By: Rosie Sharman-Ward, TRP Blogger
For me the world of theatre is on a par with the fairy tales of my childhood, full of wonder and magic. Real life is left at the door and I can indulge in and engage with new worlds, stories and characters. I viewed the opportunity to tour backstage at the Theatre Royal Plymouth with a little niggle of worry that this magic would be demystified.
Our first stop on the tour, led by the Technical Manager Joe, was The Drum. I love The Drum, it is a small, versatile space. It showcases innovative shows and experimental productions that wouldn’t necessarily fill the 1,300 seat space in The Lyric. Companies with lower budgets can try new ideas and demonstrate them to other theatres. It allows for an immediate and intimate experience for performers and audience alike. The new comfy seating is motorised so it can be pushed back to give different atmospheres and formats full reign and the black walls are a perfect foil for colourful ideas.
Back to the Future
Next stop saw us backstage where storage and tidiness are key! Joe opened one of the huge back doors and explained how the quick changes between shows are orchestrated by huge numbers of highly skilled people over the weekends. My mind was boggled by how “a small village” of people remove the previous show and replace it with the set, lighting and sound for the next, loading on and off from massive lorries while the people of Plymouth are indulging in Saturday/Sunday night. The statistical challenges are awe inspiring and rely on everyone knowing their jobs perfectly and a little swearing.
Caught in a Mousetrap
We were then privileged to be shown around the backstage and set of the touring production of the famous Mousetrap. I had seen the show earlier in the week, so it was very meaningful. Looking from the stage into the auditorium gave us a real perspective of where the audience was. I really wish those audiences had known that many of the props in the set were from the 70-year-old original production including photos of first cast members on the mantlepiece and a table that was bought new and is now almost an antique. The continuity was touching and rather wonderful. Even the news bulletins in the play are the voice of the late Derek Guyler. Exiting stage right we saw the props table meticulously laid out for the cast to swiftly locate items.
Having already been amazed by the complexity of the tech used these days, such as the mini traffic lights to give people their cues by the seemingly superhuman Deputy Stage Manager, I was thrilled by the old-school sound effects for the doorbell and front door. Further fascination came with explanations of how the snowfall was created and the difference between the snow seen through the window and the seemingly melting snow on the cast members who had just entered the play from ‘outdoors’. Having marvelled at all of this we were then shown how all this is achieved by dim blue lighting backstage in order that no light bleeds into the auditorium – wow!
Lord of the Flies – nope
I am ashamed to report that much of Joe’s brilliant explanations of how scenery and curtains are lifted by a series of counterweighted blocks high up in the theatre’s flies was wasted on me. I am rubbish at heights and was not happy being on a perfectly safe gangway several metres above the stage with ropes to pull on one side that operated the corresponding parts of the set on the other. The complexity of how they safely set up the counter weight during a shows ‘get in’ and move them manually at the appropriate moments during the show mostly passed me by. If you want to know the details of the wooden bar I was clinging to for dear life, however, with its colourful graffiti presumably penned by technicians during down time in a show, I am your woman. Having said that, it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed and I am very glad I did it.
Company of Heroes
While the audience is being beguiled by the grit and glamour on stage an army of skilled staff belonging to both the Theatre Royal and the touring companies are working flat out to ensure the show works seamlessly. Care of the wardrobe including the mundane task of washing and drying the clothes and running repairs has a dedicated area, as does food prep and of course a variety of dressing rooms. It is like a mini city. Theatre Royal Plymouth is justly proud of its accessibility for both actors and audience members and boasts wheelchair friendly dressing rooms and access to the stages. Spaces for make up, for touring company managers, for child performers and their chaperones and so much more all exist in the warren of corridors behind the scenes.
Our final port of call, led by Front of House Manager Danny, was to the larger than life statue of Messenger outside the theatre. She is based on a young actor rehearsing the part of Bianca in Othello. Dressed in hoodie and comfy trousers, she is poised barefoot to spring into action. I think she is beautiful and reminds me of Saturday mornings at youth theatre when I was a kid. She has divided opinion in Plymouth so I was very moved by Joe’s endorsement as he said she represents the theatre that is his life. Backstage, hard work, rehearsing over and again to deliver a fabulous show to the public. The Theatre Royal is a huge asset to Plymouth and the South West. Its vast and variable performance spaces, accessibility and talented staff lead to a variety of productions rarely seen outside London’s West End.
I am very happy to report the tour has enhanced the theatre experience. I recommend booking one if you can.