Christmas Presents for Theatre Lovers (or what to do when you don’t want to buy theatre tickets!)

Theatre Doodles mens white Theatre Rocks t-shirt

Live Every Day Like It's Panto Season themed T-shirt, 100% organic cotton

Today Backstage Theatre Tours launches Backstage Theatre Doodles, a funky hand-doodled range of men’s and women’s T-shirts made from 100% organic cotton. To celebrate we’ve had a look at potential Christmas presents for any theatre loving friends and relatives.

Theatre tickets make a great gift of course, but they’re not always the easiest things to buy. You have to check people are available, be sure they want to see the show and get their seating preference right – not at all easy if they’re a theatre fan! Theatre tokens are a good option, and can be used at over 240 venues including the West End with no expiry date but what about if you want to get something more personal?

Well here are some gift suggestions – other than theatre tickets  – that will delight every type of theatre fan…

For the Musicals Lover…

Stagefaves Christmas merch design range 2016

If you’re buying for a musicals fan you need to get yourself to the Stage Faves website. It’s a database pulling together the public social media feeds of over 2000 musical theatre performers.  There’s some very smart merchandise on sale too, including an exclusive “All I Want For Christmas” range (pictured above). If you know your loved-one’s favourite musical performer, you can order a personalised t-shirt, bag or hoodie for them to show their support! To go with it, mine the Stage Faves database for social media and website info and have a look at which musical theatre stars have an album on sale. Musical theatre goddess Kerry Ellis rocks some great music including exciting collaborations with Brian May. Latest album KE is a contemporary take on several well-know songs from musicals on stage and screen. Or try West End and Broadway star Ramin Karimloo‘s beautiful and unique amalgamation of bluegrass and musical theatre: The Road to Find Out – “East” .

For the Shakespeare Lover…

Customizable handmade hand-stamped copper bracelet - add the Shakespeare quote of your choice

Basically there are two types of Shakespeare fan: those who love cats in ruffs and those who hate them. For the first kind you’re in luck as there are all kinds of kitsch Shakespeare themed trinkets you can get hold of. Hit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for everything from Shakespeare Duck Lip Balm a Shakespeare-style retelling of Star Wars or stay feline with a Five Cats of Shakespeare mug from Catapostrophe . For the more serious Shakespeare fan you’ll have to think a bit harder. You can get handmade copper bracelets customised with a hand-stamped favourite Shakespeare quote from Wicked Wordsmith (pictured above) . Or how about a beautiful hardback facsimile of a Shakespeare’s play as it would have appeared in the First Folio, available from Shakespeare’s Globe shop. The Duke of Edinburgh was even presented with one during a visit several years ago so you can’t get fancier than that.

For the Backstage Fan…

Curtain Call: A Year Backstage in London Theatre book

Do you know someone with an insatiable curiosity who is always wanting to snoop behind the scenes? Make their dreams come true by booking them a backstage tour. The National Theatre runs a great range of backstage, costume and architecture tours and you can even book a delicious afternoon tea and backstage tour package. And a must-have for the Christmas stocking is the book Curtain Call: A Year Backstage In London Theatrea gorgeous collection of behind-the-scenes photos and interviews (pictured above).

For the Theatre-Loving Bookworm…

Theatre and books go together so well. For the reader with stamina, Daniel Rosenthal’s The National Theatre Story is a doorstep of a book that will keep them quiet through the festive period. Pekka Salminen’s glorious photographic hardback Theatres is an exploration theatre spaces from ancient amphiteatres to innovative modern spaces. Or Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London is the true tale of Samuel Foote, a 18th century dramatist, actor and comedian whose story was recently brought to the stage with Simon Russell Beale in the title role. For an interesting selection of playtexts, visit the Royal Court Theatre where the staff will definitely be able to recommend something fresh and exciting.

For the Arty Type of Theatre Lover…

La Belle et La Bete miniature theatre from Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop

Besides a quirky Backstage Theatre Doodle’s T-Shirt for your artistic friend, have a look in Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop. They stock a range of toy theatres from cute little matchbox sized ones to the most exquisite detailed replicas in wooden boxes. This adorable La Belle et La Bête Theatre requires some scoring, folding and cutting with a craft knife but is easy to make and so pretty when finished.

Just a few suggestions to get you started with theatre-themed Christmas shopping…please add any other ideas! And remember that no festive shopping trip is complete without a mince pie, mulled wine, hot chocolate or all three.

Right, I’m off to play Season’s Greetings: A Jersey Boys Christmas

Love and Merry Christmas

Natalie X

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

Barbican Henry IV Backstage Tour

Barbican Centre Lakeside Terrace entrance. Concrete and glass.
Barbican Centre exterior. Main entrance with concrete and glass.
The Barbican Centre

Where? Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS

What was on? The RSC were in residence. Henry IV Parts 1&2.

How? Book online on their website. Tours on offer vary depending on what is happening in the theatre.

Cost? £10.50 each plus booking fee. Members, concessions and under 16s: £8.40

Barbican Centre Lakeside Terrace entrance. Concrete and glass.
Barbican Lakeside Terrace entrance

The iconic Brutalist Barbican Centre building – which is Europe’s largest multi-arts and conference venue – was completed in 1982 and sits at the heart of the Barbican Estate. Much of the Barbican is built below the ground and at times you feel like you’ve entered a huge subterranean world!

