The actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) are celebrated around the world, however the engineers, artists and craftsmen who build the stunning stage sets deserve just as much recognition. Suppliers like WDS Component Parts are getting in on the act by providing reliable component solutions


oday, set building is seen as a highly developed profession, a far cry

from the days when actors built the sets themselves. The art of skilful stage design is to create a 3D landscape on the stage that enhances the audiences experience and integrates with the performers. Alan Bartlett, head of technical design at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), joined the profession immediately after completing a degree in mechanical engineering, and now has almost 40 years under his belt. He explains that every part used must be reliable enough to withstand the rigours of daily show changes and touring, and engineered so that the sets can be built quickly. He adds: “Often, the scenery is activated by the actors whilst on stage. They don’t want the audience seeing them do this, so we need simple reliable mechanisms that can be operated by sleight of hand.” Offering a wide range of products and the expertise to help when needed, WDS is included on the RSC’s relatively short list of preferred suppliers. The company manufactures high quality standard parts such as handles, levels, quick release pins and levelling feet and is set

up for easy ordering and rapid delivery.

COMPONENT SOLUTIONS WDS parts are used on a great many of the sets that are designed and built by the RSC. Bartlett explains that quick release pins and fasteners are used to facilitate scene changes. Lifting pins/lifting eyes and toggle clamps are useful on 3D scenery, such as a large tent that was set live by the actors for Antony and Cleopatra, and also for lifting scenery with actors onboard. “WDS quick release pins are very good for this sort of application. The design needs to be simple, reliable and safe. A failure on set could destroy the atmosphere, bring the play to a halt or even cause injury,” he explained. “Safety is important as there is a high level of interaction with the actors. You never know when a national treasure will be standing

on, or lifted by, one of our designs.” Thanks to the high quality of the

WDS parts, Bartlett will often re-use ones from previous shows. A typical order from the RSC could include compression latches, anti-vibration cone stops, levelling feet and quick release pins, but equally it could include something bespoke or help in designing a particularly ambitious stage item. Bartlett is based at the RSC’s vast Scenic

Workshop on the edge of Stratford where its sets and props take shape. The sets are usually built on a metal frame and

clad in wood,

WDS parts are used on many of the sets that are designed and built by the RSC

then painted and dressed accordingly. They are designed to be easily adaptable in case the director wants to make mid-season changes and to be flexible for use in the different theatres when on tour.

Bartlett commented: “I like to fit WDS levelling feet in case touring stages aren’t quite level, while anti-vibration mounts help with noise attenuation.” Modern sets at the RSC usually feature

at least some technical and mechanical elements. For example, in Romeo & Juliet, the balcony needs to support two people, and be designed to be climbed. It might have doors that operate manually or automatically. Doors are quite difficult to create on stage: they need to have a frame to slam against, and must open smoothly, even when hanging on a sloping stage, so many discreetly incorporate a spring or damper from WDS. Sets may rely on mechanisms,

Every part used must be

reliable enough to withstand the rigours of daily show changes and touring, and engineered so that the sets can be built quickly

engineered systems or computer- controlled winches and be suspended above the stage. Whatever the requirements Bartlett knows that WDS is always on hand to help with technical information for loads, speeds, acceleration and deceleration profiles and Health & Safety considerations.

CREATING NEW DESIGNS Commenting on his role as an engineer at the RSC, Bartlett said: “No two days are the same and I love some of the whacky briefs we get. For instance, we produce the sets for Matilda the Musical in the West End, the USA, Australia and South Africa. A key part of the set is the blackboard that writes by itself – at one point in the show it has to disappear off stage at an extremely fast speed and be lifted in the air to allow other scenery on. We came up with a design that centres on WDS quick release pins and lifting eyes.”

WDS Component Parts

 DESIGN SOLUTIONS | MARCH 2019 23

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