Theatre Royal Drury Lane: Through the Stage Door backstage tour

Theatre Royal Drury Lane Stage Door
20151207_151906
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Where? Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5JF

When? These tours run regularly and you can check times on their website

What was on? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

How? You can book on their website or give the box office a call

Cost? Adults £10.50, children, seniors and groups of 10+ £8.50

Duration? About an hour

There has been a theatre on the site of the current Theatre Royal Drury Lane for over 300 years and this terrific tour, led by a friendly and knowledgeable guide, gives you a taste of it’s colourful history. It’s been a major player in how theatre developed in this country and it has countless wonderful stories to tell. Truth really is stranger than fiction!

I went on a Monday at 2.15pm, not in the holidays, and because it was a quiet time I had a guide all to myself which was a great experience. The flip side is that if you come at a busier time, your tour might be presented by the guide as a character from the theatre’s history which I imagine must be great fun.

20151207_145624
The beautiful auditorium of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

The Theatre Royal is a beautiful building, and although I haven’t been to see current hit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yet, I’ve attended several times over the years but this tour took me to plenty of spaces I’d never been before, from the splendid royal box and retiring rooms to the distinctly less gilded but equally fascinating back-of-house areas.

20151207_152027
Separate entrances for the King and the Prince. Want to know why? Take the tour!

Possibly one of the biggest surprises is a tunnel running through the bowels of the theatre that dates back to the oldest theatre on this site, complete with a little display of bones and other excavated items! Unbelievably this once linked the theatre to several other sites including a tavern and the riverside. Gives you a bit of a creepy feeling!

20151207_150529
Spooky tunnel in the depths of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Who knew.

You also hear about some of the grey-cloaked, lavender wafting, backside kicking (really!) ghosts that haunt this theatre. They’ve got more than Hogwarts and these are proper bona-fide ghosts seen by many people over the years. None made an appearance during my visit but this building really does have an atmosphere – you can feel it’s steeped in history.

But this building is, of course, also a busy working theatre. We followed maze-like passages through stage management areas past dressing rooms and props, to the huge space under the stage where I was lucky enough to spot the famous great glass elevator from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory nestled amongst the immense sub-stage machinery . It’s incredible how this historical building is home to this 21st century production. The building is also home to offices for the Really Useful Group, who now own the theatre, and a design school and studio where backdrops are still traditionally painted – although few make it into this particular theatre where the scenic design tends to be a bit more digital!

20151207_152129
A peep into the scene dock. This is where all the sets get in and out.
20151207_152049
Stage Door. Watch out – here there be actors.

Verdict: Any theatre lover, or even someone with a general interest in London’s theatre history would have a great time on this tour. It was also a treat to get a glimpse of how the theatre operates as a working building today. I thoroughly enjoyed my tour and highly recommend it!

For more information visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website

Shakespeare’s Globe: Theatre Tour

 

Wednesday 7th June 2006 Titus 010
Shakespeare’s Globe

Where? Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk,  Bankside, London, SE1 9DT

When? Tours run every 30 minutes, all day every day (except 24/25 December). Check opening hours on their website.

What was on? Can’t remember. Probably Shakespeare!

How? Just rock up on the day to the exhibition entrance (rather than the theatre box office). There are some really useful FAQ’s here.

Cost? £15 for adults, £13.50 seniors, £12.50 students, £9 children -15, free for children under 5. Includes free entry into the exhibition

Duration? 30-40 minutes

Founded by the actor and director Sam Wanamaker, The Globe is a wonderful building as well as a terrific working theatre. Completed in the mid 90’s, it’s a ‘best guess’ replica of the very first Globe Theatre from Shakespeare’s time, built in 1599. Today’s Globe also has special permission to have the only thatched roof in London for hundreds of years – they were banned after the Great Fire of London. The very first Globe actually burned down during a performance of Henry VIII when a canon was accidentally fired into the roof after someone forgot to tilt it upwards (I wouldn’t like to be that guy.) Happily, even without modern health-and-safety rules everyone escaped unharmed. One gentleman’s britches were set alight but the flames were dowsed by his quick-thinking friend with a bottle of beer. The second Globe had a more prudent tiled roof but Shakespeare never wrote for it (although he may have acted there) and those killjoy Puritans closed it down with all the other theatres in the 1640’s.

