In Praise of Tourists

De Witt sketch of an Early Modern Theatre
De Witt sketch of an Early Modern Theatre

In 1596, a Dutch traveller Johannes de Witt visited the Swan playhouse, and drew a sketch and wrote in his diary about the trip. And it’s lucky that he did! This is the best resource we have of what the theatres of Shakespeare and his contemporaries looked like.

Yet flip forward a few hundred years and I feel that tourists don’t get the appreciation they deserve. A ‘production for tourists’ says less-then-impressed Dominic Cavendish reviewing Richard II at the Globe, as if all visitors to London want to do is see a Beefeater, snaffle a Ye Olde Hog Roast and drop in for twenty minutes of gawping at Elizabethan Theatre. (And even if you do fancy a bit of of ye olde fayre does that mean you can’t appreciate good theatre too?)

When I was in Paris – as a tourist – I went to the Comédie Française to see Troïlus et Cressida.

I wasn’t quite sure how I’d handle Shakespeare in French (I can make polite conversation, do well with food & drink and read OK) but I was desperate to see inside the theatre and I was slightly familiar with Troilus and Cressida from attending an original pronunciation production in the pelting rain at Shakespeare’s Globe. (Not my favourite night I’ve ever spent in a theatre but…interesting.)

I absolutely loved it! I splashed out for a really good ticket, and it was an absolute bargain. I was personally guided to my luxurious red velvet seat and settled down to somehow I understood and enjoyed every moment of the play. To this day it’s one of the best Shakespeare productions I have ever seen. So although I was a tourist, I think I was still a pretty exemplary member of the audience and I definitely had and appreciated a high-quality experience.

To be fair, I have on several occasions seen tourists – from both the UK and abroad – nip into the Globe for a ten minute flash of a play and then depart, no doubt feeling they’ve ‘done’ the Globe. (I’m ashamed to admit that certain members of my family, not tourists at all, have also done this. ‘What was the play?’ I asked. ‘Don’t know.’ ‘Did you like it?’ I said. ‘Don’t know really, we only stayed for a few minutes.’ I seethed silently.) But is this better than not visiting the theatre at all? I’m still undecided on that. I’ve many times led tourists on backstage tours and I have to say that 99.9% of the time it’s a delightful and for me as a guide, often an enlightening experience. I’ve met wonderful people from all over the world, many of them passionate about theatre and with the most fabulous stories to tell of their experiences in their home-town theatres, both professional and amateur.

Frankly I’m thrilled that so many tourists want to come to London and have a taste of our theatre and I welcome any visitors with open arms. And tourists – in return, just google the story of the show before you see it and try to stay to the end. (Unless it’s awful, in which case leave quietly at the interval with my Londoner’s blessing.)

For more visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website

Life through a lens: Why I like my live performance live

Reading this fascinating article by first BFI ambassador actor Tom Hiddleston, I was particularly struck by his description of the audience armed with smartphones — hundreds of blinking, bright, white lights facing towards me… each creating their own, subjective, digital narrative.

 

It made me reflect on where the urge comes from to mediate a live event through the lens of a smartphone, and what the reasons are for doing so.

Is it to film and share as a proof of attendance? A souvenir or memory-trigger to return to in the future? Or is the very act of filming and online sharing in itself a validation and essential part of the whole experience?

To be honest, I don’t know and suspect I never really will. Hiddleston’s Wikipedia age is 34, and assuming this is reasonably accurate, we’re both from a generation who, in the main, didn’t get a mobile phone until our late teens. Our ways of receiving and experiencing live events were laid down before the technology came along.

I bought my first mobile when I was 17 with a staff discount from my Argos weekend job. It was a now brick-like but then sleek-looking, monochromic Nokia with very exciting snap-on snap-off covers. In my first year at university we all marvelled that meeting up was so easy because we could text one another. My first encounter with a digital camera was via the Japanese students in my 6th form and all through my childhood photos were restricted to 24 precious snaps – and you had to wait for the prints to see the results. My whole attitude to filming and recording was shaped in a different medium and a different world. Sharing was a phone call, an email, or a text. (Rarely a letter – that was for an earlier generation!) Narrative was created afterwards, not an instantaneous send.

So it’s hard for me to project why recording and sharing the live image is so pervasive. When I go to the theatre, in particular, I want to see, hear, smell and experience with my own senses, not via a screen. Admittedly, a lot of my reservations are created by the annoyance factor. I hate seeing glowing phone screens around me when I’m trying to experience live theatre or any other event. It’s distracting and disruptive. But the way the technology is going, it seems likely that filming will become less and less obtrusive and sharing will become more and more discreet. Will I still feel the same when I don’t have a clue if the person next to me is filming or not?

Somehow, I still suspect I’d consider myself a superior consumer of culture by ‘doing it live’ rather than mediating through the smartphone. And perhaps this is ultimately an old-fashioned and rather arrogant view to hold. Maybe the concept of ‘live’ in this age of lip-synching popstars and virtual performers is a shifting thing. Maybe live theatre suffers so much when it comes into conflict with smartphone mediation because it’s an art form originating from before this technology started to change the way we as human beings relate to our environment. Perhaps new art forms need to grow that embrace, mingle, and co-exist with digital culture. It’s easy enough to refute this for the next 5 or even 10 years, but what about in 50 or 100 years time?

Of course, I like to think that the human appetite for liveness will always be appreciated, recognised and felt. It’s inconceivable, and quite sad, for me to imagine a time when I’d prefer looking at my tablet or phone to the exhilaration of experiencing the thrill of live event sans screen. But is this genuinely the privilege it feels like, or is my entire understanding of this issue coloured by limitations I don’t even perceive?

