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?
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