Learning the ropes - backstage at the Kings Theatre panto

Mischa Allen and Kings Theatre assistant technical manager Kate Evans.  Picture: Allan Hutchings (114435-774)
Mischa Allen and Kings Theatre assistant technical manager Kate Evans. Picture: Allan Hutchings (114435-774)
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I’m bracing myself at the side of the stage, waiting to catch a fake leg from Marcus Patrick.

Later on I look down from about 20 feet up, balancing on a floor of very thin wood.

Mischa Allen with Sparkle the Shetland Pony.  (114435-811)

Mischa Allen with Sparkle the Shetland Pony. (114435-811)

And I have to pick up ponies from a pub and then trot them quite quickly through a stage door so they don’t get wet in the rain.

Surreal as this may sound, it’s an average day for a stage-hand working on the pantomime Cinderella at the Kings Theatre in Southsea.

When it comes to Christmas productions, you think of the big name actors and the famous fairy tales, not the people hidden away in the dark who bring it all together.

Long, centre, short, cans, ques, browline, rope, rake; all names that come second nature to the pros. But to a complete novice helping for one day’s matinee, it might as well be another language.

A theatre technician’s job is nothing if not varied. Facing several large sections of wood that make up the backdrop to the Prince’s palace, I was instantly given a ratchet to unscrew the different pieces, before a gang of people slowly separated the display and put it safely in its various corners of the backstage area.

Shortly afterwards I was sent up into the rafters to help with the flies. After clambering up some slightly wobbly-looking stairs and walking across a platform which sat about 20 feet above the stage, I had to help lift the giant clothes that provide colourful backdrops for the audience... and protection from curious eyes during scene changes for the crew.

Now this may seem easy with the press of a button, but any unnecessary noise in a theatre simply can’t happen, and they’re all lifted through pure manpower and a very big rope.

With three people pulling on one rope at a time, it looks more like a scene from the 1800s, not the 21st century of smartphones and iPads.

But then, as many of the audience won’t realise, putting a production together involves a lot of handyman work and a willingness to do whatever task is put in front of you.

Such as when you’re told to catch a wooden broomstick from an ugly sister, or catch a wooden leg from a soap star, or even press a button just so the fairy can have her atmospheric smoke.

Then there’s lifting weights on to steel rods that seemingly hold up the whole set.

Sitting in Cinder’s golden carriage covered in fairy lights after the performance, Louise Birchall believes that many people don’t appreciate the amount of work that has gone on behind the scenes.

The Kings Theatre’s technical manager says: ‘I don’t think people realise how difficult the work is. You just did one fly and a couple of ques and it’s actually really helping the show.

‘We spend three days putting everything together and some of the pieces that go up aren’t the quickest and easiest.’

With four contracted members of staff, the rest of the helpers are either volunteers or taken on for particular shows.

Louise explains: ‘I share the jobs out between everyone, and we have about 15 casual stage hands. I just love that nothing’s the same.

‘We’re doing 45 performances of the same pantomime, but there’s something different each time we do a show.

‘It’s definitely not the same as being in an office.’

Volunteers are a major part of productions in theatres, as without them there wouldn’t be enough people to hold the technical side together.

‘Everybody is part of the team here,’ Louise says. ‘There’s something about this theatre that makes people and the crew want to be here. They care about the place so much.

‘It’s reflected in how people feel about coming here.

‘People say it’s so welcoming and it’s very beautiful, and a big part of that is down to the people backstage.’

As I now know, without them this Christmas, the actors wouldn’t have a leg to stand on (literally).

FACT FILE

Responsibilities undertaken by stage hands can include:

· Constructing the set and moving it in-between acts and scenes

· Making sure microphones are working and are at the right level of sound

· Checking the lighting design is working properly and in time

· Operating spotlights that follow the actors around the stage

· Handling and maintenance of stage lighting equipment as well as various other electrical jobs

· Flying the scenery clothes at the right time (and occasionally even actors)

· Managing rigging

· Making sure the costumes are ready

· Operating special effects machinery such as smoke machines and pyrotechnics.

KATE EVANS

Kate Evans has been the assistant technical manager at the Kings Theatre for the past four years, but has been working casually for them since 1989.

For this years pantomime Kate, who lives in Horndean, is in charge of looking after flying the scenery changes.

She says: ‘What I love the most about it is the magic. Never one show is the same. With the actors and the crew, anything can happen.’

But she does remember when there have been slight mishaps in the past.

‘I remember when things have gone slightly wrong,’ Kate explains, ‘back in 2008 with the last Cinderella, and I was working on stage, and then all of a sudden the front cloth went up, so we were completely exposed to the audience. You just tackle a problem when it arrives.’

DARREL MORGAN-RADFORD

Darrel Morgan-Radford, lives in Southsea and has been a theatre technician part time at the theatre for five years. With any number of jobs that need doing, he makes sure that everything runs smoothly.

He loves the fast-paced nature of working backstage in a theatre.

Darrel explains: ‘I grew up around theatres and around entertainment. Everything moves so quickly and is versatile, nothing is the same everyday, even when you do a show like a pantomime.

‘Everyday is different in the theatre, whether your backstage or not, and I don’t think people have any idea how much work goes on behind the scenes. Blood sweat and tears go into putting something together like this, but I love it. It’s what I’ve always done.‘

SAMUEL FOX

Samuel Fox makes sure that every show runs smoothly without any hiccups, as the company manager for New Pantomime Productions Ltd.

He says: ‘I couldn’t do any of it without them. I mean without them there’s no show really, and I think one of those most famous quotes is “What’s an actor in the dark?”’

With the Cinderella pantomime in full swing in the run-up to Christmas, it’s as important as ever to keep the back-stage jobs running smoothly.

Samuel adds: ‘The show has been fantastic and it’s really busy at the moment, so everything’s good. Everyone’s working hard together and team work is really important.

‘As long as the audience is happy then that’s perfect, because you know it’s panto so you’ve got to enjoy it. It’s a first for the audience a lot of the time, and you have to keep it fresh for them. But then you’ve got to make sure it fun for us back-stage too.’