On the other hand, as part of a generation who was young enough to become au fait with the technology, and grow with it as it developed, but old enough to remember a time without, we are in a unique position to mediate between a dependence on technology, and a willingness to allow it to bring us to places we never imagined. One reason I find new technologies so exciting is because I appreciated the thrill of holding a slender, beautiful ipod or tablet for the first time, and remembering a time when this was a futuristic picture in my mind, not a reality.

Even if nothing does compare to the ecstasy of the lived, live experience! (And that’s something I’ll tweet anytime…)

For more articles visit the website Backstage Theatre Tours

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Wilton’s Music Hall: History Tour

Wilton's Music Hall upper level and stage with panto set
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The way inside…

Where? Wilton’s Music Hall, London

When? Tours run on Mondays at 6pm

What was on? It was panto season! Their first family pantomime, Dick Whittington & His Cat

How?  Book on their website

How long? 1 hour

Cost? £6

Duration? 1 hour

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Wilton’s Music Hall and Mahogany Bar

Wilton’s Music Hall is one of those places I’ve always intended to visit but never quite made it. Until now! I wish I’d made the trip a long time ago as it’s a wonderful space with a fascinating history. Situated between Tower Hill Gate and Shadwell stations, it’s easy enough to find but still has this tucked away, secret feeling that makes visiting really special.

We started in the historical Mahogany Bar before moving into the hall itself. I took the opportunity to treat myself to a mulled wine (delicious!) and we discovered that this historic bar played a large part in the history of Wilton’s. The bar was purchased by Henry Wilton several years before he bought up neighbouring land and property to open the music hall in 1869.

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Beautiful interior of Wilton’s

Sadly Wilton’s, like other smaller suburban halls, was a victim of its own success. The acts became famous and hit the bright lights of the West End, the new and improved transport links meant that audiences followed suit. For many years Wilton’s was kept as a Methodist Mission with a school and soup kitchen, which ironically ensured the hall’s survival to this day.

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The tours are devised by Wilton’s resident researcher and historian and our marvellous guide had an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of the hall. I was particularly struck with the depth, quality and detail of the research and there has to be the roots of several PhD’s waiting here. I’d urge any academic or student searching for a thesis topic to check it out, or indeed anyone with a interest in theatre history who would like to find out more! There is now a history room including a 3D model of the building, a display of excavated items and an introduction to some of the characters associated with the music hall. There are also some very interesting articles on the website 

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Upper level and set for the panto on stage!

At the end we were able to wander about and take photos (a real bonus) and most of us took the chance to explore the upstairs bar too – not to get a drink (yet) but to look into some of odd little nooks, crannies and spaces that came about from converting the terraced houses into the music hall.

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Stairs up to the cocktail bar

A booklet about the history of Wilton’s is currently being published and will soon be available. I’ll be dropping back in to pick up one of those. Happily, the future now looks bright for Wilton’s and it has a full and buzzing programme of theatre, music, events, and more!

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Wilton’s sits inside a series of terraced houses so there are lots of little nooks and crannies

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Verdict: Wilton’s Music Hall is a magical little place and this tour is a fascinating insight into the history of the hall, the local area and music hall generally.  I will definitely be returning!

Check out backstagetheatretours.com for more theatre tour reviews!

Royal Opera House: Backstage Tour

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden entrance

 

 

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Royal Opera House, Bow Street

Where? Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD

When? Tours run daily but they are very popular and do book up well in advance.

How? You can check times and book on their website

Cost? Full price £12, senior citizens and students £11, under 18’s £8.50

Duration? About 1 hour and 15 minutes

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Royal Opera House, Covent Garden entrance

The Royal Opera House is one epic building. Substantially renovated 1997-1999 it runs a huge repertoire of world-class opera and ballet, both new productions and revivals. Two previous theatres on this site burned down (a sadly typical tale in theatre history!) and the current building dates from 1858.

Not all tours get to go into the beautiful auditorium but mine was lucky enough to do so (Monday 10.30am – we managed to slip in just before a rehearsal of Eugene Onegin) I’ve seen a few things here – Romeo and Juliet, Aida, Swan Lake – but I couldn’t claim to be a frequent visitor so it was lovely to see the space again. (If you really want to see the auditorium, you can take a Velvet Gilt and Glamour history tour).

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The beautiful Royal Opera House auditorium.  (By User:FA2010 (Own work) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)
However, even without the auditorium, the backstage tour would still be a terrific experience and there is an absolute plethora of things to see. For this reason, no two tours of this maze-like building are ever quite the same.

The mind boggles at how much information these guides need to carry with them!

What I loved about this tour is the real sense you get of the ROH as a working building. Our extremely professional and knowledgeable guide led us through busy backstage spaces and it really feels like you’re experiencing a genuine slice of ROH life.

We got to see a ballet class and had a peek at the incredible machinery that allows swift changes from one complete set to another. Then we stopped by the costume stockroom where the lovely staff were kind enough to share their expertise. They explained all about how the costume department works at the ROH, and their roles in particular, as well as answering all of our questions. It was absolutely fascinating.

I know several people who have been on this tour again and again and I can see why. There’s a wealth of things to see and the tour is generously allowed into as many spaces as possible.

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Paul Hamlyn Hall from the outside. Completed in 1860, it started life as a flower market and was known as the Floral Hall.
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Paul Hamlyn Hall interior. Once a flower market, now an elegant champagne bar and restaurant. You can’t take photos during the backstage tour but there are so many lovely front-of-house spaces to snap afterwards!

Verdict: Absolutely brilliant. The Royal Opera House is an amazing building and this is a high-quality tour experience. Treat any opera or ballet fan, or indeed any kind of theatre aficionado to this and they will thank you forever. One warning – you will almost certainly feel an overwhelming desire to return for another tour…I know I do!

For more information visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website!