She Loves Me backstage photo essay: A love letter to independent theatre

February 3, 2019

For large scale main stage productions, a dress rehearsal is just another day at the office.  You’ve already spent between two and (in the case of productions with children like Billy Elliott) twelve weeks in the theatre, in costume, on the set and under lights working at a snails pace through every aspect of the show.

But for smaller productions like She Loves Me at the Hayes theatre, dress rehearsals are another thing all together. There has been perhaps one or two days of technical rehearsal. Actors are seeing props and costumes for the first time. Hats and shoes are being finalised, set is being tinkered with and the floor may not even be painted. This is the reality of independent theatre; money is tight and so is time.
Add to the mix a random photographer (yours truly) stumbling around in the dark, in a backstage area the size of a small South East Asian apartment, trying to get out of the way of actors blending complex off-stage tracks and quick changes, and your respect for these theatre makers can only grow. That independent shows go on at all is a miracle, and only with the hard work of a strong crew, production team, orchestra and cast does a beautiful show like She Loves Me come to be the amazing thing that it is. I am always amazed that indie companies are able to create productions as slick and glossy as this with the time and budget that they have at their disposal.

One issue is costumes. On larger budget shows, a full time wardrobe department will clean, iron, sort and adjust costumes on a regular basis. Quick changes will be facilitated by retrofitted Velcro inserts, popper buttons and pull-aways, with a team of deftly trained black clad assistants whose calming touch can make even the most stressful change a breeze. But here in the small confines of the Hayes, the costume design has been pieced together from a variety of places, some will be fitted with velcro or poppers, but most are regular clothes with buttons, zips and hooks. The costume department is also the design department, who is also the set builder and props master, and so every actor is responsible for their own tucking and untucking.

Isabel Hudson’s beautiful set, from the front, could very well be the inside of a early 20th century American perfumery, but walk through the dark green door at the centre of the room and the world will change dramatically (every pun intended). Gone are the finishings of reality and instead, stark two by four struts jut out from every angle, the flooring bleeds into black within a few feet, and a litany of props and set pieces are crammed into every nook and cranny available.

In the down-cast blue lights of the back stage, shadowy figures lurk in corners. Some stand alone, awaiting their entrance, or going through their lines. Others stand in small groups talking in hushed tones as they pick up their props for the on coming scene. Giggles are stifled, smiles are everywhere. Through the stress of dress rehearsals, no one can forget the excitement of what it means. It’s all coming together.

Through small cracks in curtains, doors, windows and set pieces you catch glimpses of the action on stage. The muffled voices of on-stage actors subconsciously roll into the off-stage actors’ heads, ears pricking on certain lines as stand-by cues arrive.

There are moments of choreography almost farcical in style; doors opening and closing with the regularity of a metronome. From the front everything is smooth; actors move from cue to cue, gliding through their movements with the ease that comes from years of experience. But from behind, it’s a different story, a mad dash to make the next entrance or gag, eyes wide as they manoeuvre from blinding brightness to pitch gloom.

There are moments where the show is stopped; quick changes go awry, technical cues are missed. A flurry of activity ensues from disembodied voices in the blackness of the seating bank and as soon as the issue is fixed the onstage conversations continue, as if the characters paused to let a loud bus drive past. Actors exit, energy driving them to walk into a world that doesn’t exist. A quick deceleration is necessary, what with the theatre wall being less than a meter behind the set.

The show drives to its conclusion and as the final strains of the score fade into silence, a collective lung full of air is exhaled. Independent theatre is not created, it is willed into existence by sheer passion. As soon as the last bow is taken (yes, they are rehearsed), the cast are sent to the dressing rooms to dress down. Crew and creatives gather in the centre of the theatre to debrief and problem solve. No dress rehearsal is perfect, fixes are discussed, and solutions set into the next day’s schedule. There is no rest for director Erin James who, exhausted from weeks of organisation and action, still manages a strong and appreciative smile as she enters the foyer where the cast await notes. At close to midnight, the final members of the company leave the theatre. The hard work is not over; previews will begin in barely 18 hours, rehearsals in just 10. But all are committed to the cause knowing that perfection is not obtained in one performance, but the magic can certainly show its head.

So as you sit in the Hayes Theatre auditorium, and you see the weathered wooden panels of Maraczek’s Parfumerie sitting, Tardis like, on the stage, imagine the weeks of strenuous work that has gone into creating this world. Then sit back and forget… the play’s the thing, and it’s a good one too.

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