Behind the scenes @ Queen's
This is still a fairly unusual set-up in an industry, where many theatre companies outsource their set construction. But in Hornchurch, as the countdown begins for Opening Night, backstage is humming with machinery.
Ellen Cairns’ set of The Romford Rose has taken the workshop’s team of four, headed up by Acting Head of Workshop Chris Young, several months to complete – more than 1,400 hours of manpower using 1,000 feet of timber, 25 enormous sheets of plywood, 10 litres of paint – and countless cups of tea.
“The bandstand has been the most interesting to put together,” says Chris, who has worked at the Queen’s for 10 years. “It’s a really important, very large piece of the set because it holds the six band musicians. It has to be solid and has a lot of mechanisms in it to make it run up and down the stage smoothly. I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of making it work well.”
A set generally takes about two months to plan, build and paint, he explains. Carpenters and artists meet regularly with the designer, director and production staff to talk about materials, colours, structure and mechanics.
“The communication is so much easier when you’re building on-site,” carpenter Lewis Tomlinson, a technical theatre graduate, says. “The technicians and creatives are nearly always available to speak to. It just makes everything run more smoothly.”
The actual build begins about five weeks before the show opens whilst the artists begin mixing paints for colour samples and sketching out stencil patterns. The Romford Rose’s black and silver zebra-print floor and large pink band stand took up a lot of time.
After each piece of set is constructed, it is passed over to the artists to be painted. “There’s a lot of preparation involved before we even start,” says Scenic Artist Emily Minshaw, a theatre design graduate. “We make sure the designer is happy with our samples. For example, to mute the brightness of the bandstand, we mixed some brown into the pink. We lay on floor glazes and a lot of white primer before we even start to paint.”
Scenic Artist Gemma Compton, a Theatre Practice graduate who has been involved with the Queen’s over the past 17 years since she started as an apprentice, explains: “The zebra floor was completely hand-painted and took three whole days to finish. It’s a large space to paint in this decorative way – 12 by 9 metres – and a first for us and the theatre.”
Emily adds: “As an artist, I’ve especially enjoyed working on effects. On our last show, The Silver Gym, for example, I loved working on creating a wall covered in mould and peeling plaster. Being an artist is hard physical work but I like being constantly covered in paint, it feels strange when I’m not!”
The workshop is an incredibly busy space: just a few months ago, the team were working on three different projects – the Queen’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, the schools touring show 1001 Nights as well as the youth theatre production It Snows.
“You just do it, you push yourself and work hard,” Chris says. “There’s no such thing as not finishing on time.”
And during the Queen’s quieter periods, the team are starting to take on work for other theatre companies. Some of last winter, for example, was spent painting the set floor for Theatre Royal Stratford East’s pantomime, Robin Hood. External production companies also occasionally use the space to work on their sets.
Each Queen’s set is completed in time for ‘tech week’, when technical rehearsals begin a few days before Opening Night, and proceedings are handed over to stage managers and technicians. Paintwork touch-ups are made and carpenters ensure the structure and mechanics are sound. And throughout the three-week run, the team remain poised for action in case of any issues.
“When it’s all up and working, there’s a huge sense of relief,” smiles Chris. “And a lot of pride. To be able to look at something like this and think ‘I made that’ is a good feeling.”