I loved card tricks when I was younger. Not just the part where you play the trick, but also the eventual reveal as to how it’s done. There’s something satisfying in revealing a mystery, especially to the curious. In creating a backstage musical I wanted to take an audience on a small adventure, through a door not knowing what was on the other side, and to reveal to them a mystery or two.
In what is it about that night?, I play the character of an assistant stage manager. Someone who really cares about the details. About doing her job so well that no one ever notices. The small audience enter by the unassuming stage door on the dark side street, having been told that they must be quiet as there is a show on the main stage. I lead them around the backstage spaces of the building: the dressing room, the green room, wardrobe, under the stage. All the while through the tannoy we hear snippets of the play on the main stage as my character does her job, ironing a costume, cueing sound effects, fixing props. Ideally in the future I’d love to do this show when there is an actual show going on the main stage and a full house seated in the auditorium. Though I know which show I’d rather go see.
In researching these different venues I discovered some lovely stories and in-house rituals. In Theatre Royal Margate, there is a lady who has been buried in the wall of the stage; her ashes are there marked out by a white brick. A special request, so that she can watch the shows from the wings. The staff make a point of saying good morning and good night to her. You know, just to have her on side. In The Kings Theatre in Portsmouth there are dinghies underneath the stage for the orchestra to get to the orchestra pit in the unlikely event that the tide comes in and it floods. (I kid you not). There is something special about a building that accepts mystery as normal.
And it’s true that working in a theatre building does feel kind of special. A few years ago I worked at the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh and it was my job to lock up the theatre every night. I would walk the corridors of the dressing rooms backstage with a torch, locking the doors and turning off the lights one by one. I’d often find myself standing on the grand stage looking out into the empty auditorium. There’s something quite nice about being in an empty theatre after a show; it feels warm and positive, like the applause lingers after the house leaves.
In researching for this show, I got talking about this to a psychic medium, Marc Richardson, a lovely chap who has a special affinity for Theatre Royal Brighton. He explained that theatres are quite unusual buildings because of the energy that they house. It’s not just the passive energy that most buildings have, but it’s all the ritual behaviour. It’s comforting for a ghost to repeat an evening in the company of us mortals at the theatre. He told me about a few of the ghosts that he’s seen in Brighton: a little lost boy who was dripping wet under the stage, a lady on the stairs, an audience member in the stalls. All quite happy to be there. A working theatre is a powerhouse for storing energy because the backstage has adrenaline and nervous energy and the stalls and the front of house has all that lovely applause. So it is ripe for attracting spirits. The positive ones who feel like they belong.
And that’s the other thing that I’ve noticed: the love for these theatres is really strong. People feel like they belong to these buildings and the buildings belong to them. In the face of The Kings of Southsea being turned into a Weatherspoon pub, the locals rallied together, did a massive fundraising exercise and petitioned to ensure that it stayed open. When Theatre Royal Margate flooded, the locals raised money to ensure that it could reopen as soon as possible. It costs so much to run these old buildings – huge heating bills, and maintenance often more than ticket sales bring in. They are powered by appreciation and tradition. They are part of the city; a landmark, important local history with stories to tell us.
And that is what I really wanted to celebrate with this piece. Spending an evening going to the theatre isn’t just about the story being told on stage. For theatre to work, everyone – not just the actors – is playing a role. The audience too have a script to follow – buying a ticket, sitting in silence in the dark, interval drinks, clap at the end. It’s all part of what makes us want to tell stories. And the best stories are the ones we like to hear again and again.
Catherine Ireton is a singer, songwriter, actor and theatremaker. Her show what is it about that night? is on at The Kings Theatre, Southsea 21st-22nd January and at Harlow Playhouse 29th January.