Inside the Stratford Festival's props workshop and wardrobe warehouse

Go behind the scenes at the long-running theatre festival's innovative properties department and its vast wardrobe warehouse, the third-largest in North America

Photo: Joel Clements / Popjournalism -- www.joelclements.ca
Stratford Festival's props department Photo: Joel Clements / Popjournalism -- www.joelclements.ca

Canada’s world-renowned Stratford Festival is currently in the midst of its 64th season. Founded in 1952, the theatre festival is best known for its exquisite Shakespearean productions, but it has always offered a variety of works — and in the past decade, Stratford has expanded its repertoire to include spectacular musicals and thought-provoking plays both classical and modern. Many of the shows also tour internationally, and some, like Tommy, have even played on Broadway.

Bringing these stage productions to life requires a myriad of different departments, each with many artists, craftspeople and technicians working within them. The Stratford Festival properties department alone has a crew of thirteen talented creators, and houses a stockpile of props and costumes that is among the world’s largest.

Popjournalism obtained exclusive access to the Stratford Festival’s prop shop and rarely-seen parts of its exhaustive warehouse to see first-hand the inner workings of these dedicated artists, and how they create their stage magic.

Our tour guide, Dona Hrabluk, head of properties, welcomes us into her long, light-filled prop shop. In many ways, it’s the heart of the Stratford Festival.

What’s the coolest thing you’re building this season?
Dona Hrabluk That’s so hard to say. Each show has something different and unique. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has Aslan the lion and all the masks. Macbeth has all these fantastic trees and Breath of Kings has a mirror that smashes but doesn’t break. There are just so many amazing things, it’s impossible to pick just one.

Do you ever re-build or re-purpose old props?
The first stop is always a visit to the warehouse. Every season is always a mix of re-purposed and newly built props. Sometimes a show is 70 per cent re-purposed, but other productions like Alice Through the Looking Glass was only ten per cent. It depends on the production.

What happens in the prop shop during the season, once all the props are built?
We maintain them for the entire season, and then we start on the next season.

While the current season is still on?
Yes, always. Each season has about twelve or thirteen shows, so the drawings will start to come in and the scene shop will start building in September or October if they can.

What happens to the props when the season ends?
We’ve recently started a system so that when items are sent to the warehouse, we record and photograph it, and it’s stored as a database on a computer. Right now it’s only available internally, but eventually, we hope to make it available to designers for rentals.

He loves me, he loves me not: Stratford Festival's ingenious props department devises reusable, velcro petals for its stage productions.
   He loves me, he loves me not: Stratford Festival’s ingenious props department devises reusable, velcro petals for its stage productions. Photo: Joel Clements / Popjournalism — www.joelclements.ca

Hrabluk walks over to properties assistant Michelle Jamieson. In Jamieson’s hand is a tiny fabric daisy with detachable petals, held together by Velcro.

Michelle Jamieson In As You Like It, Rosalind does the whole “he loves me, he loves me not” thing. She pulls the petals off the daisy, and thanks to the velcro, we can stick them back on again. It’s the tiny things, you know.

Dona Hrabluk And for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the whole show is based on books and the printed word. There are five staircases built by the scene shop, and Michelle had to put books in them to cover the entire staircase. Not real books, but book covers and book spines.

Michelle Jamieson Yes, books were my life for weeks and weeks!

Dona Hrabluk holds up a vacuform prop created in-house at the Stratford Festival
   Dona Hrabluk holds up a vacuform prop created in-house at the Stratford Festival Photo: Joel Clements / Popjournalism — www.joelclements.ca

Hrabluk offers to show us the vacuform room, where masks and other plastic props are made. The room is nearly filled up by the large piece of equipment, which heats up sheets of fibreglass, molding it quickly to nearly any form required. It also allows them to reproduce objects quickly and easily. She says that they are very lucky to have a vacuform, as most theatres don’t. She holds up a small white rabbit.

Dona Hrabluk It’s amazing what you can do with it. Here’s a vacuform bunny… it lights up and it’s carried through the audience for a scene in As You Like It.

Dylan Mundy of Stratford Festival's props department works on a sleigh for a production of 'The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.'
   Dylan Mundy of Stratford Festival’s props department works on a sleigh for a production of ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.’ Photo: Joel Clements / Popournalism — www.joelclements.ca

Next, Hrabluk takes us to see the sleigh being built for The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Dona Hrabluk The sleigh was donated to us by some wonderful people called the Godfrey’s, who’ve donated quite a bit to us. So [props assistant] Dylan Mundy then took it and made it magical. It was literally in someone’s barn, full of mice and squirrels. The sleigh has been transformed into something magical and beautiful, encrusted with jewels and icicles, but there’s a modern vibe to it as well.

Dylan, this is amazing.
Dylan Mundy Thanks. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff between the brackets to hold the lanterns, and the paint job that resembles a hot rod, which the designer wanted, so we used automotive paint. We used vacuuform off-cuts and a lot of tape to make the icicles.

Hrabluk offers to take us to see the two-floor warehouse, a short drive away from the Festival Theatre, where they store props and costumes from past productions. Belying its serviceable exterior, the warehouse is a treasure trove. Inside, we walk past an entire aisle of boots, and the smell of leather fills the air. There are rows and rows of costumes, from every era and in every style and colour. It’s both overwhelming and beautiful. Hrabluk explains that they have to maintain a large selection because every production demands their own look and style.

We pass a shelf full of (fake) dead bodies. Dona tells us they make appearances in many productions.

Dona Hrabluk In Peter Pan, they were the lost boys being thrown off the balcony. Every year we repair and re-stuff them. They were in Oedipus last year. This year, we’re turning one into a target practice dummy for Breath of Kings. They’re just multipurpose.

There's an array of suits of armour in the Stratford Festival costume warehouse
   There’s an array of suits of armour in the Stratford Festival costume warehouse Photo: Joel Clements / Popournalism — www.joelclements.ca

We head off to see suits of armour — and an amazing amount of it there is, shelves full.

Why do you need so many?
Dona Hrabluk We have several different kinds. We have real metal armour, which is heavy, but has a great sound onstage. We have fibreglass, because, under the lights, it’s very hot onstage. We cast most of it ourselves.

These Stratford Festival props look good enough to eat
   These Stratford Festival props look good enough to eat Photo: Joel Clements / Popournalism — www.joelclements.ca

Then we come upon a rack full of fake food.

Dona Hrabluk Everyone loves the fake food. We have so much: quails tongue and a beautiful strudel, which is made out of Styrofoam packing peanuts. We also have a fake peelable banana. It’s Velcro, and you peel it and then close it back up. We use it all the time.

The Festival gives tours of the main floor of the warehouse to visitors, which are guided by the Friends of the Festival, a volunteer organization.

Dona Hrabluk At the end of the tour, the visitors get to try on the costumes. You’d think it would just be the kids that would be excited, but it’s mostly the seniors!

For information on The Stratford Festival, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca