Backstage at Birmingham Hippodrome with special guest blogger Grant Barden from Welsh National Opera

Grant Barden, Welsh National Opera's Technical Manager

My name is Grant Barden and I am Welsh National Opera’s Technical Manager. I am responsible for planning and staffing the backstage elements of our tours. What follows is a glimpse into the backstage processes that we will go through in order to stage our season at the Hippodrome during the week of June 6th.

Our first concern will be to get all of our equipment to the Hippodrome. Fortunately, WNO can call upon its own small fleet of articulated lorries. For this visit our Head Driver, Hedd Owen Rees will use three drivers and three tractor units (truck cabs) to ferry 11 trailers to Birmingham. Scenery for Cosi fan Tutte and Turandot will fill three trailers each. There will be two trailers full of lighting equipment and one each of costumes and miscellaneous technical equipment. The bigger orchestral instruments, such as cellos and percussion instruments, are transported in a special climate controlled trailer to protect delicate instruments.  Music stands and rostra are also transported and looked after by our Orchestra porters. Hedd and his team will be on hand all week to ferry trailers between the truck park and the theatre as scenery is changed over.  

Our next concern will be the “Get In” of all of this equipment. The schedule and staffing needs will have been agreed in advance with Barry Hope, my opposite number at the Hippodrome. We will also have considered the Health and Safety implications of the proposed processes and briefed our teams accordingly. 

First in will be the lighting equipment, supervised by Ian Jones, Head of Lighting and Sound. Ian’s team of eight will have four hours on Tuesday morning to unpack, assemble and plug up their equipment. They will be helped by five local staff from the Hippodrome. Next will come the scenery. This part of the “Get-in” will be structured so that anything that is to be suspended over the stage (ie: ‘flown’ from the fly tower) is hung first – then the floor will be built, then the rest of the scenery – walls that don’t move etc will be positioned in place.  The set will then be ‘masked’ – black walls and cloths are used to cover up backstage workings. Finally, the portable furniture and props will be added. A team of 30 WNO Stage Technicians under John Hayel, our Master Carpenter, will be helped to do this by three Hippodrome technicians. In between stage duties, John and his team will also move the costumes to the dressing rooms. The costumes are transported in portable wooden wardrobes called pans. They will also assist the Wigs and Stage Management teams with their equipment. By Tuesday evening everything will be in place and the stage will be ready to start the process of preparing the first show for performance.

Wednesday will be a Turandot performance day. The lighting team return first thing to focus approximately 200 individual lights onto the set to create the moods required. By mid morning the Stage Technicians will return to make adjustments and check that all is safe and ready. In the afternoon, the Stage Manger will take charge and will lead the whole team through a Lighting Session. This will move from scene to scene, without the performers, to check that the singers will be lit in the various locations that they use around the stage. This will also be the final chance to rehearse scene changes and to set up quick-change rooms etc for the performance. The stage will be constantly checked from both an aesthetic and safety point of view. The performers will arrive during the afternoon and will be shown to their dressing rooms by the Stage Management team. If all goes well the crew will get a well-earned rest before “the half” (6.40 for a 7.15 show) when they are required to stand by for the performance.

Wardrobe get in - Judith Russell (Head of Touring Wardrobe)

WNO’s Stage Management team of six, under Julia Carson Sims, will organise the running of all four performances. They will have followed the production from inception through the rehearsal period and into performance. There will be one person ‘on the book’ who will “call” the show giving “cues” to lighting and Stage Technicians via an extensive intercom system installed by the lighting team. The Stage Manager “on the book” will follow a special musical score, which has been annotated for this purpose during rehearsal. Together with an Assistant Stage Manager on each side of the stage they will also cue the singers’ entrances. Others will organise props and will prepare the food and drink that is consumed as part of the action.

 Once the performance has ended, the Stage Technicians will change over the scenery ready for Thursday’s performance of Cosi Fan Tutti.  Thursday, Friday and Saturday will follow a similar pattern as Wednesday, starting with the lighting focus at 9am and ending after the set change at about 1am.   

Between performances, the Wardrobe and Wigs teams will be busy resetting for each show. Costumes will be maintained by the Touring Wardrobe Department. This team of four, who will wash, iron and mend garments as necessary using our own touring washing machines and ironing equipment. During performances the Hippodrome will supply up to 12 “dressers” who will help with the singers’ costume changes under the beady eye of Judith Russell, our Touring Wardrobe Manager.

Our Head of Wigs and Make-up, Sian McCabe, will lead a team of four who will oversee the singers’ wigs and make up for each performance. Much time will be spent cleaning and preparing the various wigs. A wig oven will be taken on tour to assist with drying the wigs.

Sian McCabe (Head of Wigs and Makeup) with Amanda Roocroft

The “Get Out” will commence immediately after the Saturday performance of Cosi fan Tutte and will happen in the reverse order to the Get In. The visit will finally finish after the final piece of lighting equipment is loaded at around 3am on Sunday morning. The drivers will then begin ferrying the trailers back to Cardiff to be unloaded on Monday.

This, at least, is what should happen. I’m sure that there will be a few hiccups along the way but, as we can rely on first class support from Barry’s team at the Hippodrome, I’m confident that we can look forward to a safe, efficient and artistically successful visit.

 Black and white images by Andrew Hebden

Welsh National Opera perform a new production of Cosi Fan Tutte on 9 & 11 June and Puccini’s Turandot on 8 & 10 June at Birmingham Hippodrome.

Birmingham Hippodrome is the first English home of Welsh National Opera who perform all of their repertory at the theatre.  CLICK HERE for further information

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