Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre

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Backstage tour of the National Theatre taken June 28, 2014

entrance to the National Theatre
Photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton

There’s a reason I write about theatre instead of doing it.

Don’t get me wrong: I love acting, and I love doing tech as well, from directing to stage managing. But I realized fairly early on that I neither have the talent nor the thick skin to pursue it as a career. On top of that, I was afraid that if I did start focusing on it as a career, I would lose what it was I loved about it.

But I do still love it, the entire spectacle. So, when I knew I was coming to London, one of the places that makes theatre theatre, I knew I had to make the most of it.

I have been a fan of the National Theatre for a while now, partly thanks to Fathom Events and their live screenings. I haven’t attended ALL of them, but had attended plenty thinking that it would be the only chance I would ever have to actually be at one of the best theatres in the world.

So, when I went online to see what show I would attend there while I was in London, and saw that they did backstage tours, I booked a tour as quickly as I could.

I arrived a little early, which gave me a chance to have a look around the lobby. It looked more like a community center and less like a typical theatre, with a cafe and espresso bar near the front. The area for the box office looked like a pop-up area set up temporarily, adding to that community center feel. I found it delightfully charming and open as a result.

The Beginning – of the Tour and of the Theatre

The tour guide, Tom, approached me and let me know it was going to be me and a group of about 15 students. While we waited for the group to arrive, we talked – he asked me about my interest in theatre – what I’ve seen already and what I plan on seeing still – and where I was from. When he heard I was attending school for arts journalism, he seemed to perk up and let me know that if I wanted to ask him any questions separately, he would be open to that. Once the group arrived, we were taken over to a table with hard hats (safety regulations required them for when we were in the workshop areas), and Tom gave us a little bit of the history of the theatre, which continued as he led us into the first space, the Olivier Theatre.

Built in the ’70s, the National Theatre was founded as a way to “expand the horizons of audiences and artists alike”, geared towards promoting multiple types of theatre, from traditional Greek all the way to brand new works. Towards this goal, the building has three theatre spaces – the Olivier Theatre, the Littleton Theatre, and a temporary theatre (the Dorfman Theatre is currently being developed). In addition, each space has two productions going on in repertoire – each getting three to four days of performance before the shows rotate. Tom explained that this is designed for visitors to London who may only be in town a week or two, giving them up to six different productions they can choose from.

The Olivier Theatre

Another gentleman from the NT, whose name I forgot, joined us at the rear of the tour in order to make sure there were no stragglers. We were then led into the house of the Olivier Theatre, and I couldn’t help the ‘hey, I recognize that space’ (the other tour guide heard me, and we had a brief discussion as to the National Theatre Live broadcasts). The amphitheatre style gives the space a sense of intimacy, and even sitting in the upper levels, I felt there didn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house – despite a house of 1,500 seats.

the box office area
the box office area

Tom continued his discussion of the theatre, giving some astounding facts (there’s 30 meters of flyspace – 30 METERS!), and talking about how under the stage is a space that leads all the way to the carpark for sets and other items that can be brought up on stage via two lifts. And, of course, there’s the rotating section, and Tom asked the group why the theatre would want a rotating stage. (Since the others were students, I tended to not speak up as much – letting them have the educational opportunity.)

We then went to the back stage area, and DEAR SWEET MERCIFUL HEAVEN, the back stage! I knew, it being the bloody National Theatre, that it would be nice (especially compared to the community and educational theatres I’ve worked in), but I was still in awe. The amount of work space available is astronomical. There were also several set and prop pieces for King Lear set up in prep: a wine rack, a statue of Lear (made, of course, of polystyrene), and a genuine fake dead stag – with apparently a full spine sewed into it so that it moves realistically when thrown on the table at one point.

Then … and then, we got to go on the actual stage. This is the space I’ve seen on screen, the same space that people such as Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch, and – of course – Olivier himself have tread. I had to take more than just a moment to sit there in awe of that fact.

Standing there, the intimacy I felt in the house was even more pronounced. It felt that the audience was within touching distance. The back wall had padding to help with the sound quality, and our tour guide indicated that no mics are used outside of musicals or if they have small children who may not be able to project properly yet.

