Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: Tour

RADA's Gower Street entrance

RADA’s Gower Street entrance

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art has its headquarters fairly near where I work, and I’ve attended several student and other theatre productions over the last few years. I’ve been meaning to go on a tour for a while, and finally registered for one taking place on Saturday.

RADA Theatre entrance on Malet Street

RADA Theatre entrance on Malet Street

I attended a tour of the RADA Library a couple of years ago, as part of my professional development. That tour took place in the building on Chenies Street, where the library is located, along with the Club Theatre, RADA Studios and some rehearsal and technical rooms. This tour, however, covered the Gower Street/Malet Street building. I entered via the Gower Street entrance, flanked by a distinctive doorway. This sculpture was designed by Alan Durst, and the figures hold the masks of Tragedy and Comedy.

Royal Charter

Royal Charter

Our guide, Molly, was a friendly RADA graduate who gave us a brief introduction to the history of RADA. It was established in 1904, when the gloriously-named actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree started an Academy of Dramatic Art in the dome atop His (now Her) Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket. The Academy moved to Gower Street the following year and gained its Royal Charter in 1920.

Quotation

In the Gower Street reception

Over the years RADA has trained a number of great British actors, including John Gielgud, Alan Rickman, Imelda Staunton, Vivien Leigh, Ralph Fiennes, Mark Rylance… I could name more, but I’d be here all day. Several names are visible on the awards boards displayed throughout the building. Though much of the décor is modern, and the building has been constructed out of two back-to-back Georgian houses in a rather impressive and modern way, the signposts and directions on the wall have been painted to resemble Shakespearean theatrical scripts, which I really liked, and often, appropriate quotations are added.

RADA on Chenies Street

RADA on Chenies Street

We were taken to all three theatres in the building, in which the students perform (final year student productions are open to the general public). There’s the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, which can be a traditional proscenium arch, a theatre-in-the-round, or a thrust stage; the small, intimate Gielgud Theatre; and the atmospheric, versatile GBS (George Bernard Shaw) Theatre in the basement. During our exploration we learned about the rigorous audition process for RADA (four rounds, two of them workshops) and the three-year structure of the course. Only around 30 students are admitted each year, with a similar number admitted onto the technical courses.

RADA Studios

RADA Studios

Following this we were taken into a workshop where students on technical RADA courses build sets. We also got to see inside a sound studio and had a peek into the wardrobe department, where costumes are made.

I really enjoyed my tour of RADA. I can’t say that I’ve developed any desire to attend as a student, but I will continue to watch productions here with interest.

London Palladium: Tour

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London Palladium tours are pretty rare and only occur during the week in daytime, so I had to take a day off work to be able to attend one. I turned up in plenty of time and joined the group milling about the box office.

The tour started promptly at 11.30, and was led by Mark Fox, the Advertising Manager for Really Useful Theatres, the group which currently owns the Palladium as well as several other theatres in London. During the tour, we learned a lot about the history of the theatre and the site, as well as some of the stars who have graced the stage here.

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Celebrating the Palladium’s 100th anniversary

The site used to belong to the Duke of Argyll, whose house and grounds occupied an area of London that at the time was practically countryside. By the time the site was sold, the area was much more built up, as London had expanded considerably in the intervening centuries. One of the reasons for the high concentration of Victorian and Edwardian-era theatres in the West End is the frequency with which land became available to buy owing to attempts to rebuild London as a healthier, more hygienic city, along the lines of Paris. This particular site was used as a circus before Walter Gibbons bought it with the intention of capitalising on the growing appetite for music hall: Argyll Street was a prime spot owing to the recent opening of Oxford Circus underground station very close by. The name Palladium comes from the classical world: these kinds of names were particularly fashionable at the time (e.g. the Hippodrome and the Coliseum). Gibbons hired Frank Matcham, the famous theatre architect, to build his new music hall. Like many others of the period, it was not particularly designed to be a lasting building, but like many others, it has lasted to this day.

