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

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

Royal Court Theatre: Building and Backstage Tour

Grade II listed Royal Court Theatre facade
Original Royal Court signage
It looks so contemporary but this the original Royal Court signage, now in the theatre’s bar

Where: Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, SW1W 8AS

When: Currently running Saturday mornings 9 January – 23 April 2016.

What’s on: The Royal Court is first and foremost a writers theatre and runs an exciting programme of predominantly new work

How: You can check times and book on their website

Cost: Tickets £7 or free on Open House Weekends

Duration? About 90 minutes

Grade II listed Royal Court Theatre facade
Grade II listed Royal Court Theatre facade

The beautiful building dates from 1888, and spent time as a theatre, then a cinema, before being bomb damaged in WW2. It re-opened in the 1952 with the English Stage Company and artistic director George Devine, committed to discovering new writer and creating new work. The third play they premiered was George Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, a play that changed the face of modern British theatre.

The building closed for refurbishments for a few years in the 90’s and re-opened bigger and better in 2000, extending underneath Sloane Square. The architects were briefed that the theatre owes everything to it’s past but looks only to the future.

 

We started our tour in a cozy corner of the bar called the The Ladies Room…made, fittingly from what were previously  ladies public toilets, donated from the council to the theatre!

The whole building is filled with little stories and unexpected discoveries. Mirrors turn out to he secret doors. A wonderful piece of public art extends through the levels front-of-house. The lift talks to you in the voices of several famous actors. Elements such as the window covers are grilles from those ladies toilets. Even the offices are incredibly well-appointed and contain two of the original auditorium doors. Impressively, the whole building is fully accessible for visitors and staff alike.

The red wall - public art with markings that show where the sunbeams hit it during the day.
The red wall – public art with markings that show where the sunbeams hit it during the day.

 

We visited both of the theatres. The little Jerwood Theatre Upstairs has always been associated with risky work, it can be totally transformed and the design of the building makes it feel as though you are climbing into a secret attic where anything can happen.

Jerwood Theatre Upstairs Royal Court
Jerwood Theatre Upstairs

The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs was currently home to the new Caryl Churchill play …and the stage was mainly covered with live grass which we were unable to stand on. But we still got to go onstage and feel how wonderfully intimate this performance space is. While we waited our turn to stand onstage we checked out ‘writers row’ where writers typically sit to watch their play in previews. The seats all bear the names of famous playwrights.

Jerwood Theatre Downstairs auditorium
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs auditorium

Royal Court auditorium detail of ceiling

The named seats on ‘Writers Row’:

John Osborne's seat on writers row, Royal Court

We had a great look backstage as well!

Backstage - the scene dock
Backstage – the scene dock
Looking up into the flies above the stage at the Royal Court
Looking up into the flies
Royal Court scene dock from the outside
Royal Court scene dock from the outside
Royal Court Stage Door
Stage door

Our lovely guide had so many great stories to tell – which I won’t give away…you have to go and hear them on the tour!

If you want more backstage tours information, visit backstagetheatretours.com 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richmond Theatre Backstage Tour

Richmond Theatre upper facade
Richmond Theatre facade
Richmond Theatre facade

Where? Richmond Theatre, Little Green, Richmond TW9 1QJ

When? Currently running Saturday mornings 9 January – 23 April 2016.

What was on? Cinderella – it was panto season!

How? You can check times and book on their website

Cost? Adult tickets are £8, ATG card holders £7 and Concessions are £5

Duration? About 90 minutes

Richmond Theatre upper facade

Richmond Theatre is a beautiful Frank Matcham building and also a busy receiving house now owned by ATG. Although they ran tours several years ago, there haven’t been any for a long while so I’m delighted they’ve started again and definitely didn’t want to miss this opportunity. I’ve been a reasonably regular visitor to Richmond Theatre over the years and it’s a lovely space to be an audience member, with really good sightlines and an interesting and varied programme.

But how do things look from the other side of the curtain?

The original pit entrance door at Richmond Theatre
The original pit entrance. Nowadays we all get to use the grand staircase and doors!

We started outside and heard about the history of theatre in Richmond and how this building fits in which gave us a good context before heading inside, and backstage.

Because the tour focussed very much on the current production (the very last of the pantomime season!) this is a tour you could do again and again. I especially enjoyed hearing all about the stories from the pantomime – Cinderella’s amazing transforming dress, the (real!) minature Shetland ponies – just to name a couple! Best of all, it was clear throughout that our guide loved the theatre and was so full of enthusiasm to tell us all about it and make us love it too.

Richmond Theatre red, gilt and velvet auditorium
The beautiful auditorium
Richmond Theatre's beautiful auditorium ceiling
Richmond Theatre auditorium ceiling

We were able to stand on the stage, which is always a highlight, and we spent a good amount of time there too, looking at the set, peering up into the flies and out into the auditorium while our guide explained how everything worked and answered all of our questions.

Looking down at the Richmond Theatre blue stage
Looking down at the stage
Looking up into the Richmond Theatre fly tower above the stage
Looking up into the fly tower directly above the stage

Everything always feels a lot smaller from the stage, so it was great fun to go into the circle after and see how the false perspective made everything looks so much bigger and grander.

The chandelier and painted ceiling in the main foyer
The chandelier in the main foyer. The paintings are by a famous interior designer and TV personality…take the tour to find out who!

Richmond is quick and easy to reach from central London by underground or National Rail and the theatre is just a short walk from the station. It’s also a pleasant place to spend a day. You could start with a backstage tour, have a bit of a mosey round the attractive town centre or walk up Richmond Hill, and finish off with a matinee performance, still giving you time to head home before a Saturday night out! Or for a real theatre fan, why not start at Richmond for a tour then head back into London for a tour of one of the big modern spaces like the Barbican or the National Theatre as the contrast is fascinating.

For more backstage tour information visit backstagetheatretours.com

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

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