Backstage Tours: Killing the magic of theatre or bringing it alive?

View of the London Palladium stage from the Royal Box.

In The Stage online, Flyman asks how we preserve the magic of theatre while letting the audience see backstage. It’s true that audiences have increasing opportunities to see behind-the-scenes, whether through taking a backstage tour, checking out backstage clips on YouTube or visiting the Sherling High Level Walkway at the National Theatre, with its views into the construction workshops and paintframe. But does all this backstage access kill the magic and spoil the surprises of a theatre production?

Under the Almeida stage
Under the Almeida stage

One of my first really special theatregoing memories is seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera as a child. We had to book the tickets nearly a year in advance in those long ago pre-internet days and by the time the night finally arrived, I knew the music off by heart and was filled with excitement and anticipation. As the performance started, I peeked around the side of the huge 80’s perm pitched in front of me and was utterly absorbed from start to finish. I could hardly believe what I saw. The lake filled with candles. Christine vanishing through the mirror. The Phantom invisibly disappearing from his throne and leaving the mask behind. It was like magic.

Over 25 years later, I was lucky enough to take a rare tour of Her Majesty’s Theatre exploring behind-the-scenes and on the stage. I’ve seen literally thousands of shows of all kinds since my first heady visit and have worked in theatre for many years as well. I’d read of and watched films about the fascinating tricks and illusions used in Phantom.  Yet as we went through the pass door into the backstage areas, I felt that excitement all over again. We saw the cramped wing and under stage spaces. We found out many more backstage secrets. We saw sets and props close up, many of them hanging above our heads due to the lack of space. We stood on the stage and were surprised at how intimate it felt. And watching Phantom after the tour, I was struck how this backstage visit had not killed the magic of the production at all. Quite the opposite. There seemed to be another layer, another level of appreciation to my enjoyment, a cozy sense of kinship and sharing the secrets of what I was watching.

I now work as a tour guide and theatre tour development consultant and advocate, and in my experience, backstage access only increases the magic for an audience rather than negating it. After a tour, a group who has viewed a set in construction is left with a burning desire to see the production it will appear in. Walking through dressing room corridors gives them a buzz of anticipation before seeing the show. They are fascinated with knowing how the parrot popped out so quickly, or one room changed to another within seconds. I forget sometimes, how exciting people can even find an empty rehearsal room or dingy dressing room if they’ve never been in one before. It’s about painting a picture and using imagination. Magic, really.

It’s true discretion has to be exercised. It’s why a good tour guide is so important. Backstage and back-of-house needs to be interpreted so people don’t come away with misconceptions and secrets aren’t spoiled for people who haven’t yet seen a show. The NT’s High Level Walkway can be understood and appreciated better by people with a prior knowledge of what goes on behind-the-scenes – whether that’s by study, working in the industry, or from taking a backstage tour.

At the same time, a working theatre is not a museum. It’s vital that the skills and needs of backstage workers are fully respected and they have the space they need to do their job without interruption. But taking audiences backstage and giving them a brief taster into the incredibly busy process of staging and running a show can only increase their appreciation of the expertise, creativity and hard work to be found behind the scenes.

Equally, not everyone who goes on a backstage tour is a layperson or unacquainted with the world of backstage theatre. Industry professionals from across the world as well as keen and dedicated members of amateur or community theatres come to learn and see how someone else’s backstage practice differs from theirs. For many people, the real ‘magic’ is actually to be found in the theatre making process as much as in the finished production. The journey is as important as the destination.

As someone who works in theatre and sees a lot of shows in production, I know I’m still receptive to the magic of theatre. We might know every unlovely sweaty detail of a show’s genesis but we can still be moved, challenged and delighted by what is created in those precious moments onstage – and backstage – when the audience is in. If handled and interpreted properly, it’s no different for anyone else.

 

For more on backstage tours visit www.backstagetheatretours.com

You never forget your first Pantomime

It was the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.

My first memory of going to the theatre was the pantomime. I can’t remember whether it was Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington, Cinderella or another one of those traditional tales, but I remember people onstage, I remember singing, I remember colour and light. I remember sweets being thrown and people from the audience climbing up on stage. I even remember where I was sitting, more or less. It was likely to be somewhere in London and I was definitely pre-school age. A very early experience of theatre, and one, I’d suspect, shared by several theatre goers. Pantomime, although filled with salty innuendo for the grownups is a perfect first-time theatre experience for children.

Everyone’s geared up for a more relaxed atmosphere.

There’s audience participation:

‘he’s behind you!’

‘oh no he isn’t! oh yes he is!’

There’s the panto horse, the chase, the dancers, the Principal Boy (britches and boots clad girl), the Dame (fabulously frilly-gowned gent). You get so used to the well-loved cliches of pantomime that you forget there was a time when they were fresh, unlearned, unfamiliar.

As I got slightly older I became quite a fan of the Dame. I recall donning a flowery dress and lots of red lipstick while my sister toddled about with a fluffy cat and a bundle on a stick as Dick Whittington and our mum gamely took on the uncoveted role of Alice, staging our own bijou version.

