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. 

To learn more about tours, click here. 

To learn about Entry Pass membership, click here.


The beautiful garden in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, directed by Francis Ford Coppola). Winona Ryder as Mina; Sadie Frost as Lucy. The garden was created on an MGM studio soundstage, the same one with the giant swimming pool where Esther Williams did many of her water extravaganzas. [Screenshots via http://screenmusings.org/, altered a bit by me to reveal background details.]


The Interiors of Wes Anderson’ in the latest issue of Apartamento #13

“You could compare Wes Anderson to an interior decorator,”says  Apartamento’s Editor-in-Chief Marco Velardi of today’s enchanting series, taken from the bi-annual title’s latest issue. With the director and screenwriter’s private house strictly off limits, the magazine traces the meticulously considered art of set design in his filmography: miniature brownstone apartments, nostalgic color schemes and embroidered and elaborate costumes. “I always say that a picture of someone’s home tells you a lot more about that person than any portrait possibly can,” muses Nacho Alegre, director and co-founder of Apartamento. “I imagine in a movie the time you have to describe a character is limited, so using the interiors to do so probably becomes something of a necessity.” An intricate visual language has become Anderson’s trademark; in his hands, set design becomes both a storytelling device and character trope, from his shot-on-a-shoestring debut, Bottle Rocket, to his latest saccharine fantasia, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Velardi adds: “Ultimately, if you look at his work there are a lot of interiors, with very peculiar and very precise work on the spaces and what people wear; Wes is passionate about every single detail, and that’s why it’s fascinating for us.”  

h/t nowness


Handcrafting Fictional Universes for Film with @annieatkins

For more behind-the-scenes photos from life on set, follow @annieatkins. For more Golden Globes-nominated films and the talent behind them, follow @goldenglobes on Instagram and explore the #goldenglobes hashtag.

Graphic designer Annie Atkins (@annieatkins) helps turn fantastical, imaginary settings into intricate realities on screen. Most recently, as the lead graphic designer on the 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, she was involved in creating almost every object in director Wes Anderson’s stylized world. The story takes place in a fictional Eastern European country, set between the First and Second World Wars.

“We looked at all kinds of references from 1930s Eastern Europe: telegrams, notebooks, antique newspapers,” she says. “I combed thrift stores and flea markets looking for old packaging and love letters, so I could get the style of everything from the handwriting to the postage stamps right.”

Originally from a tiny village in North Wales, Annie now lives in Dublin, but her film work draws her to diverse locations—and historical periods.

“I’ve never actually worked on a film or TV show set in the present,” she says. “The graphics I make for film are all for different times in history. I could be making calligraphic scrolls for medieval times or on-screen digital data for a spaceship 2000 light years away.”

Annie also worked on her first animated feature earlier this year, The Boxtrolls, where she texturized a world of misunderstood creatures who live underground and wear cardboard packaging for clothes.

“It was fun designing the graphics for their outfits. We had to create the entire town,” she says. “It’s fun working within a world where absolutely everything has to be invented from scratch.”