Going behind the curtain on a backstage tour
We ran a competition to offer Entry Pass members a free
backstage tour. The winner, Juliet Dowley, has written about her experience.
The construction department work on the set for The Red Barn
Is it only me who finds it exciting to walk through a door marked ‘private’? Either way, I couldn’t wait to see behind the scenes at the National Theatre. What I had not expected, however, was that the Backstage Tour would change my perspective on the theatre even before we left the public areas. But that is exactly what happened.
I must have seen the building’s drab, grey exterior hundreds of times, but hearing that architect Denys Lasdun had chosen concrete because he hoped that this ‘classless’ material would help make the theatre truly national made me look at it in a completely different way. And, although I’ve been lucky enough to see several plays in the Olivier Theatre, peering up into the fly tower to see how the London street from The Threepenny Opera will be transformed into a lakeside theatre for The Seagull was an entirely new, and fascinating experience.
Our tour guide, Jenny, kept us engaged throughout the tour. However, the highlight undoubtedly came when we were led through a maze of corridors to the scenic construction department. Jenny had earlier referred to the National, which makes all its own sets, as a factory, and the high concrete walls and the piles of wood surrounding us certainly gave this area an industrial feel. But it didn’t take long to spot features that made this ‘factory’ utterly unique. Reeds seemed to sprout from wooden palettes. Felled saplings lay on top of piles of planks. A model ship stood atop a sea of assorted puppets and items of food. We even passed a man-sized statue of Simon Russell Beale as King Lear. We were standing, Jenny explained, on ‘Drum Road’, which links the loading bay with the enormous drum revolve below the Olivier stage.
For the rest of the tour, we tracked the journey of a piece of set, beginning in the carpentry workshop, where the battered wooden tables and the strong smell of sawdust reminded me of a scaled-up version of a school DT room, and ending in the artists’ workroom, where three lifts are used to paint vast backdrops. We were even given the opportunity to handle some of the puppets and items of (fake) food I’d spotted earlier, and to marvel at a puppet from War Horse before, as Jenny aptly put it, we ‘popped back up in the real world’ after what had been a fascinating, and at times surreal, experience.
Prodding the polystyrene used to make the delicious-looking food we see on stage, peering up at the ropes that will help Peter Pan ‘fly’ and discovering that even the most elaborate sets are made of plywood did not spoil the magic. Instead, it made me realise why Zosia Mamet called backstage at theatre ‘the most magical place on earth’.
Backstage tours run every day from Monday to Saturday, with a discount price of just £5 for Entry Pass members.