globe_theatre_-_second_globe_theatre_-_hollar27s_view_of_london_-_1647
The second Globe Theatre – check out the tiled roof. By Hollar’s View of London (1647). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Over 350 years later, we got Globe number three and as well as being an amazing place to see a play, it’s a valuable resource for researchers and fascinating for anyone who has seen Shakespeare in Love and fantasized about literate goateed Elizabethan men with 21st century hygiene. (Incidentally SIL was not filmed at the Globe – the theatre scenes are located in a purpose built ‘Rose Theatre’)

 

sir_walter_raleigh_painting
Sir Walter Raleigh – good looking and rich enough to change his linen daily. Alexisrael (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So, naturally, the Globe is incredibly popular. Unbelievably popular. It’s world-famous, and on the list of almost every visitor to London. To ensure that everyone gets a chance to visit, they need to run a lot of tours and the tours need to have a lot of people on them. You don’t get the most personal experience on a tour, as they have to cater for a wide variety of different visitors but it’s incredibly convenient being able to just turn up on the day instead of booking way in advance. The focus is on the history of the building and how the current Globe came to be here. Generally it’s a good overview of the theatre scene in Shakespeare’s day and the guides are engaging (and will always give an infinitely better tour than an audio guide ever could!!!)

Verdict: It depends how much time you have. I’d recommend watching a play and reading a bit of the history of the Globe rather than taking a tour if you have the time. I’ve seen some fabulous productions here (only a couple of duds) and you can get a standing ticket for just £5 even now which has to be the best bargain in London. (And for heaven’s sake don’t just pop in for 10 minutes – stay the course and see the play!) However, if you’ve only got an hour or so to spend, it’s worth taking a tour to see inside this magical theatre. You’ll never see Shakespeare in the same way again.

For more information visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website

Her Majesty’s Theatre: A rare backstage tour

Her Majesty's Theatre facade

 

her_majesty27s_theatre_london
Her Majesty’s Theatre, home to Phantom of the Opera

Where? Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, London, SW1Y 4QL

What was on? Phantom of the Opera of course!

How? The theatre does not run regular backstage tours but I went as part of a Mastercard Priceless event

This was a very special tour for me. A child of the 80’s and avid musical theatre fan since birth, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gothic romance Phantom of the Opera has always been very close to my heart. I remember going for my 6th birthday – the tickets booked several months in advance in those tricksy pre-digital days! – and loving every second of it. For the next few years, my little sister and I performed our celebrated ‘living-room’ version, singing along to the LP, sister in Mum’s wedding dress and me in a plastic mask and black cloak.

So I was pretty excited about this one and I wasn’t disappointed!

Her Majesty’s Theatre is a beautiful theatre erected by the famous Actor-Manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1897 but there have been four theatres on the site since the early 18th century so it had a long, proud history before Phantom arrived. It was much smaller backstage than I expected with older stage machinery. Instead of lots of hydraulics with just a few people, there is a big team working back there and it looks like the lovely old-fashioned picture of a theatre backstage you have in your imagination (or in mine, anyway!) There’s not much storage space either so a lot is kept in the flies, and it’s great fun to see some of those iconic props and pieces of set like the candles, the boat and find out how they all work (I won’t give away any secrets but all much more manual than I had in mind!) We even had a chance to stand on the stage which as well as being a really magical moment is a nice way to feel how everything fits together and appreciate how things (and people!) find their way on and off.

Because this was a Mastercard event (thanks, little sister!) we capped off the tour with champagne and the show that evening, and a Q&A with members of the cast, including one fabulous gentleman who had been with the show over 20 years!

Verdict: I thought I was too jaded and experienced to fall for the backstage magic anymore. I WAS SO WRONG! If you ever get a chance to tour this lovely theatre, don’t miss it!

For more information visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website

Photo by MrsEllacott (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Royal Albert Hall: Grand Tour

Royal Albert Hall
royal_albert_hall-001_-_london
Royal Albert Hall

Where? Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AP

When? Tours are available to individuals and small groups on most days of the year.