Pantomime has a rich theatrical history in Britain, where it’s a huge part of our holiday traditions. In the December and New Year period, pretty much every theatre, both amateur and professional will stage one. Panto has origins in the improvisation and colourful stock characters of the Commedia dell’arte of 16th century Italy, as well as the stars, songs and variety acts of Music Hall.

I’ve seen many pantomimes over the years. Some have been great fun, others a bit rubbish. Sometimes I’m really in the cheery panto mood, on other occasions the thought of singing along with an Aussie soap star and a theatre full of sugar-filled children to the latest pop hit has me running for the hills.

That first visit to the pantomime may not be very clear in my mind, but it started a whole lifetime of visits to the the theatre. I must have seen absolutely thousands of shows over the years and I even ended up working in the industry.

Maybe I never quite got over that first burst of panto magic…

 

Written for the WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge: Opening Line

Ironically, my first time. And, hopefully, like my first trip to the theatre, not the last!

Image: Aladdin Pantomime, Nottingham Playhouse 2008, by KlickingKarl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Almeida Theatre: Backstage Tour

Almeida Theatre

Where? Almeida Theatre, Islington, London N1 1TA Photo: Andreas Praefcke

When? Every few months. Check their website for details

How? You can check times and book online

Cost? Tickets are £7 (£6 concessions)

Duration? Approximately one hour

The 325 seat Almeida Theatre is bijou but world-class and I couldn’t wait to take a backstage tour and see how the space operates as a working theatre, as well as find out more about the history and architecture.

Throughout, our knowledgeable guide wove in stories of the theatre’s history, taking us from the rise of the building right up to the current day.

The original building, now listed by Historic England, dates from 1837 and was home to the Islington Literary and Scientific Society including a library and lecture theatre.

 

The Interior of the Theatre of the Islington Literary and Scientific Institution now the Almeida Theatre
The Interior of the Theatre of the Islington Literary and Scientific Institution Totswill & Co. 1840-1850 (National Maritime Museum Collection)

The Almeida Theatre has a beautiful curved back wall just behind the stage, and when you’ve seen a picture of the original lecture theatre, you can really see how the original building has become the theatre we have today. The theatre is set the other way around than the lecture theatre – which accounts for the curved wall is behind the stage rather than the audience as in the picture. It makes for a wonderfully wide playing area compared to the number of seats, yet still retaining a very intimate feel.

The building has had many different functions over the years, including Salvation Army barracks and a factory and showroom for Beck’s British Carnival Novelties. It wasn’t until 1980 that it became a theatre, welcoming a vast array of exciting companies and directors. Today the theatre has a world-class reputation and stages a brilliant range of work, often leading to West End or Broadway transfers, giving even more people a chance to see the shows.

We started our tour in the foyer, looking towards the original wall on one side and the modern glass roof overhead.

Almeida foyer
Almeida foyer
Almeida foyer
Original wall of the building, now inside the Almeida foyer under the glass roof.
The glass roof above the Almeida foyer
The glass roof above the Almeida foyer, dating from the 2003 renovations.

The Ameida makes artful use of every corner of space. We started in the workshop which before the extensive 2001-2003 refurbishment was tucked underneath the stage. Although sets are not made on site, they do of course need to be constructed and built into the theatre so this is an important spot in the building.

We visited the cosy Green Room, a sort of common room or waiting room for the actors before they go onstage (and one of the few I’ve seen with natural light!) before heading into the Wardrobe department.

Almeida Theatre Green Room
Almeida Theatre Green Room

We visited the understage area, a combination of storage space, quick change dressing area and route to the stage. We even had a chance to step on the stage itself. For copyright reasons we were unable to take photos of the stage as it was filled with Sacha Wares winding travelator set for the production Boy..

Under the Almeida stage
Under the Almeida stage

The Almeida has welcomed some very famous actors through its doors so we enjoyed an evocative peep into one of the dressing rooms, imagining all the past performers who had been in the space. Today the room was full of wigs for the current production, all painstakingly hand made.

Verdict: A great chance to discover more about a fascinating theatre, from architecture and social history right up to how the theatre works today. After the tour, visit the Almeida Café & Bar for a dish from their freshly prepared seasonal menu.

Header Image: Almeida Theatre. Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) via Wikimedia Commons

For more backstage tour info, visit backstagetheatretours.com

London Palladium: Guided Tour

London Palladium exterior

 

London Palladium exterior

Where: London Palladium, 30 Argyll Street, London, W1F 7TE

When: Tours usually run at 11:30am on selected dates. Check the website for details of upcoming tours.

How: You can book online on the Really Useful Theatres website

Cost: £12

Duration? About two hours

You never forget your first time at the London Palladium. Whether performer, backstage or audience member, this is a really special place. My own first memory dates from my 7th birthday where I was surprised with tickets for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat! I’ve been back several times over the years so I was very excited to explore this theatre further…

The London Palladium opened on Boxing Day 1910 as a Palace of Varieties, and fittingly it has hosted more Royal Variety Performances than any other theatre.