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Central staircase

Matcham ensured in his building that, in common with the mores of the day, the different classes of theatregoer were divided from one another, with the dress circle ticket holders entering via the beautiful central staircase, front stalls audience members being escorted to their seats and offered an at-seat service, those in the rear stalls being sent down a lower corridor, and those in the cheapest upper circle seats entering round the side of the building. The foyer still retains its grandeur, with stained glass windows, a marble staircase, and ashtrays by the doors to accommodate the smokers (there also used to be ashtrays on the back of the seats in the auditorium itself). Dress circle ticket holders still enter this way, but those in the stalls can enter through what was once the ticket hall and has now been transformed into an entrance area and bar. In the old days, theatregoers would queue up inside to buy tickets from a booth along the side, and there were ticket carousels to ensure the correct tickets were given out and accurate records could be kept. Just before a show, tickets could be taken down to small booths at each entrance of the theatre and sold to last-minute audience members.

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New foyer for the stalls

These days, people tend to buy their tickets online (and there’s a different box office, anyway), so this area was converted for the theatre’s 100th anniversary in 2010. Through the skylight it’s possible to see the back of 8 Argyll Street, a Georgian house incorporated into the theatre and used as offices. It is still the official address for the theatre, and has its own interesting history, as US author Washington Irving stayed there during his sojourn in London.

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Ticket sales booth for the rear stalls

The auditorium itself is really beautiful, a triumph of theatre engineering on the part of Frank Matcham. I don’t think I ever properly appreciated it until today. Though it seats over 2000, it does have a more intimate feel than many other large venues. The dress circle and upper circle balconies were constructed with single strips of steel, so that no view-restricting columns were needed. Standing on the stage, you realise what a good connection the performers have with their audience members, as you can see right to the back of the upper circle.

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View from the Palladium stage

I was very surprised at how small the stage is. Yes, it is wide, but it is also fairly shallow, with very limited space in the wings, and only a small on-stage area for quick changes or prop storage. This is largely down to its history as a music hall: large storage areas were simply not needed. Moving large pieces of scenery in and out therefore becomes pretty tricky.

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The Palladium stage

Over the years, the theatre has played host to music hall, variety performances (it was the first place in which slides from Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic exhibition were shown to the public), cinema, comedy and concerts. Sunday Night at the London Palladium is pretty famous, of course, and many Hollywood stars such as Judy Garland and Bing Crosby have played here. Pantomimes were a regular fixture for many years, and the tradition was revived last year. Musicals have also featured, including Oliver, My Fair Lady and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and most recently The Wizard of Oz and the revival of Cats.

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Safety curtain

Underneath the stage, it’s possible to see where the old wooden stage ends and the steel flooring begins: this can be removed and replaced with whatever a set designer wants. We also saw where the old revolving stage used to be, removed a few years ago.

Our tour ended in the Cinderella Bar, after taking a peek at the Royal Box. The tour lasted over two hours and its a testament to how good it was that I never once felt bored or fatigued. It was definitely worth taking a day off work for.

Bush Theatre: Tour

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The Bush Theatre

The Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush reopened this week after a refit. I took a tour of the building, which used to be a public library, back in 2015, and wanted to go back and see what has changed.

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New glass doors and outdoor area

The bar and the library look very similar. The main change is to the side of the building, where windows open onto an outdoor area, allowing passers-by to see into this light, airy space. The location of the ticket desk has also changed.

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Ticket desk

Another key change is that the theatre now has a studio!

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Entrance to studio

I’m happy to report that ticket prices will remain low, with prices starting at £10. This is brilliant news for the local community and theatre lovers in general.

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The Bush is back – check it out!

London’s Hidden Gem – a talk and tour at the Little Angel Theatre

Little Angel Theatre

Since I moved to London I’ve enjoyed all kinds of theatre, and I’ve discovered a love for puppetry, which most certainly is not just for children. One of the major proponents of puppetry in the UK is the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, founded 55 years ago and still thriving.

Plaque

I discovered that the theatre were holding an evening event called London’s Hidden Gem, involving a talk and a tour of the theatre, so I booked a ticket (drawn in also by the prospect of wine). The theatre foyer is warm and inviting, decorated with puppets from previous productions, I had fun sipping my wine, trying to work out where the puppets were from, and chatting to the friendly staff.

Foyer

The auditorium is still the same one that was used all those years ago, and the seats are original, albeit reupholstered. The talk was delivered by Ronnie le Drew, one of the earliest apprentices at the theatre, who has been here since 1963, and who has also enjoyed a film and TV career. When he said he worked on Labyrinth, I had to suppress a fangirl squeal of delight, as this 1986 classic is one of my favourite films.