What was on? Can’t remember, but it was a modern classical music concert.

How? Just book via their website. There are lots of different tours to choose from but I took the Grand Tour.

Cost?  Adults £12.25, Concessions £10.25, Children £5.25 (including 25p per ticket booking fee)

Duration? 1 hour

The Royal Albert Hall is such a gem. I’ve been a few times and seen Kerry Ellis (not only does that lady have the most fabulous voice she rocks some exceptional shoes as well) Brian May (legend – what else can I say?), Adam Pascal (I’ll never forget One Song Glory sung live by the original Roger from Rent!), English National Ballet‘s Swan Lake in-the-round, the Phantom of the Opera 25th anniversary performance, and a charity conference amongst other things. But never classical music, which is something I intend to rectify, especially after going on this tour!

I did wonder if the Grand Tour would have much to offer me as I’ve been to the Hall before, and thought it might be more suitable for tourists or first time visitors. Not at all! I got to see many spaces I’ve never been to before, including having a peek inside the exclusive Royal Retiring Room, watching a bit of rehearsal and visiting the Gallery where I’ve never ever been before (cue lots of concert enthusiasts dropping with horror). It really is a great spot acoustically and apparently people even bring pillows and lie on the floor, soaking up the wonderful music.

I didn’t realise so much went on in other parts of the Hall – lots of free music! – and of course it has a very rich history and an amazing variety of people have appeared there, from rock and classical music stars to Albert Einstein! The guide was great fun with lots of knowledge and I thoroughly enjoyed my hour there.

Verdict: A great overview of the iconic Royal Albert Hall. Very regular visitors who know a lot about the Hall already and partake of everything it has to offer might enjoy a Secret History Tour or Behind The Scenes Tour (note: I haven’t taken either of these myself yet but definitely intend too!) but the Grand Tour is perfect for a first-time, occasional or even semi-regular visitor.

For more information visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website

Photo by Drow male (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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)

 

What is a backstage theatre tour?

Seems like an obvious question with an obvious answer.

When you take a trip to the theatre as a spectator, you have a very particular type of experience. You go in through the fancy entrance, maybe pillars and marble if it’s one of the older theatres, or at least a bar and a bigger effort to stop the roof dripping than you find backstage. You sit in the auditorium, all the sweat, blood and tears safely shut away behind the pass doors, you watch the proper, polished, finished show.

When you go backstage, however, you take a different route. Instead of the front entrance, you go to the back of the building and head through stage door. Gone are the red velvet seats and the gilded cherubs. Instead you see – what? The secrets behind the set, perhaps, or the props looking very different close up. Maybe you see a few actors – if you even recognise them with all the magic scrubbed away. A workplace, a mundane space, but still a place where dreams are made (and the odd nightmare, quite literally…)  And presumably since it’s a tour, you’re not just wandering around on your lonesome, but have a guide showing you around, telling you stories you wouldn’t have known and pointing out things you might well have missed.

But this is a very particular type of theatre and a very particular type of tour. Is a tiny space with a black box performance space and a rail-with-a-curtain dressing room still a theatre? Does a church hall or community centre that gets used once a year for the annual pantomime count as a theatre too? And what about underground vaults staging an exciting immersive show where you don’t sit down for a second? Is this still worth touring?

I’d say yes, yes, yes and yes! Anywhere where performance gets made, anywhere an audience watches, whether it’s a garden, a beach, a cubby or indeed a beautiful purpose-built venue, counts as a theatre and has plenty of secrets and stories to give away! Some will be inspiring, some will hurt like hell, but they are all part of the fabric of the place, whether it’s been there two years or two hundred.

What do you think? And in which theatre, venue, or any other performance space would you like to go backstage or see behind-the-scenes?

(Personally I’d love to see behind the scenes of House of Dancing Water in the Dancing Water Theater, City of Dreams, Macau. This purpose-built space uses 11 hydraulic lifts to change the stage into a pool holding 3.7 million gallons of water!)

For more information visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website