There’s no business like show business; it’s hard not to smile as you remember the hush of the house lights dimming, the anticipation as the curtain opens, the thrill of the dazzling lights for an opening scene, hurtling towards a breath-taking finale. This is what most people think of when they think of the theatre, and it’s all that most people see.
I’m lucky enough to have had my eyes opened to a whole new world in the realm of theatre; it’s a place of no standing ovations, of little of the glitz and glamour, but it’s the place where the magic is concocted, of hustle and bustle and where all the secrets of the performance are hidden: backstage.
I’ve always been a bit of a drama queen and when I was 16 finally joined a local drama school. Amongst performing in plays and showcases I was offered the chance take up the position of Resident Stage Manager for all musical productions. For me, it was the beginning of a whole new appreciation of theatre. I had always thought that the spotlight was where the magic was and where I wanted to be, but I soon realised that without the “invisible” people working backstage, there is no magic.
After moving to England from Australia a couple of years ago, I fell in love with the West End. For an early birthday present to myself, I bought my partner and I tickets to The Lion King, a show I hadn’t seen since I was a child back in Sydney. My friend Mike, The Lion King’s Automations Manager, took us us backstage after the show; we were spellbound by the number of props, costumes, set pieces and the complexity of the production’s back-end mechanisms.
A big step on from the world of community theatre I’d known, the organisation behind a major West End musical is highly complex and heavily staffed. There are a number of departments including wigs and make-up, wardrobe, sound, lighting, stage management, puppets, orchestra and automation. Then there’s the cast, a small component in the grand scheme of things, but the part that the audience see. Like pieces of a puzzle, every department has an equally important role to play in the complete picture of the show.
Mike took us to his desk and explained his role: “Basically, I sit here at this computer and press buttons on cue, this sends a signal to move a motor which pushes or pulls an item of scenery, creating a scene change during the show.” He’s been working in automations for 15 years on various West End musicals and, although it can be repetitive, he explained that the environment is a fun one to work in with “unique folk” and “lots of banter”.
It’s not always fun and jokes, though. When dealing with the machinery of these major productions, the men and women working backstage can literally have lives in their hands, and accidents can happen. “When things go wrong we all pull together to keep the show rolling as smoothly as possible.”
Interested in finding out more about some of the other aspects of the backstage process I also spoke to Davinia, a make-up artist who runs her own make-up school in London. Davinia runs a course specifically on stage and theatre make-up so I asked her to explain a bit about the style. “Stage make-up is far more dramatic, as harsh lights and features must be seen from afar, so shading and highlighting is key.”
Opportunities to work backstage in theatre are becoming limited as more actors, actresses and dancers are doing their own makeup. That doesn’t make make-up artists any less important, though. “Make-up artists are used to design the make-up and in some cases teach it to the production team, not only in skills but also in the best products to use.”
Like Mike, what Davinia loves most about working in the theatre industry is the backstage vibe, and the thrill of creating something beautiful to be seen on stage. “You can’t beat the atmosphere and buzz being backstage… creating characters in make up is very rewarding.”
The layers beneath the surface of theatre are endless, and I truly believe that it’s not until you start to delve into these layers, and the lives of the people who make it all possible, that you can see the true magic of show business.
Photo by Flickr user SlimJim under a Creative Commons Licence.