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

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