On 25 September, 150 years to the day when Theatre Royal Nottingham had its opening night, I went along to one of their open days held to celebrate this impressive feat and through which I was able to take a behind the scenes tour of a theatre I regularly visit and which I’ve always thought Nottingham is very lucky to have on its doorstep. The brothers John and William Lambert, wealthy Nottingham factory owners, wanted to provide the city with an entertainment venue and hired the architect Charles Phipps to make their dream a reality in 1865. It took him 6 months and £15,000 to build one of my favourite buildings in the city. (Its cost today would be in the millions).
The open day tours proved very popular and I started off by heading towards the Upper Circle Foyer to queue for a tour of the fly floor (where the equipment for moving the scenery is controlled or “flown”) and which has apparently never been open to the public before. The member of staff who talked us through what happens was very informative, demonstrating the system of ropes and weights that allows scenery to be raised and lowered and the markings that help them judge when to stop and put the brakes on. I was even given the opportunity to move some of the scenery myself, and I can confirm that they are very heavy to move!
From here I moved on to a guide of the lighting box, another area never before opened to the public. The talk here was very interesting, with a technical (though easy to understand) explanation of the different lights that are used in theatres today, how things have changed thanks to advances in computer technology and ended with a demonstration of the different lighting techniques that can be employed to give a sense of mood to the action on the stage below.
Before heading downstairs I went to have a look at the archive material on display, showing a range of past theatre programmes which I found fascinating if only to see the way the Theatre Royal’s marketing has changed over the years. It also had billboards on display which were a good way of demonstrating the type of productions that were put on in it’s earliest years – not that much different to now!
From there it was downstairs just in time to join a backstage tour without having to queue, led by members of staff dressed in Victorian costume. The guides were both excellent and very informative, sharing anecdotes of their own experience on the stage as well as the history of the building. Part of the tour allowed us to actually stand on the stage and look at the auditorium and hear about the renovations that have taken place over the years. After Phipps came Frank Matcham who made a major transformation of the theatre in 1897 and then the next transformation came in 1977 thanks to Nottingham City Council where seats were ripped out, the old stage removed and the familiar green and gold interior put in place.
It was probably most interesting however to see the very backstage areas, those parts of the theatre where the actors do a quick dress change, the loading docks where equipment is unloaded and where live animals are kept during performances (I don’t recall ever seeing a production which included ponies or horses, but apparently that has happened), and the dressing rooms where we heard about the importance actors place on being in the number one dressing room.
The guided tour was an excellent opportunity to get a different perspective on a building I come to regularly. You can find the rest of my photos from that day here.