5 Reasons to Love Theatre

View from the Royal Box, London Palladium.

1- Where else can you go with lots of friends, on a date, or all alone and still have a great time?

2- Theatres can look like this..

.View from the Royal Box, London Palladium.

or like this…

 

.Jerwood Theatre Upstairs Royal Court

…and both can be amazing…

3- Even when theatre is bad it is often very very funny…

4- The architecture. Literally something incredible for every taste…

Young Vic theatre exterior

National Theatre flying buttresses looking like a giant cubist composition

Richmond Theatre facade

5- You can feel all this in just two hours… 😊😀😲😢😳😥🙄🤗

 

So many reasons to love theatre!

 

#LoveTheatreDay

 

 

Shared Journeys: The Ups and Downs of Touring Together

Tourists at the Tower of London

I like my own company. Me, myself and I make a happy team. We’ve been to the theatre, just us, to the cinema solo, holidayed alone and thoroughly enjoyed it. You do what you want, when you want, how you want. Fancy spending an hour simply gazing at the sky? No problem! Want to idle in front of Monet’s Water Lilies for half a day? Just do it.

Lovely, but if there’s one thing better than journeying alone it’s sharing the experience with a like-minded companion. For example, my Mum and I have just one guide wherever we go and whatever we do: Spontaneity Rules!

I can’t count the amount of weird and wonderful food we’ve tried, the top tickets we’ve acquired and the amazing times we’ve had all over the world – and at home too! – from being spontaneous. Fantastic!

But how about if we include more people on the journey? Not just two or three friends but a proper group tour? I’ve worked as a tour guide and workshop leader for many years so I’ve had lots of experience leading tours. I’ve lived in London for most of my life so have seen hundreds of tours passing through the tourist spots. And I’ve also been on several group tours myself. Here are some of my highlights…

My 10 favourite group tour moments:

  1. Getting chosen to be one of the tasters on the Jameson Whisky Tour – and getting rewarded with another drink as a thank-you! Such a great experience and I even have a certificate to prove it.
  2. Taking groups of 7-11 year olds on tours through Darwin’s Garden at Down House and seeing the ‘lightbulb moment’ when they clocked Natural Selection in action all around them! (BTW I can recommend the OpenLearn course on Natural Selection if you’re a bit woolly on this…followed by a visit to Down House of course!)
  3. The backpacks/heavy walking shoes/vast picnics/huge range of clothing you see groups with in central London. Seriously folks, it’s a city, not Mount Everest.
  4. Seeing people’s thrilled faces every time I managed to take a group on the Olivier Theatre stage when leading a National Theatre backstage tour
  5. …and seeing people’s amazed faces when they saw the size of the construction workshops at the National Theatre. You’d never believe there was a whole factory hidden back there.
  6. Not very enjoyable at the time but now I look back and laugh…I worked weekends at Madame Tussauds during my degree and people used to make up ‘fake tour groups’ by collecting individuals from the queue and forming an impromptu tour group so they could get a group discount. Showed initiative but there was always a fuss about having to pay together, not being able to re-enter, people changing their mind and going back to the other queue leaving too few people to be a group, etc, etc. Chaos often ensued.
  7. A walking tour of Jerusalem with a great guide and a very interesting group of people – including my spontaneous Mum! (The whole holiday came about rather unexpectedly but that’s another story…)
  8. A tour of the cellar, winery and museum at Castellriog including of course tasting the delicious cava and lovely local food. Cava is sooo much nicer than prosecco!
  9. A tour of Brighton sewers – there’s an entire world hidden away down there! Utterly fascinating.
  10. Going backstage at Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre – I first saw that show at just 6 years old so it was like magic going back! Even though I now work in theatre and have seen all kinds of backstage, they all have their own particular magic and I’ve loved every theatre tour I’ve taken!

Shared journeys…they have a certain je ne sais quoi…

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

Pumpkin with email
www.backstagetheatretours.com

Backstage Theatre Tours: Why do they exist and what is the audience experience? Some initial questions.

