New Wimbledon Theatre: Backstage Tour

New Wimbledon Theatre exterior

New Wimbledon Theatre exterior

Where? New Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon, London, SW19 1QG

When? From 2017  tours will run on the last Saturday of each month.

How? You can book online

Cost? Tickets are £8 per person

Duration? Approximately 90 minutes

The New Wimbledon Theatre is a lovely Grade II listed building which stands on the Broadway, Wimbledon, topped by their famous ‘golden angel’. As well as welcoming all the big touring productions, the theatre is known as the ‘Home of London Pantomime’ and I can personally vouch for the top-notch quality and bagfuls of fun you get from their pantos!

At the beginning of the tour we were met by our charming and knowledgeable guide Sherry Plant. As well as working on the Stage Door for the last ten years, Sherry had appeared twice on the New Wimbledon Theatre stage during her career as a professional actress and her love for the theatre was really evident. Most of us on the tour had been to the New Wimbledon several times before so we had very fond memories of the theatre! It was great to be able to find out more and Sherry had lots of fascinating stories and anecdotes to share with us.

The New Wimbledon is a late Edwardian building dating from 1910, and it is filled with marble, brass work and some very cute art-deco style stained glass windows. It was built by the theatre lover JB Mulholland and designed by Cecil Aubrey Masey, who was also the architect of the Phoenix Theatre in central London. Mulholland wanted people living outside central London to also have access to great theatres.

Stained glass window at Wimbledon Theatre

Having previously always sat in the stalls, where the theatre has quite an intimate feel, I was surprised to discover Wimbledon Theatre has around 1700 seats, making it one of the biggest in London. It’s best not to brave the steep tower of the upper circle if you suffer from vertigo, but for anyone unafraid of heights you do get a very decent view of the stage up there.

View from the rear of the upper circle in the New Wimbledon Theatre
View from the rear of the upper circle. Not bad at all!

Of course, one of the highlights is getting to stand on the stage. There was no show in at the moment which meant we saw the stage exposed and bare, giving you a really good idea of the size. It’s amazing to see the stage stripped of all the glitz and glamour; it gives you a real insight into the magic of theatre and how it transforms a space into something special.

The view from the stage, New Wimbledon Theatre
The view from the stage

Something I always love doing on the stage is having a gaze up above into the fly tower. All along the side of the stage were ropes to raise and lower the scenery. The theatre is full of nautical terminology as backstage ‘crew’ were traditionally sailors – they had the muscle to shift sets around, were used to pulling ropes and handy with blocks and tackles! Many theatrical superstitions derive from maritime traditions as well.

Looking up into the fly tower, New Wimbledon Theatre
Looking up into the fly tower
New Wimbledon Theatre dock doors
New Wimbledon Theatre dock doors where all of the sets are shifted in and out

Like every theatre, the New Wimbledon Theatre has its secrets. I certainly never guessed that this was the only known theatre to have its own Turkish baths underneath! The location is now home to a nightclub. Equally, there’s a corridor with a very special mural, painted bit-by-bit by a young flyman in the 60s and 70s to commemorate every show he worked on. I could have looked at it for hours!

New Wimbldon Theatre mural

New Wimbldon Theatre mural

Verdict: If you are a local then a visit to the beloved New Wimbledon Theatre is unmissable; but it’s definitely worth a visit from central London or further too. The theatre is just a few minutes walk from Wimbledon station which is a stone’s throw from London Waterloo, just 20 minutes by train. I’d recommend booking a matinee ticket and making a day of it!

An interesting contrast would be to spend one Saturday touring the New Wimbledon Theatre, then following up next Saturday with a visit to Richmond Theatre. Or another good theatre to compare it with is the London Palladium which was also completed in 1910.

For more about backstage theatre tours visit backstagetheatretours.com

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