Rankin reveals theatre’s backstage magicians: ‘Audiences would be shocked!’

The backstage heroes of the West End of London have been documented by the photographer Rankin in an exhibition of portraits celebrating the resilience and creative range of the theatre industry. Stage managers, technicians, front of house, wardrobe, wigs, sound design, puppeteers and stage door keepers are among those featuring in Performance, alongside stars, directors and producers.

“Everyone working in theatre has a story to tell of their experience over the past 18 maande, inspiring tales of hardship, perseverance, patience, innovation, despair and joy,” Rankin said. The project, supported by the Society of London Theatre, aimed to “celebrate the jewel in the crown of our unparalleled culture sector – epitomised by these countless faces and voices who make up the backbone of London’s theatre community and will spearhead its post-Covid recovery”. Proceeds from Performance will go to the Theatre Artists Fund and London youth homelessness charities.

We prepare the costumes and help the actors in and out of them at ridiculous speeds, often in the dark with a head torch. Some productions use a lot of Velcro and poppers, but in Les Mis, there’s a lot of buttons and corsets, and jiggers – like a male corset – in the back of trousers and waistcoats.

You’re a cog in a giant wheel. It takes every single person to make sure everything runs smoothly. And it gives you adrenaline and excitement – every night is a brand new experience and the audience will only ever see that one performance. I wish the audience could see what goes on backstage, it’s like a whole show with its own plots in itself.

I began as a performing magician, but started inventing my own tricks. And in the world of magic, it doesn’t take long before word gets out.

I develop material, design props, organise the building of the props, coach actors who are not magicians, and deal with the technical requirements of integrating the magic into the set and lighting design.

The average member of the public would be shocked if they saw what a complicated machine backstage is, and what extreme precision it takes to run a show. I’m sad the audience can’t see this beautiful ballet unfolding backstage as well as on stage.

I studied music technology at uni, but I had no idea what to do. A friend working in it said go and look at the theatre business and do some work experience, and I haven’t looked back since.

We come in a few hours before the cast to do a full soundcheck. We make sure all the microphones, speakers and other equipment are working. During the show, we control how much of the music and how much of the cast you hear.

No one really notices until something goes wrong. And then they realise there’s an actual person taking care of the sound. Backstage we are a huge team. We all work to make the show happen.

I’m the oldest of lots of children and I used to make them put on shows, so I guess I started early. Now there’s no typical day. I might be reading plays or working with designers or mentoring young people. Ander tye, you’re in rehearsals – that’s the best bit, the most creative. I always forget how hard a show was the second it finishes.

Lockdown was really tough and we all panicked about how we were going to survive: 70% of our industry are freelancers. But the mad treadmill disappeared – which would have been liberating if we weren’t so worried about actually eating.

My job is to book musicians for West End pit orchestras and then manage them day to day. Now we have all the Covid-related administration to contend with which makes a lot of extra work. The musicians do a lateral flow test daily and if someone tests positive, we have to get someone else in.

A live orchestra is essential for a show. It’s there to support the stage. Pit orchestras are made up of very good musicians, but they’re different animals to actors. It’s about the music, not the glory.

Mainly, I look after the voices of the children and adults in the cast, teaching them vocal techniques and how to keep up their vocal stamina. Audibility, articulation, clarity, projection, singing techniques. I teach them everything about their voices because they lead our show. Children are sponges, they take on information remarkably quickly, it’s so rewarding.

People think children are magically able to speak on stage, and be heard and understood. But there’s an awful lot that’s happening underneath those ducks swimming on that lake.

I look after the backstage area, seeing to the needs of the actors and some of the staff, handling mail, looking after keys, making sure there’s good harmony.

I try not to come into work in a bad mood. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t put on a clown face and perform. But once they step through the stage door, whatever stress they’ve been having, they can be in the right frame of mind to get on with their job and enjoy it.

I’ve worked in theatre for a very long time – as a stagehand, and I’ve done box office; I’ve worked in wardrobe. I love working in theatre, and I feel appreciated.

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