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New Work Experience Pilot at RSC

At the end of October, Year 10's Lily was lucky enough to win a place on the new backstage work experience pilot scheme at the RSC Theatre.  This involved working with several different departments: Lighting, Front of House, Marketing, Stage Management and Set Creation, to learn about how all the departments work alongside the actors and the Director to create a production.

The idea behind the pilot scheme is to create opportunities for 14-18 year olds to try out their dream jobs in a professional theatre.  Lily took part in the workshop focused on the play Henry V, which was on at the RSC.  Here, Lily gives us an overview of her three days with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Wednesday 21st October:

After receiving a thoroughly warm welcome at the Clore Learning Centre from Georgia Munnion and several other lovely people from the education department, I was directed to our first session which was a Front of House Workshop.  In that session we all listened attentively as several of our perceptions of a job in Front of House were changed!  We learnt that their first priority is the health and safety of the audience, before selling tickets and programmes.  Several precautionary measures are taken to ensure this. For example, sufficient lighting in the auditorium when they exit and enter, and also that a member of staff is appointed for each area of audience, so that if any medical emergencies aroused they could escort the people involved out, and if necessary, liaise with the Stage Manager to make a decision whether to stop the show, which is rare and a situation to be avoided if at all possible!  A lot of the job involves problem-solving and quick decision making.  Employees at the RSC also have to make sure that they are well presented, open to any questions and that they do their best to help the audience and tourists.

Then, I was given a technical tour of the theatre, where I learnt the basic layout of backstage, the wings and also about lighting and sound.  There are so many lights in the theatre, most of which are now modern moving lights, which can change position, colour and has many gobos ( filters that the light passes through, which can make a shape like a window, or clouds.)  All these things are now controlled by a lighting desk and the lights don’t have to be manually moved or changed.  We were also able to go into the grid above the stage and see where all the lights were hung, and there was also the gate where an actor swings down from during a show!

We then went to Timothy Bridge Road, to the building where many of the sets for the RSC productions are made.   It is a large space and It was incredible being in that working environment, seeing the processes that are involved in set creation, from framework to completion.  We were also able to see where the props were made, including soft props, (anything that is made from paper or material.)   It was also amazing to catch a glimpse of the massive costume storage, and a model box, which is a to-scale model which designers use to present their ideas, and to get an overview of the finished product, which can then be presented to the Director and Set Creators.

When we arrived back at the Clore Learning Centre, there were two more workshops in store for us. The first of which was Stage Management, in which I learnt much about what a stage manager has to do in their daily lives, not just backstage, but also in the rehearsal room.  After that, there was a marketing workshop in which we learnt how the show could be advertised not only by way of leaflets and flyers, but also online using social media.

Later that afternoon we were introduced to the plot of Henry V.  We started by acting out the plot together and then we were were separated into groups to make freeze frames dramatising parts of the speeches to gain a further understanding of the meaning of the language.   Just to end an amazing day Erica Whyman, the Deputy Artistic Director at the RSC came in to tell us more about her job and how she helps to combine all the departments bringing together a production.  What a day!


Thursday 22nd October:

In the morning, we went into the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to have a lighting and design demonstration.  We got to meet with Stephen Brimson Lewis, the Designer for Henry V, and two lighting operators, one of which was the Lighting Designer Tim Mitchell.  They explained how the two departments have to work closely together, and about the tasks they are expected to complete as part of their roles.  They also showed us some of the set and lights for Henry V.  The set was very original and there were two elements that were particularly special, and I had never seen them used in theatre before.  The first was that at the back of the set there were layers of gold chains with tiny balls on. They explained that lights could then project images onto it, but it would remain completely see through.  This was used to a good effect in the scenes in the court, where an almost cathedral like structure was projected using only light.  The second was the stage floor. They explained that they wanted to create an effect of a muddy floor during the battle scenes, but because there were many scenes where they were in a room in the palace, it would be impossible to lay a floor consisting of grass and mud.  Working together, they created an under-stage which was textured and looked very uneven and muddy, and on the top they placed a thick layer of polycarbonate. This way the stage floor would look shiny and smooth when needed but when lights were shined underneath the stage the floor would look like a muddy battlefield.  Overall the set was very effective and the use of lights and materials to create certain effects was staggering.

Afterwards all the students were separated into groups of six or seven and given a department to work with.  I was to work with Stage Management.  My group met with Suzi Blakey who is a stage manager at the RSC.  She gave us more information about the documents stage managers have to produce during rehearsals and shows.  For example, rehearsal schedules, rehearsal or production meeting notes, character breakdowns (documents detailing what each actor is doing in each scene), setting list (list of props and which props need to be preset at the start and in the interval), flame reports (list of any flames that are used on stage), risk assessments, and show reports (a report on anything that goes wrong during a show).  One of the main duties of a Stage Manager is to sit in on a rehearsal and makes notes on blocking and any decisions that are made.  Suzi told us that in rehearsal that a common practise for a Stage Manager to mark up the stage in the rehearsal room.  The mark up is a to-scale outline of the stage and any set or trapdoors using tape.  This really assists the actors and Directors with blocking and movement, so they know where they can and can’t stand, which saves a lot of time going into technical rehearsals in the actual performance space, as they don’t have to waste time re-blocking a scene.  My group had a go at marking a trapdoor, and it’s safe to say that we would need some practice!  She also explained that there are usually three Stage Managers, (the other two being Deputy and Assistant).  The deputy stage manager (DSM) is situated in a box above the stage with a Lighting Operator and Automations Operator.  The DSM cues everything using the script, including lighting, sound, automation and actors.  The other two Stage Managers are down in the wings making sure that everything is happening as it should be and that the show is running smoothly.

Later in the afternoon, the Stage Management group had the extremely rare and extraordinary experience of actually going backstage during a live performance to see all this in practice!  For the first half I was in the wings and watched as the stage managers kept everything running smoothly.  It was incredible to meet everybody backstage including Dressers, Stage Managers, Fire Officers - even people who set off the pyrotechnics - and just watch as they worked.  While we were backstage we visited the offices upstairs, where people in stage management, lighting and sound work, a rehearsal room, the wardrobe department and the wig department, where we were given a glimpse at what they were working towards.  Throughout the second half we sat in the box, where the DSM was cueing the show.  It was interesting to see how the desk worked and to be able to watch onstage as the cues were happening.  The last thing we did that day was to watch the evening performance - it was amazing to gain such a practical understanding of stage management.

Friday 23rd October:

On the final day, our main objective was to prepare a presentation on what we’d learnt over the past few days, on the department that we were working on.  In the morning to get us prepared for the day, we had an amazing voice and presentation workshop.  It taught us about body language and how to stand and speak properly when presenting, as well as getting us energised and ready for the day.  Then, when in our groups, we started working towards a presentation.  We decided that it would be best to each select one thing that a stage manager has to do and present that individually.  My personal presentation was on the Character Breakdown document which is very useful for organisation backstage, and for the costume and wigs department, as it also details what each actor should be wearing.  As well as presenting our own newfound knowledge we also learnt what other groups had been doing.  The Set Creation group had been making replicas of the set on Henry V, the Front of House group learnt how to assist customers and had some practical experience, the Marketing group had been working on new ideas and leaflets advertising the shows, and the Lighting group learnt a lot about the equipment and designed their own lighting picture using the Royal Shakespeare Theatre lights.

It has been such an incredible experience, working with many different people and not only learning but gaining practical experience with roles behind the scenes.  I am so very grateful to everybody involved - it was an experience I will never forget.