There are many talented and highly skilled artisans who form our behind-the-scenes creative community. Their work is an essential part of the MTC story. Below, you can learn more about three of them: scenic artist Tansy Elso, who first joined the Company for a work experience opportunity while studying at university; props maker Colin Penn, who has worked with us since 1975; and Phillip Rhodes, who has been MTC’s resident milliner since 2007.
Scenic Artist Tansy Elso’s MTC story
I work as part of MTC’s Scenic Art Department. Our role is to paint, finish and transform the many props and scenic elements that form the theatrical world of an MTC production. We work closely with designers, stage managers and other production departments to realise the requirements of a set design. Working from a model and plans and in consultation with the design team, we apply texture, colour, glazes and decorative finishes to raw and ‘needy’ set and prop elements so that they match the designer’s vision.
I was lucky enough to start my career in the department through a work experience opportunity while studying theatre production at university. Although that was 20 years ago, the learning has never really stopped because every production, prop or scenery piece presents a new set of technical or creative challenges.
‘MTC is a place that seeks the highest quality and employs staff that have unique skills to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.’
MTC provides a great base for so many people to develop skills and bring ideas to the audience. It is a place that seeks the highest quality and employs staff that have unique skills to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. There is a great sense of achievement in seeing these skills displayed up on stage for the benefit and enjoyment of an audience.
Collaboration and teamwork are at the core of the behind-the-scenes experience of theatre. Every element of a production and its staging has been created by this process: the same process that creates a successful community. As a member of the production team, I get to be part of the innovation, creativity and persistence that turns ideas and imagination into life.
Props Maker Colin Penn’s MTC story
I do the strings and the mirrors that make it all work! I’ve been making props for MTC for over 35 years. I apprenticed as a cabinet maker, and my first fulltime job was building sets in the old Ferrars Street premises in the late 1970s. I make something different every day. It could be a chair, a table, fake limbs or a tree. It could be anything. Our job is to make stage props that work, and that can last the run of a production; and also to be able to fix them. They have to be safe and work for the actors.
For 2009’s Realism, we made a coffin that had to collapse to reveal that the body had disappeared at just the right moment. It took around 15 attempts to make that work. Creating the full, double-storey Home, I’m Darling house was a recent highlight. We don’t make them often. The challenge was working out how all the fittings worked in the 1950s. Even when we made it we didn’t know how the hinges worked! But you feel proud when you see the finished set put together.
I love working with the people I work with. I like my job. That’s your goal in life: come to work, do your job, enjoy it. And do it with quality. Sometimes it’s stressful, but the job itself is fabulous. We’ve just got to put the show on.
Paws in Production
MTC is dog-friendly workplace. Colin’s dog Ruby comes with him to work every day (and before her, Lady and Princess). Each new cast has their photo taken with Colin’s dog. ‘Dogs are a big part of my life. It’s a real honour to be able to take your dog to work with you. The actors love it. One of the best things I’ve heard said is “I’ve been missing my dog so much and there’s a dog here and I feel so much better.” When Miriam Margoyles was rehearsing for The Lady in the Van, for instance, she would always have 10 minutes to pet and play with Ruby before the rehearsal day started.’
Milliner Phillip Rhodes’ MTC story
I first became involved with MTC around 2007, on The Glass Soldier. My background was in fashion millinery. I was at the ballet for a short time as the head milliner. And then I had my own concern for a while: I used to do shows and I used to do fashion. At MTC, I’m “Phillip from hats”. However, I’m also responsible for collating the jewellery, so I’ve had people say I’m a “props something or other” but I don’t take kindly to that! I still see myself as a milliner.
Being part of the Company is a big deal. You’re all working together on the same project, towards something. Before I started with MTC, I went on a tour of the theatre with a friend who was working here. As we walked through, people said hi to him and they knew who he was, and what he did. I remember thinking that the road I was on was a much lonelier road and the road of belonging to something was much greater.
‘I see MTC as representing some sort of vanguard. I think we serve the future ... we also represent a certain quality of making, and I see us as upholding the standard.’
I see MTC as representing some sort of vanguard. I think we serve the future by giving younger designers, creatives and practitioners the opportunity to learn, to have something made. I think we also represent a certain quality of making, and I see us as upholding the standard. And MTC provides opportunities for professional development, which for a milliner are fairly limited – this is the only theatrical millinery room left in Melbourne; and it’s probably one of only two left in the country.
Keep us on stage
Only through donations and private support will the Company return to a position of strength to create work for the hundreds of creative professionals whose livelihoods depend on us every year.
Published on 16 June 2021