Back when the theatre was designed there were several different entrances and exits for the variety of different audiences from working people to the wealthier crowd. We began by hearing about the history of the theatre and looking at some of the exquisitely decorated foyer and front-of-house areas as well as discovering how everything fits together.

Lovely stained glass doors in the London Palladium foyer.
Lovely stained glass doors in the foyer. This area was for the smart front stalls set!
Beautful decor of The Cinderella Bar, London Palladium
Just a taste of some of the gorgeous decor. This is called the Cinderella Bar for a very particular reason but you’ll have to take the tour to find out why!

The London Palladium is a beautiful Grade II listed building designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham. As well as looking wonderful, it features a cleverly cantilevered auditorium which ensures pretty much every seat from the top to the bottom has an unimpeded view of the stage as no pillars are required to keep it up.

London Palladium auditorium
The beautiful auditorium

The exception is the boxes, which, as in all theatres, boast the most luxurious surroundings but offer a better view of the audience than the stage! This is particularly true of the Royal Box, which we had a chance to visit. As you can see below, it’s more important for the occupants to be seen by the audience than to see the show! The actual stage view is a bit side on and if a member of the Royal Family wants to watch a particular show rather than attending a special event or gala as an honoured guest, they’ll generally take seats elsewhere in the theatre which offer a better view.

View from the Royal Box, London Palladium.
View from the Royal Box. It’s more important for the occupants to be seen by the audience than to see the show!
View of the London Palladium stage from the Royal Box.
View of the stage from the Royal Box. A bit side on!

The London Palladium is a busy working building so you never quite know what you’re going to see – but that is what makes this tour so exciting! There’s a rich, fascinating history here, but you never forget that it’s created first and foremost as a venue for live performance. In 2016, the Palladium is returning to its variety roots and running a programme of concerts so there was plenty of activity in the building.

The London Palladium stage.
The London Palladium stage.

One of the highlights of the tour was a chance to stand on the famous Palladium stage ourselves, and walk in the footsteps of all those famous performers who have graced the theatre in the past, such as Bing Crosby, Ivor Novello, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Danny Kaye, Max Bygraves, Julie Andrews, Cilla Black, Tommy Steele (who holds the record for the most appearances), Ronnie Corbett, Shirley Bassey, Bruce Forsyth, Yul Brynner, Liza Minnelli, Jonathan Pryce, Kerry Ellis, Robbie Williams…and many, many more!

The view of the auditorium from the stage, London Palladium.
The view of the auditorium from the stage.

 

Looking up, we discovered that the London Palladium has a relatively small space above the stage (for example, in comparison, the National Theatre has a whopping 30m fly tower in its Oliver Theatre). Equally, although the stage is very wide, it’s not very deep, and has little wing space, so designers have to bear all of this in mind when designing sets for the theatre. It certainly hasn’t prevented the Palladium housing some very large and elaborate sets however!

Above the London Palladium stage
Looking up above the stage.

Fly ropes at the side of the stage are used to raise and lower the scenery. They are on a double purchase pulley system so you need twice as much cable as the distance moved but they take less effort.

London Palladium fly ropes
Fly ropes

It’s amazing when you think of all the big musicals and huge-scale sets that have been in the London Palladium in the past as everything gets in and out through a modestly sized shutter at the rear of the stage. The sets are constructed off-site, taken apart like a jigsaw, brought in through this door, then re-assembled on the stage.

Door doors of the London Palladium
This is where all the set gets in and out of the theatre.
Under the London Palladium stage
We even got to see under the stage!

Fortunately for us, the dressing rooms were currently unoccupied so we also had a peek into the former and current Number One spaces which are rather less glamorous than you might imagine. It was lovely to think of the many performers who had passed through these rooms over the years.

The two hour tour can give you just the tip of the iceberg of the rich London Palladium story, so it was great to have the opportunity to ask questions throughout the tour as well.

Verdict: This tour is an especially magical experience for anyone who has memories of seeing a show at the London Palladium, but anyone who is keen on theatre history, architecture or just has a general theatre interest will have a great time too. As well as getting a closer look at the beauty and cleverness of Frank Matcham’s design, you get to explore some very exciting spaces and hear all those little stories and anecdotes that you can’t find out anywhere else. And the London Palladium has many great stories to tell!

If you want to make a day of it, why not stay in the mood by looking at some other Edwardian buildings in London such as Admiralty Arch or  Central Hall Westminster and team it with afternoon tea or an elegant cocktail. Or you’re interested in comparing the London Palladium to an older theatre, a tour of the Restoration-era Theatre Royal Drury Lane makes an interesting contrast.

And I definitely want to return for a concert in this beautiful space! Check out the RUT Live website for further details.

For more about backstage theatre tours visit backstagetheatretours.com