A career in theatre props

 13 May 2011

Antony Barnett is Head of Props at the Royal Opera House. Hired in the mid-1980s as a prop maker, his role has become more managerial in recent years.

Antony is still very involved in the props workshop. Photo credit Pete Le May
Antony is still very involved in the props workshop. Photo credit Pete Le May

The Props Department are responsible for the making and sourcing of all props for productions within the Royal Opera House in Convent Garden. Working closely alongside scenic designers, the productions that they work on range from the traditional to the cutting-edge of theatre design.

Managing a props department

As Head of Department, Antony is responsible for budgeting, costing and making sure that production runs to schedule. It is a role into which he gradually drifted, "I'm a born prop maker, not a born manager".

"People who are good prop makers are passionate about making things. We're technical people who like to create someone else's vision."

His years of experience as a maker helped him in his role as a manager.

"I think it would be very difficult to run the department not knowing how to do things. I couldn't possibly measure what people would need if I didn't know how to do it in the first place."

Prop making is evidently a passion for Antony, and he is still is very involved on the workshop floor, spending around 60 percent of his time making props. He manages a core staff of eleven - many of whom have worked for the Royal opera house for a number years - "but when we're busy that can go up to around 24".

Working as a props maker

The Royal Opera House, Antony believes, is one of the best places to work if you want to be a prop maker

"What makes our job interesting is the variation in everything we do. You never really know what you are going to be asked from one day to the next."

Most recently the department has worked on a number of 'prop heavy' shows such as 'Adriana Lecouvreur', 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Anna Nicole', an interpretation of the former playboy model's life written by Richard Thomas. The Props required for 'Anna Nicole' included six feet tall nodding dogs and a shop filled with porcelain animals.

Working for both the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera, the demands on the department are constantly changing as, "both have very different artistic needs". This variety keeps the job exciting and for Antony, makes the Royal Opera House, "a really good place to do our job in."

Getting into prop making

Antony initially studied theatre design at West Sussex College of Design in Worthing and started freelancing for a prop maker who worked for Glyndebourne whilst studying.

"Some of the youngsters are really good. They have an understanding and passion for what they want to be doing."

This was followed by a permanent position at Glyndebourne and further roles at venues such as Theatr Clwyd in Wales before joining the Royal Opera House.

Routes into prop making have changed over the years with more formal courses at Bachelor and Postgraduate level available. It's a competitive field to enter.

"There aren't that many positions, certainly not good jobs for prop makers. It's not an easy career to follow."

Learning technical skills for theatre

"I am seeing an improvement in technical skills now, but around 10 years ago colleges were finding it very difficult to keep their workshops open because of health and safety requirements."

This led to a decrease in the number of graduates with good technical skills. In recent times, courses have focussed on the practical as well as theoretical.

"Things are improving and some of the youngsters are really good. They have an understanding and passion for what they want to be doing."

Whilst the Props department do not provide apprenticeships, they offer short-term work experience. In recent years the department have also created two 2-year contracts aimed at young prop makers. The positions give them the opportunity to "hone their artistic skills" and develop artistically, "which you don't often get when you are working."

Skills required to be a prop maker

"I think people who are good prop makers are very passionate about making things. We're technical people who like to make things, create someone else's vision, and give people the opportunity to create something which they couldn't possibly imagine."

"Here we expect everybody to do everything, so that makes our job interesting. If you're doing a statue, you need to be able to do the metal work, to be able to model it, cast it, finish it, paint it. You have to sew, you have to dye, stick things on. That's the joy of the job, you really are asked to do a million things."

Producing shows with reduced funding

Despite a 15 percent cut in Arts Council funding over the next three years, the management at the Royal Opera House do not want the quality of what is on stage to lessen.

"It's really important that there is a pinnacle. This is as good as things should be and can get – that's what we try to achieve."

"What makes our job interesting is the variation. You never know what you are going to be asked from one day to the next."

One way of saving money is through creating joint productions with other opera and ballet venues. Most recently the Royal Ballet's production of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' was co-produced by The National Ballet of Canada.

Typically, the Royal Opera House will make all props for joint productions. "We like to make them as our input into the cost and it's in our interest that things are well made."

Central to Barnett's role is helping designers to create their ideas. The best part of his job is, "seeing designers happy. When they come here I want them to go 'wow, what a facility'."

He adds that the designer's concept is only as good as what the Props Department ultimately make. "Hopefully we can make it better than they hoped for, that's my aim."


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