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

Backstage Tour of the Young Vic

The Young Vic exterior showing the three different sections.

Recently I was lucky enough to take a free backstage tour of the Young Vic which were running as part of the BBC Get Creative Weekend.

We started outside with our friendly and knowledgeable guide, Daniel, where we discovered that the Young Vic is a building of several parts, and the oldest section actually started life as a butchers shop. Incredibly, although I’m a regular visitor to the Young Vic I’d never really clocked the original tiles and signage or the meat-hooks hanging in the box office! There’s even a photo just inside the door of the building back in the butcher shop days.

The Young Vic exterior showing the three different sections.
The different sections that make up the Young Vic. The medium sized Maria space is the brown piece on the left-hand side and the main house is the metallic section on the right. The glass section in the centre is the bar and restaurant, and the oldest part of the building is where you enter just under the red ‘Theatre’ sign.
Young Vic entrance, where you can see the original butcher's shop signage under the neon.
Look under the neon and you can see the original butcher’s shop signage.

 

We started off with a visit to the main house which seats about 500 but is completely flexible so can be laid out differently for every show. We saw the simple but brilliant set of a giant plug and plug socket for current show If You Kiss Me Kiss Me which sounded really exciting – a combination of gig and dance show performed by Jane Horrocks, with a live band and a team of dancers.

The biggest surprise for me was going into the Young Vic’s Maria Space, their medium sized venue which seats about 150 although like the main house it’s a flexible space with endless staging possibilities. Recently I saw the moving A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing here, with an end-on stage. Another terrific show I’ve seen in this space was Bull where it was transformed into a boxing ring with audience sitting and standing around the playing area. But today there was absolutely nothing in there. Really nothing. No set, chairs, no rostra…and even the door where I’ve always entered was locked and barred high up in the wall above our heads. It’s amazing how an empty room can be so inspiring!

We had a walk through the offices – which even include a lovely little roof garden – and spotted some of the various departments that keep the Young Vic’s heart beating. I also discovered that the Young Vic is home to several associate companies – 1927 (I was lucky enough to catch their incredible Golem at the Young Vic – a fusion of animation, live performance and music), Belarus Free Theatre, BirdGang and the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme.

We finished off with a quick visit to costume where a fabulous array of hats from past shows were suspended above our heads and the costume supervisor was kind enough to answer our questions about the department.

This was such a great opportunity to find out more about the work of the Young Vic and a treat to see into the theatres and backstage areas. The Young Vic offer backstage tours for local schools but no regular public programme, so if ever you get a chance to join a one-off tour like this, I’d urge you to come along and find out more about this great place!

You can find our more about all things backstage tour on my website