Backstage Tour at the National Theatre

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I’ll begin by saying that I LOVE going backstage at theatres. The few times I have done, I’ve been amazed by the winding corridors and seemingly maze-like routes behind and below the stage, as well as by the sheer quantity of space and rooms and goings on behind the scenes to make shows happen. So when I discovered that the National Theatre offers backstage tours most days, I seized the opportunity to buy tickets for myself and my boyfriend (the excuse being it was a birthday treat for him, but I knew we would enjoy it equally… but it was mostly for him. Honest).

We (and the other 18 people) were introduced to our tour guide Maya, who was so knowledgeable, engaging, and generally brilliant. We were given fetching orange high vis jackets to wear which was fun, and gave me a false sense of importance despite the fact that they said ‘National Theatre Backstage Tours’ on the back. Maya told us all a bit about the history of the building and when and why it was built – it’s much newer than I thought, with the building being opened in the 60s (despite the concept of a national theatre being in talks as early as the 19th century).

We entered one of the three auditoriums within the building: The Lyttelton Theatre. I was immediately struck by how modern the space is, but also by its simplicity. Maya explained that the whole idea of this particular theatre is to not let anything draw the audience’s eyes away from the action on stage, explaining the plain decor and the black box around the performance space. This theatre holds nearly 900 people, and it felt like such a nice intimate space from within the stalls.

Next we went into the main auditorium: The Olivier Theatre. Walking into the circle of this theatre was amazing – the view of the stage seemed to be perfect from every angle, and this is because the seating curves around the stage, somewhat hugging it, and the angle is exactly that of humans’ peripheral vision, meaning that the actors on stage can always see everyone in the audience. This space is where Follies was performed, and Macbeth is in technical rehearsals there right now. Sitting in the circle and looking down at the stage made me desperately want to see a show there!

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We reluctantly left The Olivier, and went backstage! We got to see several props from past productions, some of which never even made it on stage due to script and design changes. We also saw the carpentry workshop where many set pieces and props are made, and had a peek into some other workshops too. The National Theatre is a producing theatre, meaning that many sets and props are made backstage, which can be hugely beneficial when shows are rehearsing within the building, as things can be changed very quickly as the shows develop. It’s much like Theatre Royal Plymouth and TR2 in that sense, but on a much bigger scale!

We were taken back to the foyer and handed back our orange jackets, and said a big thank you to Maya (who was brilliant!). We discovered that there is a great theatre shop in the building, which I wish I’d found before because we spent at least an hour in there!

The backstage tour at the National Theatre was awesome, and I would recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in theatre. I learnt so much and now really want to see something in any one of the three theatres. I think it’s so great that a big producing theatre such as the National offers tours such as this, as it definitely sparked my love for theatre even more.

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk 

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The view from the third floor of the National Theatre
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Backstage tour: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

6 Jun 8
Credit: Becca Pettit

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is a unique piece of theatre which has been subject to great critical acclaim since it first opened at the Cottesloe Theatre in 2012. Now embarking on its second UK tour, audiences all over the country are being swept up in Christopher Boone’s story. I was invited on a backstage tour of the show at Theatre Royal Plymouth along with five other bloggers to learn more about the play and to get a closer look at the props and set. We were met by Stew, the company manager, who talked us through the different aspects of the show and opened our eyes to how much detail has gone into creating this production.

We started by looking at the towering set, and Stew explained that it takes 6 hours to get it into the theatre, and 12 hours to put it all together and make it function. We saw the versatile white boxes which are used in various ways throughout the show, as suitcases, train seats, and even a toilet! Then we moved on to looking at the props, starting with Wellington, the four legged victim of the story, and I was amazed at the gruesome detail that been applied to the dog, as well as the detail on other set pieces, such as the model of Big Ben and the tiny houses. Stew told us that ‘Curious is all about detail’, and I saw first-hand that this is certainly true.

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Then it was time to go on stage! The floor is covered in tiny squares (892 to be exact), and the floor and three walls are all covered in grids. Although the set may look simple at first, there are eight projectors used in the show which really enhance the visual aspect, and LED lights are used to inject different colours and moods into various scenes. The grid squares are labelled with letters and numbers around the sides, and Stew told us that the directors used these squares during the rehearsal process to help with the precision of the blocking – for example, an actor would be instructed to stand in box A7 for a certain scene. I found it really interesting that a show so based in logic and maths is blocked in such a mathematical way – and this must play a part in enhancing the performance. As Stew told us, ‘it’s all grid work’.

Understandably, there are many people working on Curious to ensure that it runs smoothly for all 8 performances a week. There are 10 cast members in the show, plus an alternate Christopher, and 4 understudies. There are two Christophers because it is such a demanding role – the actor portraying him never leaves the stage except during the interval. There are also 16 crew members, unusually outnumbering the cast number! These numbers prove how technical the show is, and how although it has a small cast size, it requires many people working hard backstage to make the show happen. Stew said that audiences often forget that Curious is a play, because it is so much more than a play – perhaps even a ‘play with the infrastructure of a musical’. Although the scale of the set is so big, the intense detail of the props means that the performance still feels intimate and relatable.