Theatre

He talked about the history of the theatre, which was founded by John Wright, as well as showing us some fascinating archive footage of the theatre being built on the site of a derelict temperance hall. There were also clips of a 1960s BBC show demonstrating the theatre in action, with laughing schoolchildren enjoying a show, and the construction of puppets (which can take around three weeks to make).

Puppet

Ronnie told us about the different kinds of puppets, including marionettes, shadow puppets and glove puppets, illustrating his descriptions with examples of those selfsame puppets, bringing them to life in front of our eyes. My favourite was the Dodo, with his warm pink blanket.

Workshop

Afterwards we got to go backstage, past the original proscenium arch to where the dressing rooms, lighting, scenery and puppets are located. Puppets might be smaller than humans, but you still need enough space for the puppeteers, particularly when they are operating marionettes and need to be able to get past one another on the bridge. Assorted puppets hang from the ceiling: I imagine this might be quite spooky at night. I recognised a couple from Jabberwocky, a production I saw.

Dog puppet

The final part of the tour was also the most hands on: we got to go into the workshop and have a go with various puppets ourselves, including an adorable little dog. The theatre runs courses for adults on puppetry, and it’s something that is on my bucket list to do one day.

Theatre logo

The theatre hopes to run these events again in the future. I had a lovely time and would definitely encourage going. They are designed for adults, but there was one little girl in our group accompanying her parents who seemed to be having just as much fun as the rest of us. I hope the theatre runs events like this again – they are really worthwhile.

Royal Shakespeare Company: Front of House Tour

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As part of my quest to do pretty much every tour the Royal Shakespeare Company offer, I signed up for the Front of House Tour. I’d already done the Backstage Tour and the After Dark Tour, but the Front of House Tour offered even more history.

My tour guide was very knowledgeable and informative, full of fascinating snippets of history. We got to pop into the Swan Theatre auditorium, where the crew were changing the set ready for the evening’s performance of The Rover. I was fascinated to see that the first two rows of seats directly in front of the stage had been raised up: they form part of a lift, and I was amazed that in all the times I’ve been to this theatre, I never realised it was there.

The tour took in the front of house areas and the history behind them. The Swan Theatre, the first part built in the Victorian era, sadly burnt down and the auditorium became a conference hall, a WWII canteen and a dance hall before finally becoming a theatre again in the 1980s. During the recent building refurbishment not many changes were made, but a high desk was installed that can be lowered down to stalls level to allow the technical team to watch the performance.

The 1930s theatre was designed by a woman, Elisabeth Scott. The original foyer is now the Scott Bar in her honour. The original clock is still there, and the ticket sales desks now adorn the back wall. There is a hollow in the floor at the place where everyone stood to buy tickets.

When the theatre was refurbished in 2010, the original stage boards were installed just outside the theatre on each floor, so it’s impossible to enter the new auditorium without treading on them. I love the way the new theatre incorporates aspects of the building’s history.

National Theatre: Backstage Tour

The National Theatre

The National Theatre

It seems strange to think that I’ve been living in London for over five years without going on a backstage tour of the National Theatre, especially as it’s one of my very favourite theatres and I’ve seen countless productions there. I decided to rectify this on the day I was due to see all three Chekhovs in the Olivier; I was already down to spend twelve hours here: why not another two?!

We were met by our guide in the (recently refurbished) NT Foyer and given stylish orange jackets to wear. Our guide took us up to the third floor, and against a backdrop of the River Thames told us about the history of the theatre. This is more complex than I can do justice to in a blog post, but I will say that the National Theatre company started out at the Old Vic while they figured out where to build the theatre. The foundation stone was moved around the south and north banks of the Thames so often that the Queen Mother, who had the job of repeatedly unveiling it, was rumoured to have commented that it should be put on wheels. Eventually the current site on the south bank, next to the Southbank Centre, was chosen. Personally I think this was the right place for the theatre, as the south bank has a long history of being a cultural centre, dating from Elizabethan days when theatres were habitually situated on the south bank as the City, north of the river, did not allow theatres.

Anyway, I digress. The theatre building was designed by Denys Lasdun, who created it from concrete, trying to construct a building that was welcoming and unpretentious. Some people hate it, personally I’m rather fond of it. I genuinely do find it to be a very welcoming place that I always feel comfortable in, whether I’m here to see a show or not.

