Stepping backstage into Bury’s theatre past

It’s like stepping back in time. Walking through a doorway at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds during early August will be like stepping out of Dr Who’s Tardis.

Visitors to the Suffolk Georgian theatre will be transported from the austere present back to the stylised world of the Regency playhouse, the atmospheric world of the Victorian actor-manager and finally into the Swinging Sixties.

A new interactive tour brings you face-to-face with characters from the theatre’s own past ? actors, directors, stage hands, local nobility and great showmen all live again ? taking visitors on a guided tour through the glorious history of the Regency playhouse.

Bury’s theatre is proud of its heritage. It is prouder still of being a contemporary working theatre. Backstage Past has been written by outgoing artistic director Colin Blumenau as a celebration of the Theatre Royal’s past, present and future.

It explores how the theatre has survived centuries of both love and neglect; how it has been renovated and redeveloped to suit changing theatre fashions over the centuries and how, in recent years, we have developed a renewed appreciation of Georgian theatre ? and how the Theatre Royal has championed Regency playwriting through its Restoring The Repertoire programme.

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Plays like Wives As They Were, Animal Magnetism, Black-Eyed Susan, The London Merchant and others have brought the company back to its roots, while new work like Dick Turpin Rides Again and Stagefright, and new interpretations of Shakespeare, keep the theatre in tune with the demands of the 21st century.

Colin says that in these austere times it is more important than ever for theatre and the arts to be recognised for the service they perform for society.

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“I often look at this wonderful building and the work we do within it – and the work we do outside of it – and we often trot out platitudes about the importance of the arts and their place at the heart of our society; but that is something I fundamentally believe in.

“The world would be a far poorer place without them. A society needs a cultural counter-balance, especially at times like these when everybody is drawing in their horns, when everyone is focusing on their essentials.

“But I would contend that theatre and the arts are part of the essentials of life. They are part of the quality of life. We have to live, not simply exist.

“You have to stop and think and ask yourself what is life like without the stuff that we do? Some of it is erudite, some is highflown; other material is regarded as popular entertainment; but however it is classified, it is the very stuff that keeps us going while the rest of life is so tough.”

The Theatre Royal has always straddled that boundary between the past and present. It embraces its heritage by being based in an historic building and has helped return the layout of the theatre to its Georgian roots. But, at the same time, it also lives in the 21st century, producing new work – and the addition of the contemporary-looking The Greene Room caf�-bar area reflects the fact it is very much a part of the here and now.

The atmosphere generated by a working theatre is emphasised by the new, interactive, version of the Theatre Royal’s Backstage Past tour ? which has been running all summer.

For two weeks visitors will be able to meet and talk with the people who have shaped the theatre’s history.

Directed by Lynne Whitehead, the theatre’s education and community manager, this updated version of the tour allows visitors to travel between time zones, talk to its inhabitants and find out exactly what life was like not only for people in the theatre at the time but also for the people of Bury.

The theatre has always been at the heart of the local the community and developments in the outside world are reflected in the dramatic troughs and climaxes of the theatre’s fortunes.

Built in 1819 by architect William Wilkins, the Theatre was at the heart of Bury’s cultural life for the next 100 years.

The company also took plays out on tours and worked, what was known as, The Norwich Circuit – taking plays, created at Bury’s Theatre Royal, to theatres in Ipswich, Colchester, Cambridge, Yarmouth and Kings Lynn.

During the late Victorian era the theatre fell on hard times but these were immediately banished when they staged the world premiere of W S Penley’s timeless comedy Charley’s Aunt in 1892.

Bizarrely, the theatre closed in 1903 but it reopened in 1906, when alterations to the building were made by the architect Bertie Crewe, making it more suitable for Victorian theatre.

Greene King purchased the site, which it still owns, in 1920, but, in the face of stiff competition from two new cinemas, the theatre closed, seemingly for good, in 1925.

It was used as a barrel store for many years before a �37,000 restoration appeal successfully re-opened it in 1965. One of the first managers of the re-opened building was Wexford actor George Baker. The building was given over to the National Trust in 1975 on a 999-year lease.

In September 2005 the theatre was temporarily closed to begin a �5.3million restoration project to return the building to its original 1819 configuration and decorative scheme.

Previous restorations had removed the original Georgian entrances to the pit, as well as its distinctive Georgian forestage. The boxes had also been removed from the dress circle and the seating layout changed throughout the building.

On September 11, 2007, the theatre reopened with a production of the 1829 nautical melodrama Black Eyed Susan. It is this varied history that the theatre has set about capturing in Backstage Past tour.

Lynne said that the story takes the visitor all the way from 1819 right up to the present day.

“What you will get are people playing characters from the history of the theatre – some are entirely factual, others are composites but they are playing out scenes that actually happened.

“For example audience will find themselves coming into a rehearsal with the famous Victorian actor-manager Macready, played by Edwin Marr, who is on tour in Bury and his flirtation with Miss Poole, a young actress who was on several Bury playbills of the era.

“Some of the characters, like Miss Poole, are faction in that their details are factual but they are a creation of fiction. Similarly we have a scene where Mr Wilkins has just sent his boy to show a wealthy lady around the theatre. Although Wilkins would have had an assistant we don’t know who that assistant was but the facts that the assistant has at his finger tips are true facts.”

The performers have been cast from local amateurs and young actors waiting to complete their training at drama school.

The age range stretches from 14 to the mid-70s. Lynne said that the challenge for the actors was for them to, not only, improvise in character but be happy performing “up-close” to their audience and interact with them, taking questions, and providing suitable answers while remaining in character.

She said that Colin had provided a skeleton of a script but the rest of the information is being instilled into the 13 actors during rehearsals.

“The tour is a promenade show. The audience are fed into the theatre and moved through the different parts of the theatre and through the different time zones by the actors.

“It’s a wonderful marriage of a tour round a historic building and a show. You are walking round the building but the show happens with you and around you.”

She said that none of the characters cross the line and come out of their period. They can only answer the questions that their characters would know the answers to. “Although there is a little bit of time spillage at the edges when we hand over our audience and they go from one time zone into the next. It’s a bit like having a flexible membrane around a cell, there is transmission of information and material from one cell to another even though it is enclosed and the integrity of the cell is not compromised.”

Lynne said that the secret was to be found in the actors really understanding their characters and knowing how their alter egos would answer those questions if faced with them.

Bethany McGlue said: “The rehearsal process is about not only learning the lines for the set-piece scenes but also learning how to answer people’s questions without compromising your character.

“There are ways of deflecting questions without being rude to people. You can always fall back on saying something like: ‘I don’t know. That seems a strange question to me. Perhaps someone else may be able to help you.’

Lynne said that the time zones are strictly controlled within the building, with the full majesty of the Regency Playhouse being on show on the stage in the form of the Black-Eyed Susan set.

There is a definite transition between time zones and audiences are guided through the eras – “They are not left floundering,” said Lynne.

So what was it about the show/tour that brought the cast together? They have been rehearsing since April and have to devote two weeks of prime holiday time to the project.

Annette Atkins, a member of the theatre’s community company, said: “It’s bringing the theatre to life. I have always had an interest in history and drama, so this is the perfect way to bring the two things together.”

Rory, heritage guide, doing theatrical thing for the first time. “I have been doing to tours for some time and we had the opportunity to audition for the interactive version of Backstage Past and I thought it would be an enjoyable and interesting thing to do.

“I am talking about these people, these historical characters, all the time, so I thought it would be nice to be one of the people I am talking about.”

Backstage Past, the interactive tour, is at The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, on Wednesday to Sunday each week from August 8-19.

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