A primary aim of the show is to introduce the audience to Christopher’s world. Stew told us that this is why the set is effectively a box, because this box represents his mind. We also learned about the music for the show, which is all based around prime numbers – for example, at the start of the show a drum rhythm is heard, and the accents are on beats 2, 3, 5, 7 and 11 (the first prime numbers). This makes the audience subconsciously inhabit Christopher’s world because he adores maths, and prime numbers – so it makes sense that the background music would be based around them too. I find this incredibly clever, and again, it’s something that the audience would not pick up on, making it another example of the show’s attention to detail.

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The backstage tour gave me and the other bloggers an invaluable insight into the world of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. The scale of the set and detail of the props is astounding, and it is clear that so much thought has been put into every tiny aspect of this production to make it unique and authentic. So many individuals work hard to make this show as good as it can possibly be, and I can’t wait for more audiences around the UK to experience this extraordinary piece of theatre.

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time runs at Theatre Royal Plymouth until Saturday 1st July. 

Twitter Takeovers

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As social media becomes increasingly important to the world of theatre, I have started to notice and appreciate various West End shows’ efforts with their Twitter accounts. It seems to have become a trend that the casts of these productions take it in turns to tweet from the official account, sharing pictures, videos and fun facts about what life is like in the theatre. I absolutely love Twitter takeovers, because I find it so interesting to discover what goes on behind the scenes and to see how the cast members interact when they’re not on stage.

In my opinion, the Les Mis Twitter account is one of the best. Every week, without fail, a different cast member takes control of the account, and each person brings something slightly different to my Twitter feed. This week, Zoe Doano (who is currently playing Cosette) is tweeting for Les Mis, but has gone one step further by uploading daily videos of backstage life at the Queen’s Theatre, which are both informative and entertaining! (Watch them here). I have a feeling that these videos were inspired by Carrie Hope Fletcher (who plays Eponine), who has her own Youtube channel and has uploaded several great backstage videos over the last two years.

While I’m on the topic of Les Mis I’d like to mention the current West End Javert, Jeremy Secomb’s series of videos ‘#mustbejavert’ in which each day a different cast member sings this line from the show in response to him (creepily) appearing beside them. It’s very funny, and makes me wonder how the Valjeans sing this line for real in the show without corpsing. Probably because they’re good at acting…

The West End production of Miss Saigon also has weekly Twitter takeovers, which are particularly interesting because the cast of this show come from all over the world, so individuals often tweet about where they’re from, and about various cultural traditions.

However, it’s not just the casts of West End shows who get to be in control of the Twitter accounts – some have broadened to having musical directors, band members, backstage crew and stage managers included as well. I love it when productions do this, as these tweets allow members of the public to see things they wouldn’t normally get to see when watching the show from the auditorium. I especially liked it when the assistant musical director for Les Mis, Alex Parker, took photos for a tour of the orchestra pit, and similarly, back in May the trumpet player for The Phantom of the Opera tweeted from the pit. I’m obviously biased because I have such an interest in pit bands and MDing, but I’m sure that many other fans also appreciate getting a view of otherwise unseen elements of theatre.

Twitter takeovers on official shows’ accounts really do brighten up my Twitter feed (cough, follow me @MeganHilling10, cough), and I love how creative the people involved with the productions can be during their week of being the guest tweeter. Everyone seems to have something different to contribute to social media, through photos, videos and trivia, and I would love for more shows to do this kind of thing.

Review – Shrek the Musical, Theatre Royal Plymouth, 02/08/15

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The main reason I went to watch Shrek the Musical at Theatre Royal Plymouth was because of my impending bloggers’ day there (read about it here), and I was convinced that, as an adult, I would not be in the show’s demographic. It turns out that I was very wrong!

First cover Shrek, Iain Mattley, was performing when I went to see the show, and I later found out that he has been playing the lead role since the show arrived in Plymouth due to the principal actor’s illness. Mattley was outstanding, despite the pressure I assume he has been under to perform such a demanding role every night. His characterisation of Shrek was well maintained through both the scenes and musical numbers, and I was very impressed with his performance. The closing song of Act 1, Who I’d Be, was a particularly poignant moment which really allowed the audience to connect with the character of Shrek.

Gerard Carey was absolutely hilarious as the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad. The clever use of tiny fake legs made for some impressive illusions which had the audience laughing at his every move, and his expressive and amusing vocals made songs such as What’s Up Duloc and The Ballad of Farquaad amongst the highlights of the show.