Many theatres now offer tours, from large organisations such as the National Theatre and Barbican to smaller venues like Wilton’s Music Hall. Tours can provide a useful revenue stream but are often part of a wider programme of a widening participation or audience engagement, aiming to increase and diversify audiences and strengthen their connection to the theatre, or to build links with festivals such as Open House or community events. Their perceived value in this area is pointed to by increasing investment from arts organisations which employ strategies from targeted marketing to extensive programmes of workshops, talks and tours, and campaigns such as the European Union’s ‘European Route of Historic Theatres’ in collaboration with the Theatres Trust, which aims to increase participation in theatre tours across Europe. Increasing diversity and engagement of audiences also features on political and social agendas. The Scottish Government uses increase of cultural engagement as a National Indicator, claiming it ‘impacts positively on general wellbeing’ and the DCMS Taking Part Survey collects cultural engagement data and socio-demographic information on respondents.

But to do the experiences and perceived value of accessing backstage ascribed by the institutions and creators coincide with the actual audience experience? And exactly how does allowing audience ‘behind-the-scenes’ affect the relationships between theatres and their and audiences?

Why do people choose to take backstage theatre tours? It’s interesting to look at immersive theatre as an example. Immersive theatre – albeit with a range of interpretations – is becoming a familiar term to more and more theatre-goers. Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s New York based production Sleep No More has been playing continuously to audiences since 2011 and smaller scale immersive productions abound in arenas such as Brighton Fringe Festival and venues like the Waterloo Vaults. Gareth White suggests that one attraction of immersive theatre is the audience’s competitive thirst for ‘being able to see what is otherwise hidden’ (White, 2002, p229) and Keren Zaiontz, in reference to Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, identifies how audiences used social media after the event to ‘maximize their spectatorship’, competitively comparing and sharing their experiences.(Zaiontz 2014 p405)

Perhaps there is a similarity worth exploring here. Backstage tours can also offer a chance to plunge behind, beneath and below; to ascribe personal narratives on to mundane spaces and things ‘elevated by the extraordinary place in which they are set’ (Fear & Gammon 2005 p247). Backstage tours are regularly advertised as unique or unseen as producers exploit the desire for a secret or priority experience and accounts of the tour journey and en-route ‘selfies’ are posted by audiences on social media and digital platforms. Is this engagement merely superficial and symptomatic of a spectator’s competitive desire to consume as much of an experience as possible? Or does this afterlife have value in contributing to the audience experience and in relationship-building between audiences and organizations?

I’m interested in exploring all of these questions further to try and understand how and why audiences access, consume and value backstage theatre experiences. I also want to investigate how the audience’s desire for the experience provided by backstage theatre tours (and subsequent sharing via social media) is pragmatically applied by organizations to increase cultural engagement in theatre and build closer relationships with their audiences. Finally, I’d like to develop a critical framework for analyzing backstage theatre tours within the fields of theatre and performance studies.

For more information visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website

Bibliography / suggested reading:

Bennett, Theatre Audiences, London and New York: Routledge, (1990)

Donovan, Claire, ‘A holistic approach to valuing our culture: a report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport’, 10 May 2013 www.gov.uk/government/collections/taking-part/a-holistic-approach-to-valuing-our-culture ret. 24/01/15

Gammon, Sean and Fear, Victoria ‘Stadia tours and the power of backstage’ in Journal of Sport Tourism 10(4) Routledge, (2005) pp243–252

Machon, Josephine, Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance, Palgrave Macmillan (2013)

Sakellaridou, Elizabeth, ‘“Oh My God, Audience Participation!”: Some Twenty-First-Century Reflections’ Comparative Drama, Vol 28, No 1-2 (Spring- Summer 2014) pp13-38

Schechner, ‘Behaviour, Performance, and Performance Space’ Perspecta, Vol 26 The MIT Press (1990) pp97-102

Schechner, ‘Mainstream Theatre and Performance Studies’ TDR, Vol 44, No. 2 The MIT Press (Summer 2000) pp4-6

The British Theatre Consortium: Janelle Reinelt, (P.I.), David Edgar, Chris Megson, Dan Rebellato, Julie Wilkinson, Jane Woddis, ‘Critical Mass: Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’ AHRC (2014)

Thompson, Robert C, ‘“Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’: Gettysburg Ghost Tours and the Performance of Belief’ in The Journal of American Culture, Volume 33, Number 2 (June 2010) pp80-91

White, Gareth, ‘On Immersive Theatre’ in Theatre Research International, Cambridge University Press, Oct 2012, 37/3 pp221-235

Zaiontz, Keren, ‘Narcissistic Spectatorship in Immersive and One-On-One Performance’ in Theatre Journal, Volume 66, Number 3, October 2014, pp. 405-425

www.scotland.gov.uk/About/Performance/scotperforms/indicator/culture (ret. 29/01/15)