Who builds our production sets?

Posted on Wed, 2014-06-11 15:24 by Opera Explorer

Have you ever wondered where the production sets of Welsh National Opera are made? Or who builds and paints them? Having recently explored the WNO prop and set stores, where many old productions come to rest, I took a tour of Cardiff Theatrical Services with General Manager Darren Joyce, to see where it all begins. 

If you are a regular theatre or opera-goer in the UK, you will have undoubtedly watched a show that was built by CTS. Although the company constructs every WNO production, this only comprises about 20% of their total output, as I discovered when I entered the building, passing a large supply of earplugs - a warning for the loud noises to come! - as well as countless mounted photographs of recent CTS productions, many of which I recognised from elsewhere, such as the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors and The Light Princess, the ENO Madame Butterfly, and the touring set of Les Miserables. The company is now in its thirtieth year and thriving, with a turnover last year of £1.8 million, and a bewildering array of projects on the go, as Darren explained: ‘We’re doing two shows for Opera North right now, we just finished Benvenuto Cellini [the new Terry Gilliam-directed work at English National Opera], we did quite a big chunk of the new Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, and La Finta Giardiniera for Glyndebourne, which opens there this season. Alongside that we built another commercial musical that opened in Leicester called Water Babies. We also did the West End transfer of the RSC’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. We’re also doing a bit of work for Cameron Mackintosh too – making the cloths for the Japan part of the Miss Saigon tour. That’s been the last 4 months at CTS, alongside the work to make Moses und Aron fit’; a reference to the current Stuttgart/WNO co-production, which has been altered to adapt to the reduced (!) dimensions of the capacious Wales Millennium Centre stage.  

When designers come to CTS with a concept for a production, it has to be priced up, agreed upon by all parties involved, and then planned meticulously, from the dimensions of the different components (which are constructed according to shipping container size to allow for overseas travel), the technical drawings for the workshop engineers and carpenters, right down to the specific colours and paint effects in the art department. As I walked through the drawing offices, the Draughtsmen and women were working on three different productions: at one computer screen, Dave Taylor was working on the design for WNO’s forthcoming William Tell production for the Autumn, Jo Dixon was occupied with the floor for an outdoor Porgy and Bess, while Matt Britton was working from a miniature model to fine-tune the design for an opera set in a swimming pool. As Darren says, ‘Once we’ve got a job agreed, it comes in to these guys. They take our fanciful ideas about how we could build it, and turn it into something the people downstairs can understand.’

Moving down to the carpentry workshop, I was shown the Computer Numerical Control machine, a giant stencilling device, which, when operated by Programmer Jon Heath, scores intricate designs on wood, metal and plastic, saving hours of painstaking manual labour. The most recent creations have ranged from art nouveau window frames (made of plywood in a few hours) to several giant Perspex teeth for local prop-making company Wild Creations. 

Moving into the art department, where the sets, scenery, and props are painted, the walls are adorned with fragments of brick walls, concrete slabs, stonework, and wrought iron, all of which are actually painted pieces of scenery. As Scenic Artist Nina Siddall explained, these are useful reference points for designers who come into the workshop, and want an idea of the different effects that the paint workshop can produce. ‘Stage designers who come in here will know that whose productions these pieces are from – they are visual people, so just as you will recognise an opera, they will know whose design they are looking at.’ The job has its highs (such as working with David Hockney), but also its challenges: ‘Once I was painting a cloth [the huge 30-metre canvasses that cover the entirety of the stage] with a blue sky design I’d been working on for two weeks, and the air brush stopped working and splattered paint everywhere. I couldn’t paint over it, because it had to be back-lit, and so I had to start all over again.’ Hearing that story, I’m sure the six or seven artists working around us on a giant gauze took extra care!

There is a great sense of pride in the company. While there are many long-serving staff members working at CTS (Steve Rees has given a mighty 44 years of service!), there is also a clear commitment to nurturing the next generation of talent: as we walked past various rooms and departments, dodging the flying sparks from the metal workshop, I saw a group of students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama painting display boards for their graduation exhibitions en masse, while Darren pointed out a particularly ambitious final year project in the making: a replication of Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter. The sheer quantity of people who work together to bring scenery to the stage sometimes takes even Darren by surprise:  ‘I think the most I’ve had in there is just under 60, when we were doing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and WNO’s Lohengrin last year. One day we had a fire alarm, and it was only when I got outside and I saw everyone standing at the assembly point that I realised how many people there were!’ 

With that image in mind, keep an eye out for WNO’s next new production, the spine-tingling Getty/Debussy double bill which opens on Friday 13 June. In Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Fall of the House of Usher, the fate of the morbid Usher family has been tied to a sinister castle for generations. But in a sense, those ghosts only provide half the story: the House’s real founders (and constructors), as with every WNO production, can be found at Cardiff Theatrical Services!

Sophie Rashbrook