Bronté Barbé displayed a beautiful voice as Princess Fiona, and I really enjoyed watching the character grow up throughout the song I Know It’s Today (and the harmonies between the Fionas were stunning!). Idriss Kargbo was a brilliant Donkey, and the Shrek-Donkey relationship was heart-warming and worked very well, especially in the song Don’t Let Me Go.

The ensemble members portrayed a variety of fairy tale characters (amongst other roles, such as guards and ogre parents), and they came together to create some complex formations and dances, such as in Story of My Life and Freak Flag. Special mentions should go to Will Haswell as Pinocchio, and Candace Furbert’s amazing dragon vocals. The dragon was absolutely enormous, and almost entirely filled the stage, creating a spectacular sight.

As already mentioned, I attended the show expecting it to be aimed at people 10 years younger than me, but there were several jokes which would have gone over the children’s heads – much like a pantomime but with fewer innuendos! That said, I did find myself becoming a little tired of the seemingly endless farting and burping sequences which appeared occasionally (maybe I’m becoming a boring adult?!) although the majority of the children found these hysterically funny!

I’d also like to say that the music in Shrek is amazing and it has become my current obsession! The songs range from upbeat and quirky ones to slow and emotional numbers, and the band accompanied the singers flawlessly under the direction of Dave Rose. The costume and make up departments should also be acknowledged for the hard work that evidently goes into transforming actors into ogres, as well as the maintenance of the intricate costumes and the organisation of the ensemble members’ costume changes.

Shrek the Musical definitely exceeded my expectations. It really is a show for ‘all the family’ – or, indeed, solitary young adults like myself! Both the principal characters and the ensemble performed brilliantly, and I have newfound respect for the understudies, swings, and backstage departments following my tour of the theatre.

Bloggers’ day at Theatre Royal Plymouth

I was lucky enough to be invited to the Theatre Royal Plymouth for the day along with 4 other bloggers to have a tour of the theatre and to learn more about what goes on there. This could lead to future blogs in partnership with the Theatre Royal, so look out for those soon!

I arrived at Stage Door to be greeted by Becca (PR Officer), and then myself and the other bloggers were taken on a backstage tour by a very helpful and informative man named Mark. He took us into the wings and onto the stage, and let me press a button to raise the safety curtain, which was rather exciting! We then walked up several flights of stairs to the part of the wings where all of the ropes which control the scenery are kept, and had a bird’s eye view of the stage. Mark explained how the set changes happen (by heavy ropes being pulled!), and educated us about the different challenges involved with settling each touring production into the theatre.

Credit: Becca Pettitt
Credit: Becca Pettitt

A particularly interesting piece of information was that there is still a hole in the roof caused by the chandelier from the first time that The Phantom of the Opera played there! We climbed even more stairs and reached the very top of the building, from which there was another terrifying bird’s eye view of the stage and auditorium.

We came downstairs after that and went into the band pit, which I was hugely excited about!

We walked through a maze of endless corridors in which the walls were adorned with production photos from every show that has ever been performed at the Theatre Royal. Next we went into the Drum Theatre and in the control room, and saw some visual programming going on. We briefly saw some children from the Young Company rehearsing a piece to be performed next week, which was a great insight into how the Theatre Royal interacts with people of all ages in the local community.

Shrek the Musical is currently playing at the Theatre Royal, so we got to go backstage and see the cast doing rehearsals for the understudies. First of all we watched the run of the show from the wings, and chatted to a few cast members (who were all lovely!). Most of the second covers were playing the lead roles, but we all agreed that they were just as good at portraying the characters as the actors who normally perform. It was fascinating to watch the stage crew and stage managers rushing around trying to get props on and off stage, while the cast always had to be ready for their next entrance. I was also blown away by the talent and memories of the swings, who were all performing in random ensemble roles due to the usual actors playing the leads.

We soon moved into the auditorium to get a better view (and probably to get out of the way of the backstage crew!). The show ran very smoothly, and it was accompanied by the assistant musical director on a keyboard rather than with the whole band. Half way through the run of act 1, the song I Know It’s Today began, but there was no Young Fiona… so the company managers started singing her part and I joined in. They then stopped singing, and I continued, meaning that I was shakily singing the first verse on my own in Theatre Royal Plymouth in front of the cast of Shrek the Musical. How did that happen?! Once the run of act 1 finished we went backstage and chatted to a few of the cast members, and then we were allowed to look at the many costumes in ‘wardrobe village’. Seeing all of the props and costumes really made me realise how many different elements come together to create a large scale production such as Shrek.

The bloggers’ day was absolutely amazing – I got to experience so many new things within the theatre, and learned a lot about how productions are put on at regional theatres. The cover rehearsal felt like a private show for us, especially due to the high standard to which the understudies and swings performed. I’d like to thank Becca and the team at Theatre Royal Plymouth for hosting this amazingly insightful day!