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Backstage Conditions in Theatres

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In the article below a writer from 1878 is making an impassioned plea for the Management of Theatres to clean up and paint the backstage areas of their Theatres. And whilst things seemed to have been pretty bad back then, well over 100 years ago now, things haven't improved as much as you might imagine even today.

1960s Stagehands at DC's National Theatre in the Americans at Work Film Series
1960s Stagehands at DC's National Theatre in the Americans at Work Film Series

For the average person visiting a Theatre and marveling at the glamour Front of House, and gazing around the wonderful auditoriums as they wait for the production to begin, they would never imagine how stark Theatres can be backstage. For instance, management rarely bother with improving toilet facilities backstage when they are sprucing up the same facilities at the front, as if backstage staff and actors and actresses are somehow a different animal and don't deserve a pleasant environment in which to do their business.

Right - A wonderful Film showing Stagehands working backstage to fit up a production at Washington DC's National Theatre in the 1960s. Although some of the terms used are America centric most of what goes on is exactly the same as it was in the UK back in the 70s when I first started working in Theatre. And not that much has changed even today.

Backstage at the London Hippodrome in 2009.And although dressing rooms today are clean and bright and there is paint on the walls of the numerous backstage areas, they are in no way glamorous place to work. Walk into the backstage of any Theatre up or down the Country and you could easily forget which one you are in, for the same vile yellow paint seems to be slapped over every unplastered and crumbling brick wall in sight, and the same bare concrete staircases are to be seen in every Theatre across the Land, replete with handrails that must be a half an inch thicker than they started out, from the layers of thick black paint slapped around them over the years.

Left - Backstage at the London Hippodrome in 2009. Although the Theatre had been neglected for years and has since been refurbished this is pretty much how most Theatres look backstage even today.

Theatres backstage are a lot safer than they used to be to work in, and that's to be commended, but walk through a pass door Front of House and slip into the murky backstage labyrinth and you could be forgiven for thinking you have been transported into another time altogether.

So read the article below, and feel sorry for the poor artistes and crew of 1878, but spare a thought for them today because really, not that much has changed in the last 130 years. M.L. 2014.

New Theatrical Brooms

An Article from the ERA of 29th September 1878

'It has been said somewhere by a wiseacre - or at any rate it is reported to have been said, which is pretty much the same thing - that we must all, every man and woman of us, eat same peck of dirt before we die. But it would appear as if actors and actresses were rated at a far higher premium in calculation. If every man and woman must eat a peck of dirt, an actor or actress must surely swallow at least a sack full each. The inquisitive public will ask us why, with something like astonishment? To this important query a ready answer is instantly instantly given.

"Go and look at the rooms in which our artists are compelled to spend the greater part of their official career, notice how grimy and filthy they are, mark how they contain the most obsolete and primitive form of lavatorial and sanitarial arrangements, see how they are huddled together, dingy, dark, untidy and, as a rule, badly lighted."

The Scene Dock behind the stage at Drury Lane in 2006.This is the only part of the Theatre that is allowed to look after itself. The lease demands that the outside shall be made smart, and if it did not compel the auditorium to be refurbished and brightened occasionally the public assuredly would. But at the back of the stage everything is left in a wilderness of dirt. The cellars, and the scene docks, and the dressing-rooms, the staircases and the approaches, are ignorant of paint, destitute of whitewash, and unaccustomed to the duster.

Right - The Scene Dock behind the stage at Drury Lane in 2006. This is used for temporary storage of equipment and for the cast and crew to get from one side of the stage to the other during performances.

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane staff enjoying a drink in the Theatre's staff bar in the 1950s - Courtesy Phil Davis. This seems strange even from an economical point of view. The ladies wear smart dresses which must be ruined by all this filth; silks and satins and embroideries, gay ribbons and polished shoes, do not accord with spiders' webs and cobwebs, to say nothing of dust an inch thick.

