so useful for making drinks – dilute it correctly and it can stand in for anything, from black coffee to sherry. But with that high sugar content, you have to make sure your actor is alright with it. It might ruin their speaking voice, so you’ll have to go and buy diet versions for them.
I did a tour of Flashdance, and at one point a character had to eat a sandwich. I was making him a jam sandwich every time, and after six months, he was sick of the sight of them. Your heart goes out to actors on long tours, it really does! So what I did, I asked him to give me a list of the things he liked, and each night I’d make something different. I knew I’d got it right if I got a discreet nod in the wings. By the end of the run, you’d see all the cast glancing over at sandwich time, all curious to see what he’d got!
If you can give an actor some variation, without taking away from their performance, they really do get more out of it.
You’ve worked on a number of different shows. What stands out for you?
When we did Peter Pan, I made a totem pole hat for Ben Langley, featuring arms and face paint. It was a real last minute thing; during rehearsals, we just asked ourselves, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if…’
Recently, for a touring production of Little Shop Of Horrors, I made a gas mask for the dentist to use during his scene. I’m really proud of that one. But they’re all like my children, you can’t pick just one!
We’re in the last few days of rehearsals. Is this a busy time for you?
It’s a real rush as we get towards opening night. We get given a props list when the script is written, so we make a start on that early in the process. But then once rehearsals begin, it changes day by day!
We start with all these ideas, but then an actor realises they’re already carrying seven suitcases and a badger, so their hands are too full to hold whatever you’ve made for them – eventually you have to say, ‘no more!’ That’s the life of a stage manager, though; you learn to go with the flow.
What do you like best about this job?
Props really can make or break a show. If you give an actor a good prop, he’ll enjoy using it and he’ll really make use of it in his performance. Give them a bad prop, they won’t like acting with it, they forget to take it on stage – they really are that important.
But honestly, it’s the next-best thing to being a Blue Peter presenter. I’m stood down here painting cakes – it’s the best job in the world, it really is!
Karen’s props will grace the stage when Sleeping Beauty opens here on 13 December. Buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.