Many people have been to the National Theatre in London to see some shows or plays but not many people have seen what happens behind the three theatres, the Olivier, Lyttelton and Dorfmon where the sets are made, the costumes created and the actors rest in their dressing rooms.
The National Theatre is the original host of War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Treasure Island and more, and it hosted Mum and me for a backstage tour with a lovely Welsh Magician called Christopher.
We started in the Lyttelton Theatre which is not the biggest and not the smallest. It holds 890 seats and has 600 lights. We had a chat about the theatre and these are some of my favourite facts about the shows that have been performed in it:
- The show Way Up Stream used a big tank full of water as part of the set. Unfortunately this burst once in rehearsals, wetting the whole of the stage and the front row!
- In the show Light Shining in Buckinghamshire one scene involves the actors eating oysters. These oysters are actually fake and were filled with mashed potato. This meant the actors had to eat four portions of mashed potato every night.
- Also in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, the cast have a food fight with real food including turkey, chocolate and vegetables.
Next we went backstage and looked at the dressing rooms. There are four blocks of the rooms on each floor with 13 in a block. All the dressing rooms are numbered but being superstitious about unlucky 13 they made the numbering 0-12 instead of 1-13. So one actor rests in room 0.
One funny thing I learnt was that, as the National Theatre is so big, Julie Walters got lost before going onto the stage. The crew had to put black tape on the floor going from Julie’s dressing room to the stage. This distance takes two minutes to walk.
My favourite bit was going backstage for real with the set and the props.
The first thing I saw when I walked down the stairs was a giant lift that could bring ten tonnes of lighting, sound, set, costumes and people up 25m to the stage in just 40-45 seconds. I also learnt about the other two theatres, the Olivier, which has 1100 seats and 900 lights, and the smallest theatre the Dorfman, with 454 seats and 300 lights. Then I got to handle props.
They had everything from fake hands to flamingos, the Cat in the Hat’s hat to a pan full of spaghetti. I loved looking, holding and even wearing the props. One thing Christopher told me was that it cost too much to make 17 big expensive polar bears for one show, so the audience had to imagine half of the costume.
I saw a set being made with saws and hammers and then I got to a board. Under where it said “name” there were various actors’ names and then there was a section where it said something silly that they had to do on stage to make it funny for the audience. If they did that they got a point. An example was “tell rubbish jokes until another actor laughs”, or “sing a song until someone compliments you”. Some were really strange like pretend to cry in the corner until an actor tries to comfort you. What a great system. It’s currently in use in the play Rules for Living.
I learnt some more things backstage like:
- There are five rooms just for props
- All fake facial and body hair is made from the chest hair of a Yak. Eurgh.
- And when the crew or actors had a break they would play the Simpsons Board Game or watch the Lion King.
Finally for the last part of the tour we went into the Dorfman theatre. There I learnt that the seats could fold into the floor and the stage could be on the opposite side of the room. I also found out that nearly all the set for the show on at the moment (the Hard Problem) was bought from IKEA.
It was a fantastic day and I loved every moment of the tour.
The National Theatre runs regular backstage tours for individuals and groups, at a cost of £9 per person. They also run special tailored backstage tours for families in half-terms and holidays. Tickets cost £8.50 per adult, with up to three children going free. Tours last around an hour (although ours was probably nearer an hour and a half!)
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