Left - The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane staff enjoying a drink in the Theatre's staff bar in the 1950s. The bar was situated in the basement of the Theatre and is today the lighting department's crew room and workshop - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow, former Master Carpenter at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - Courtesy Phil Davis.

As a general rule the Manager thinks of everything and everyone but the ladies and gentlemen who are for the moment his guests. At home he has a smart house with every convenience, gas laid on in pretty lamps, and bath room fitted with every modern convenience; even his horse is stabled in a well-ventilated stall, and his dog enjoys a well-littered and airy kennel. But anything will do for the actor or the actress. There are the rooms and everyone must make the best of them. The Manager will answer that he cannot do impossibilities, that it is not his fault that the rooms are so bad, and he will probably wind up with some foolish platitudes to the effect that the rooms did very well as they stood for Mr Kean and Mr Macready - an altogether erroneous assertion, since they have acquired in the interval an extra layer of filth. The Manager, proverbially careless or indifferent in these matters, leaves it all to the taste and discretion of the artists themselves. There is no inspector to go round as in the case of prisons, and workhouses, and reformatories, to compel paint, paper, and cleanliness; no authority comes from the Lord Chamberlain's office to ask for a decent reform, and if the actor or actress desire to be clean they must act for themselves. They paint, they paper, and they curtain the dressing-rooms at their own cost, and the Manager is not ashamed to accept such a gift for the improvement of his property.

A postcard showing the Adelphi Theatre, London as it was between 1858 and 1901.Long years of dust and rust and decay are known to have left their mark at the Adelphi, where the dressing rooms are as convenient as in any Theatre, but have for some time past been stiffly neglected. Staircases were in tumbledown ruin, gloom and darkness reigned behind the stage, the dressing-rooms were deplorable, and the Green-room so much like Hood's "Haunted House" that it was deserted by the company at large. The instant that the Messrs Gatti entered thoroughly, into possession of the Adelphi Theatre they saw at once the wisdom and the necessity of a certain reform. They reformed it altogether. Like practical, common-sense, and commercial men, they knew that a well-ordered household depends upon a spirit of content in every department. They knew what wonders could be done by paint, whitewash, and a well-soaped flannel.

Right - A postcard showing the Adelphi Theatre, London as it was between 1858 and 1901.

Although there has been no break in the performances of Proof, so as to permit of the alterations and the general cleanliness that will follow, already the good work at the Adelphi has begun. The place is being "swept and garnished," and now the eye seldom falls upon an untidy spot. Paint and colour have worked wonders behind the scenes, and it is possible to stand at the wings without spoiling a coat every evening. But come up that newly painted find carpeted staircase, and see what wonders have been accomplished in a short time. The Green-room, from a ruin and a wreck, has been turned into a cosy, delightful apartment, furnished with velvet settees, adorned with handsome mirrors, and comfortably carpeted. The daily newspapers and evening news are supplied to the Green-room, by the foresight and care of the Management. The same spirit of liberality and good taste will eventually extend to all the dressing-rooms in the establishment. Already several of the rooms are completely furnished. Marble-top wash-hand stands, Brussels carpet and soft rugs, bright clean paper, and pretty chintz curtains, give an air of homeliness and comfort to all the apartments in which the artists are compelled to spend so many weary hours.

This is all as it should be, and, whilst the Messrs Gatti will receive the thanks of the Profession for this practical proof of their regard for the ladies and gentlemen of the Stage, it may be that the hint will not be thrown away on others who are as able to promote comfort and insure gratitude by a very comparatively small expenditure. How much better, after all, is good work done in a bright and cheerful scene, and what a cordial and sympathetic spirit is encouraged when Managers forget the old-fashioned rule of masters and servants, and look upon the ladies and gentlemen who are under their roof as, for the time, honoured guests. An artist will work twice as well with a Manager who consults his natural sensitiveness, and it is pleasant to find that the old and standing grievance of "actors' dressing-rooms" is in one instance at any rate allayed. At the Adelphi it may certainly be said that "new brooms sweep clean."

The above text in quotes was first published in the ERA, 29 September 1878.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

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