[GIFTED Buckt] One thing is for certain and that is that I am a very curious being. Whether it is nosing into a derelict building, wandering a side street or learning something new in a museum. I am on it! So when I found that there was a backstage tour of the Royal Exchange Theatre, I was more than chuffed.
Little did I know at the time that I would end up holding a nose, tongue and giant ear in my hand! (seriously)
Royal Exchange Theatre Backstage Tour
Firstly, let me explain something. In the 18 years that I have lived in Manchester, I didn’t know about this tour. So it was thanks to the Buckt team that I have been able to discover something new in my city – a win for curious
We booked on for a morning slot on a Saturday so we had time to wander afterwards. We met in the foyer with the other guests and met our guide who gave us a brief introduction to the tour. He explained that there would be short bit about the history and greater detail into the behind the scenes bits. Apparently they seem to be the most popular; wigs, costumes and the like.
In the Round
The unusual thing about the Royal Exchange Theatre is that it is a theatre in the round. (I learned about this in GCSE Drama) It means that the stage has seating and audience all the way around, without the traditional stage left and right entrances and exits. This means that every performance here is specifically produced for this space as it is unlike any other. There is actually an in-house team especially to work on each performance coming to the theatre, with additional people coming to support.
With theatre in the round, like the Royal Exchange, they utilise the central part of the stage and the actors move around far more than they would in a traditional theatre layout. The rigging in the ceiling enables sets to be changed from up above. These are the sarees from ‘Hobson’s Choice’ which was on at the time of our visit. They dropped down to create the shop display.
This piece of whopping kit is called the rather less grand name of the ‘basket’. It is used in the ceiling space of the theatre for rigging up lighting and to make actors fly. It is a nifty bit of kit and a lot more complicated than the name would suggest.
The Theatre Structure
Although you might think that the entire building is the theatre, it is technically just the circular structure in the middle. The building, formerly the Cotton Exchange building, hosts the theatre space. Bizarrely enough, although it might look like the drum-like structure is on the ground, it isn’t! It is held up by the metal brackets into the square pillars around the hall and placed onto supporting beams on the floor. I don’t remember the exact weight, but it is one super heavy structure.
The reason I stipulated square pillars is that they are actually structural to the building. The circular columns are simply decorative – knock on them, you can hear it!
Trading at the Exchange
On a slight tangent, but totally related, you will see the large exchange board towards the front of the building. This is from the days when the cotton exchange was still working until it ceased trading in 1968. Some of the parts have gone missing through building work and various other means (sticky fingers?) but you can still get a feel for what it was like.
Back before the days of desks and computers, the traders would simply meet in a space (there have been previous exchanges before this one, one where M&S is now, actually) We wondered how you would know who or where to meet, so asked. It turns out that when you buy your membership, you are given a number and a letter, which relate to your place on a grid system on the floor. Kind of like a business card for letting people know where to find you. So if you wanted to trade cotton with Terry, you would head to his grid at q18 and make your deal. Really interesting and it all makes much more sense now.
Back to the backstage
Small diversion over, we made our way through the doors into the backstage area. Making our way to an upper floor we found the costume room. This is where the talented and innovative costume makers beaver away making some fantastic gowns for the cast. Each one is made to fit the actor or actress and contain a little bit of theatre magic for those swift costume changes.
Being a bit of a seamstress myself and having made my own costumes for that aforementioned GCSE I loved this space. There were designs laid out, costumes on display. Plus a glimpse into some of the strange materials they employed to make them.
One thing which I forgot about, and I think we all do, is the costume maintenance. Being under bright lights for a whole play is notoriously sweaty. And while they do create pit holes for coolness, the cast will still get very sweaty in their costumes. In order to prevent us all coming into what would be a bit like a sports locker room, costumes must be regularly washed. They also regularly need repairing between performances too, so there is a dedicated team on hand to make sure everything is ship-shape.
Hair and make-up …and ears?
Our next stop in our backstage tour of the Royal Exchange took us to the hair and make-up department. It was quite a revelation to learn that many actors and actresses do their own make-up these days. This means that the specialist skills are for this team. It’s where that nose, tongue and giant ear come to hand – literally!
This room is the home to the team who make the wigs, facial hair and other prosthetic parts. A really interesting tip was how to identify real and fake hair wigs (the real ones have individual hairs in the cap – just like our heads) These are less used these days due to the cost though, even though they do look more realistic.
And here we have the nose, the tongue and giant ear I mentioned. Looking at the size of the tongue, you might wonder why I am not calling it a giant one. This is because being on stage means that the size needed to be emphasised for the audience to see it in a hand (it was cut from someone’s mouth in a play, of course)
The end of the tour
Satisfied with our nosy into the back workings of the Royal Exchange Theatre, we headed back downstairs. Most of the guests went on their way at thins point, but Jit and I asked about the history. Thinking that it was an additional tour we could book onto, we were treated to the most excellent private tour of the history.
We learned about the past exchange buildings which, have come and gone in the ages. More about the grid trading system and the objections to the current theatre structure. And the best bit was finding out about the banquette seats in the theatre. These are the ones at the front which come available every day for £10 each. We loved this and as a result went to see Hobson’s Choice on the following Tuesday.
Buckt did well!
It has to be said that this was one of our favourite activities from the Buckt subscription box. This is a gifted experience. I occasionally receive a Buckt box for free in return for trying the activities and sharing about them. They have been good so far and I enjoy the different activities we get.
Have you done a backstage tour of the Royal Exchange Theatre?
Have you been to another one you reckon I must see?
Would you have found it too weird to hold the tongue, nose and ear?
Let me know in the comments below.
Royal Exchange Threatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester M2 7DH.