From polystyrene to props

YVONNE MILROY
Last updated 10:08 31/05/2012

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Oliver - Behind the scenes

From polystyrene to props “You’ve got to stitch a pocket or two, Joy” The dreaded 'c' word How the music rehearsals are run

Properties, otherwise known as "props" are the domain of Joss Robertson.

In real life, Joss works administration for Fraser High School, but her true passions are (1) mosaics and (2) "making stuff".

Joss' first show for Hamilton Operatic Society was "The Rocky Horror Show" in 2005 when she was invited by David Sidwell, who had heard of her artistic and creative talent, to work alongside John Harding of Weta Workshop in the creation of props.

In the last six years, Joss has made the props for the society's productions of "Blood Brothers", "Cats", "Hair", "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Forbidden Broadway".

Occasionally a set for a production will come with props, but more often than not, they need to be created from scratch. The society has a room which is a treasure trove of unusual and obscure items, and this is Joss and David Sidwell's first port of call when going through the required props list.

Only 10 percent of the total number of items required for Oliver! have been able to be pulled from the props room. St Peter's School in Cambridge has once again been of assistance to the society, loaning items such as barrels, tankards and barrows from their own extensive collection of stage props.

Joss divides her initial props list into four columns - To Make, To Get, To Buy and Help!

If she gets completely stuck, she will often post a request on Facebook to borrow something that has fallen into the Help category. For Oliver!, Joss would dearly love to borrow two 19th century perambulators(hint, hint).

Joss is a familiar face at the Hamilton Refuse Transfer Station and Recycling Centre, the recycling centre in Raglan, Vinnie's in Frankton and the $2 shops around the city leading up to show time. Often, the props budget is meagre, but Joss relishes the opportunity to make something from nothing.

Many of the Oliver! props have been made from polystyrene that was left over from the 2010 production of Joseph.

Joss said that prop making is all about using imagination. She is always thinking of ways to solve issues, and Google is her go-to reference point for nearly everything.

Most importantly, Joss insists that her props have to look authentic. Size, colour, texture, and historical accuracy are paramount.

Oliver! is set in 1830, and even the attention to detail Joss has given to Mr Brownlow's 5 pound note is astounding.  

Did you know that the pound notes were huge (nearly A5 in size), and only printed on one side?

And, being a stickler for accuracy, Joss googled "Victorian apples" and found a variety called the Ribston Pippin. All of the apples she has created for the street-sellers are of this Pippinvariety and have been hand painted for an exact match.
Joss' extraordinary talent for prop-making is evident when you see the loaves of bread, cabbages, cauliflowers, roast pork, roasted potatoes and turkey that she has created which all look completely edible. It is only on picking one up that the lack of weight gives away the fact that all the food items are made from polystyrene and or poplin and string.

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I still can't decide if the cabbages or the cauliflowers are my favourite item. It is a very tight race, they are incredible.
And just for interest's sake, I asked Joss for her answers to the following:

Biggest challenge? "a budget of zero".

Most difficult prop to make over the years? "Pharaoh's head, the wings and chariot for Joseph".

Anything else? "Yes, I love power tools, especially my jigsaw and circular saw".

Postscript: For those wondering how the fabric aging experiment went, the team started by attacking costumes with sandpaper. Apparently, the effect is fabulous!

- Waikato

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