At the back of the house, there were four little rooms. Tom stated that each room was for a different tech: one for the lighting designer, one for the sound designer, one for the stage manager, and one for the director.

After a little moment (our guide said we could say lines if we wanted, but all I could think of was Shakespeare dialogue, and I didn’t want to be THAT tropey), we headed back to the backstage area again. This time, however, we went to another section that had the full set for A Small Family Business, the show that’s in rep with Lear. The set – a fully built house, including a working shower and toilet – is one piece that weighs five tons, and is rolled out in one when it’s time to change out shows. The production budget for shows range between £100,000 and £250,000 for each show, and it typically takes two months to build a set.

Dressing Rooms

The tour continued, with Tom stopping briefly in a hallway that was lined with the orange doors of dressing rooms. The National Theatre has 48 dressing rooms total, spread out over four different levels. They all face toward an open courtyard, meaning the actors can see each other from their rooms. He told us that the theatre has a tradition on every opening night, that at a certain time before curtain, all the actors stand at the windows, and bang on them as loudly as they can as a way to wish the other actors and productions good luck and to bring up the energy. As he told this tale, I couldn’t help but wonder what that tradition was like the evening of the 50th anniversary production.

The Littleton Theatre

Next up on the tour was the Littleton Theatre. A proscenium-style theatre, it seats 800 and definitely looks like it was built in the ’70s. Sitting in the balcony, it felt much more like being in a movie theatre, and it was much less accepting. The balcony seating is definitely less of a view.

There is a space to the right, and a second behind, each the same size of the stage. There are wagons with the set for the other production in one of the spaces ready to move out when the productions transition.

We then went backstage of the Littleton, and saw the set for The Silver Tassle, set in 1928 Dublin and is an anti-war piece. The polystyrene bricks align a set that looks like a broken down church, and Tom says that at one point in the show, the set almost breaks apart. There is a fully-functioning stove used in the production, and they also use a lot of pyrotechnics.

Workrooms

The tour then went to the set and prop building area, and I only have to say DAMN! The space that’s available was nice and big, and so clean and organized!

lighting in the lobby of the National Theatre
lighting in the lobby of the National Theatre

Tom took us to an area that had old props we could interact with, which included a sponge cake made out of actual sponge and a sandwich with latex lettuce. There were some puppets as well. We were shown a rubber ‘stone’ angel and the mold they used (alas, while mentioned, we didn’t actually see the vacuform table). One of the items passed around was a mock severed head, and Tom let us know that the hair on it (as well as the hair in all the wigs used by the National Theatre) use real human hair.

Rehearsal Space

The next stop was another heart-fluttering moment for me as we headed into one of the rehearsal spaces. I’m fairly certain this is the same space I had seen in pictures (and in video) in relation to both the 50th anniversary as well as Frankenstein. It was currently set up for their upcoming production of Medea.

It not only had the upper stage area set up so they could interact with multiple levels, but was real-size and had a fully-working turntable that matched the one on the Olivier stage so the actors could adjust to using it. I have no idea if this is standard in professional theatre, but it so isn’t in community and educational theatre.

Tom said that most productions spend six weeks in the rehearsal space, and then three days on the actual stage, with a dress rehearsal if there is time. This three days is why the need for preview performances, as the actors adjust to the actual space as needed.

The End of the Line

With that, we slowly moved back to where the tour began, and said our goodbyes. After the other group left, I stayed a little to talk to my two tour guides. I asked them how long they had worked there (each about a year) and what they did when they weren’t doing tours. The other gentleman stated he did a little bit of everything, a jack-of-all-trades doing what needed to be done. Tom, on the other hand, said that his whole job was basically scheduling and doing the tours.

I asked them both whether it ever gets old. I mean, it must – at a certain point – just flow over them that they are at the bloody National Theatre. But they both said that while yes, it’s a job like any other, that there are moments when they remember where they are and who all have graced those halls. And yes, they, too, have been a bit star struck.

It was a fascinating tour, especially since all my actual experience were with theatres that worked on a shoestring if they were lucky. My love of theatre is why I still write about it. I love the transformative quality of theatre, and the energy I get from it. Writing gives me the chance to revel in what I enjoy, while still appreciate the bad and the good of it. And for me, it’s good enough to catch a glimpse of it by doing tours like these.