Backstage used to be a mystery. What exactly was going on? Who was doing it? Where were all the characters needed to make a show happen? Indeed, how many of them were there?
The Leicester Curve’s much publicised ‘inside out’ concept was just an early symptom of a wider
phenomenon which now sees the ‘making of’ almost as popular – if not more – as the film, the documentary, the show itself. In fact, Plymouth Theatres’ Drum venue had already pioneered this approach, and it seems the National is now set to follow with its imminent refurbishment.
There are now also several companies featuring backstage jobs on their websites as a matter of course. The National and the RSC have done so for quite some time, but recently Propeller, for instance, has put a whole host of material about touring its productions online, including a long interview with the company manager, the props list for its Henry V, even some rehearsal notes.
I’m not an exhibit, or a zoo animal. I don’t want hundreds of people looking at me while I earn my living
And as for YouTube – have you tried searching it for stage management? You will find some really good and interesting material.
There is the school of thinking which argues that theatre is about suspension of disbelief, about letting yourself be taken in by the magic, even if you are perfectly aware it isn’t actually raining onstage, the phone isn’t really ringing, and that geezer isn’t – honestly – being clubbed to death. And this school of thinking would also say that lifting the veil of secrecy on how a ghost trick works, or a real-looking but safe sword fight, takes something away from that magic, somehow makes it less effective and powerful.
This is a school of thinking with which I have come to disagree. I have noticed the more that is available over the internet – on recordings, TV or film – the more, conversely, audiences seem interested in live events, in the one-off, in being somewhere where something special is going to happen – witness the rise of festivals in recent years, the enthusiasm for large-scale one-off celebrations, the flash mob phenomenon. For me, the interest in finding out how it all works is a way of widening and deepening that one-off experience. It’s as if you are thus able to look at what you witnessed from different angles, to make the transitory nature of an event last longer.
It doesn’t destroy the magic of it, either – or why would so many of us who do know a trick or two still be such passionate theatregoers? Even if we do often spend some of that time in a show wondering how the guillotine is done, or pondering the authenticity of the paper props.
And I do think all this information means nowadays those wishing to investigate a career backstage can find out far more than I could 25 years ago. That’s surely fantastic for enthusing new generations and encouraging them to work in technical theatre which, as we are often told, faces a shortfall of staff over the next ten years.
So I’m all for it – showing our audiences who does what and how, backstage. But it needs to happen in its time and place. With pleasure, with enthusiasm, let me take you and a camera behind the scenes during a show, let me explain prompt books, let me record the stage manager cueing for you, let me demonstrate quick changes and make-up.
But don’t put me in a glass cage for the general public to stare at when I’m working, whether that’s in a workshop, a rehearsal room, or an office. I’m not an exhibit, or a zoo animal. I don’t want hundreds of people looking at me while I earn my living.