We were taken into the Olivier auditorium (named after Sir Laurence Olivier, the NT’s first Artistic Director), where later that day I was due to see some Chekhov. I was excited to see the cast warming up on stage as our guide talked. The design of the Olivier was based on a Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus, with seats stretching around a circular stage at a very specific angle of 118°: this is because of an actor’s peripheral vision, the idea being that they can stand in the centre of the stage and see every audience member without having to turn their head. The theatre was also designed to provide a good view from every seat, and having sat all over the auditorium at various times, I can personally confirm that it is successful.

Sir Laurence Olivier, the NT's first Artistic Director

Sir Laurence Olivier, the NT’s first Artistic Director

Another interesting point concerns the colour of the seats: the dark purple was apparently chosen either because it was the colour of the heather surrounding the theatre in Greece, or because it was Laurence Olivier’s favourite colour. I must admit that both of these theories appeal to me.

The NT’s famous drum revolve has been used in many productions but when it was originally built it was ahead of its time, and didn’t actually work for several years. There is a great deal of space above, below and behind the stage, which enables shows to be performed in rep.

We moved on to the Lyttelton auditorium, which is more of a traditional theatre with a proscenium arch. The arch, however, is movable, and we caught a glimpse of what it can do as the crew were testing the stage for the forthcoming show, The Red Barn. As we moved around we saw some costumes on display. Our guide explained that show designers often strive for authenticity, for instance, the costumes for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – set in the 1920s – were sewn on real 1920s sewing machine, while the rigging for the production of Treasure Island was knotted to the sound of sea shanties.

Being a backstage tour, at some point we had to go backstage – and I was excited to see the theatre’s dressing rooms. Built around a central courtyard, they have given rise to a lovely tradition in which just before a press night, all the actors bang on the walls in support, creating a cacophony of sound that has been heard as far away as Waterloo.

The final part of the tour saw us visit the workshop, which is the largest factory in central London, in which scenery and props are made and painted. We saw scenery from the forthcoming production of Amadeus, and props from the Christmas production of Peter Pan. Finally, we got to take a close look at props from over the years, including foam decorations, severed hands, and puppet polar bear heads from His Dark Materials.

Tours take place regularly and are definitely worth trying: I learned a lot about the theatre, even though I thought I knew it pretty well.

Young Vic: Tour (Open House London)

Young Vic

Young Vic

As part of Open House London, I booked myself onto a tour of the Young Vic, a theatre I love and have been to several times over the years. There were no productions on the Sunday afternoon I was due to take the tour, so the foyer area was uncharacteristically quiet. We were met by our guide, who took us into the three auditoriums and into the backstage areas while telling us about the history of the theatre.

Cafe/Bar Area

Cafe/Bar Area

Backstage

Backstage

The Young Vic was formed in 1946 under George Devine, and initially set out to produce classics for a younger audience. It was part of the Old Vic, and later the National Theatre, until 1974 when it set out on its own. The building, completed by architect Frank Dunlop, was constructed around an old butcher’s shop that was the only house left standing in the street after heavy World War II bombing; you can still see the tiled walls and the silver meat hooks when you walk into the box office. A 2004 refurbishment involved architect Haworth Tompkins.

Box office

Box office

We were taken into the “Big Theatre” first, the main auditorium, and were able to go onto the stage (currently home to Yerma starring Billie Piper) so long as we took our shoes off first. The auditorium is very flexible, but usually seats around 420. We also got to visit the smaller auditorium, the Maria (named after designer Maria Bjornson), which seats around 160, and the tiny Clare studio (named after Clare Venables, former Artistic Director of the Sheffield Crucible), which holds around 60. I’ve been in all of these spaces before, but it was still exciting to be able to examine them “bare” and without a crowd of audience members.

Fencing sword from Hamlet

On guard!

Olivier Awards

Olivier Awards

One of the most exciting parts of the tour involved the chance to play around with some props, including a large Jesus statue from The Revenger’s Tragedy, and a fencing sword used in Hamlet. Another involved the chance to see some Olivier awards won by the theatre over the years.

Roof terrace

Roof terrace

Library

Library

Fireplace

Fireplace

We got to check out the attractive roof terrace, and the library/office which sits in the old butcher’s shop above the box office. Another very exciting room was the costume department, where we got to see a multitude of hats, wigs, assorted fabrics and full costumes, including several I’d previously seen on stage.

Touring the Young Vic was great fun; I always love to go behind the scenes at theatres, and this was no exception. Hopefully I’ll get to go back to see some more productions here in the future.