As you may have already guessed from this blog, I am a bit of a theatre nerd. No, really! So I was delighted to be offered a chance to see behind the scenes at Northern Stage, on a tour of their Scenic Workshops.
Located in an unprepossessing industrial estate in Walkergate, I admit that come the day and the realisation I would have to cab it out there (at no small cost), I was having second thoughts. (I had of course agreed to go before realising it would be such a hike to get there: I tend to forget everybody drives in Newcastle, so assumes that you do to). But it ended up being really fascinating, and I’m glad I went.
The tour was run by Production Manager Chris Durant, who took our little group of visitors through the various processes a set goes through before it reaches the stage – from the designer’s idea through to scale models through to transporting and assembling the various bits in different theatres throughout the country. We were shown props and drawings from previous shows (including A Christmas Carol), and walked round the set-in-progress for the upcoming A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is one of the most ambitious sets the team have ever produced, but which is currently lying around the warehouse in bits as it’s being finalised. It’s hard to look at a bunch of bland, barely painted props and see how they fit together to create a workable backdrop to a play, and I admit I was left marvelling at the kind of minds that could do so.
An enthusiastic, patient and knowledgeable guide – with an impressive tolerance for stupid questions (from, um, me) – Chris gave us a genuine insight into everything that goes into realising a production, and all the myriad issues that have to be addressed when creating a set – far, far more than the average audience member likely ever realises. Not just, does this look like the designer wants it do, but is it practical for the cast, the audience and the theatre? How heavy is it to lift, how hard to assemble, how easy to fit into the different stage dimensions that might be encountered on a tour? Will it fit on a truck? Everything from making sure a set adheres to fire regulations to keeping things on budget has to be considered, and it really made me appreciate all the work that goes on, literally, behind the scenes.