Barbican detail of ceiling lighting. Blue squares in a circular concrete hole.
Barbican detail of ceiling lighting

It’s an odd sensation to go underground to get into the theatre, and every level you descend the walls change to a different lurid colour. The deeper you go, the brighter it gets.

The wonderful thing about the Barbican Tour is the amount of backstage access you get. By the time you’ve finished this tour, you really feel like you’d had an insight into how this theatre works.

We went half-way up the fly tower – the tallest in Europe, in its day – and looked up into the grid above and down onto the stage below. We descended under the stage and saw where a live orchestra can sit, and where the actors go when they vanish through trapdoors! We even saw a few bits of the paper ‘blizzard’ still remaining from the recent Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch.

As if this wasn’t impressive enough, we also had a chance to go on the stage itself. Although this auditorium has more than a thousand seats, the space looked and felt quite intimate from here and it was great to look up and view what we’d seen from the fly tower from the actors’ point of view. It’s also interesting to see the unusual projecting upper levels of seats which ensure everyone gets a good view in this theatre – although you might need a bit of a head for heights if you are near the top!

We continued by walking around the sides and rear of the stage, taking in a range of props, weapons, costumes and set making this tour a terrific accompaniment to seeing the show.

Barbican Estate from the Lakeside Terrace
Barbican Estate from the Lakeside Terrace

Barbican Centre exterior

Verdict: I was so impressed with this tour. We took the most incredible route, there was lots of great backstage access and I feel like I know the Barbican so well now! It’s the kind of tour you’d want to come back and take again for different productions. You can also explore the Barbican further with an Architecture Tour. Why not team it up with a National Theatre Architecture Tour for a full day of concrete enjoyment?

For more about backstage tours visit backstagetheatretours.com

The National Theatre: A Tour for Every Occasion

National Theatre backstage tour in the Olivier Theatre
National Theatre entrance
National Theatre

Did you know the biggest factory in central London actually sits on the bustling South Bank overlooking the River Thames?

It’s the impressive National Theatre, an iconic building which as well as being home to three permanent theatres, contains extensive production workshops. This is because the National makes every aspect of its shows onsite and everything from the wigs and costumes to the vast sets are constructed here.

The National Theatre runs a repertoire system, switching between two (and sometimes even three) plays every few days in each theatre. This means they can stage around 30 plays a year and there’s always lots to choose from.

Best of all, the National Theatre runs a range of great tours which give you a chance to see some of the action.

National Theatre backstage tour in the Olivier Theatre
Ship ahoy! National Theatre backstage tour in the Olivier Theatre in front of the set for Treasure Island. [Image copywright National Theatre]
Backstage Tours run daily and you can check availability and book on the website. Exact timings vary because tours of this busy working building have to fit around the demanding schedule of running around 30 plays a year. Tours are led by one of the National Theatre’s dedicated team of knowledgeable and entertaining guides and no two tours are ever the same which is very exciting! You never quite know what you’re going to see, but a typical tour usually includes visit to at least two of the theatres, as well those incredible production workshops where the sets and props are constructed. You might see a new set being built in, you might see a change-over between two plays…you just never know!

Occasionally special post-show tours are offered which give you a chance to walk on the stage and have a close-up look of the set. Get in touch with the tours team to find our when one of these is next running.

Younger children would love one of the Family Tours which run at half-terms and holidays. These are a bit shorter than the standard backstage tour and everyone gets a chance to try on costumes at the end. The National also runs on-request tours for parents/carers with babies so get in touch if you’re interested in one of these.

Special occasion? Team up a backstage tour with a delicious theatrical-themed afternoon tea in fine dining restaurant House on one of the Tea and Tour packages.

If costume is your passion you definitely need to sign up for a Costume Tour. These run less often and only accommodate small numbers so there’s a waiting list for places but it’s definitely worth the wait! As well as visiting the workshops where the costumes are made you get to see into wigs hair and makeup (or ‘WHAM’ as it is known). You’ll see wigs being prepared for the shows that day as well as new costumes being made for future productions.

National Theatre flying buttresses looking like a giant cubist composition
National Theatre flying buttresses looking like a giant cubist composition

Personally I’m a big fan of the concrete (one of the seven wonders of London say Time Out ) and you can get to know the building better by taking one of the new Concrete Reality Architecture Tours. You’ll find out more about architect Denys Lasdun’s vision, discover how those soaring pillars and terraces stay up and explore some of the sparkly-new redeveloped NT Future spaces.

National Theatre Tours also pride themselves on being accessible. The Contego system, an easy-to-use wireless listening device, is available for the hearing impaired (including hearing aid users) and step-free accessible routes can be arranged in advance. Contact the tours team in advance of visiting to discuss any access requirements.

Finally, if you don’t have the time to take a tour, or if you want to make a day of sit, spend some time wandering around the amazing building and terraces as it is open to the public. There are several free exhibition spaces, including the Lyttelton Lounge where you can access content from the Archive on your smartphone. Or if you just want to relax, grab a coffee and freshly made cake from the Espresso Bar or Kitchen cafe and make use of the free WIFI! (Tip: if you want to see the original wheels from the drum revolve, a massive scenic elevator that sits under the Olivier stage, you can find them enjoying a second life as tables in new riverfront bar Understudy. And have a nice craft beer while you are there!)

With so many great tours to choose from, several bars and restaurants, lots of public exhibition spaces and that great South Bank location, it’s easy to make a day of it at the National Theatre!

Find more backstage tour info at www.backstage tours.com