Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Darlington Civic Theatre

Darlington Civic Theatre
Originally uploaded by westy48
Edward's class went on a school trip to Darlington Civic Theatre today, and with a few other parents I went along to help out.

It was brilliant.

I love going behind the scenes and seeing places from an unusual point of view. We're used to being in busy theatres, buzzing with the energy of a performance. To see the Civic with the lights on full and no-one else around was fascinating. Our guide was Peter Tate, the House Manager who's responsible for everything that happens front of house. He's been at the theatre for 14 years after being a police sergeant in Richmond. He's very knowledgable about the theatre and its history, and clearly loves his job and the building.

In the Gods
Originally uploaded by westy48
Peter told the children about the first manager of the theatre, Signor Pepi, who's ghost is reputed to haunt the theatre. Signor Pepi had arranged for Anna Pavlova to come and dance at the theatre, but he never got to see her performance. Pavlova took to the stage on a winter's afternoon in 1927. That evening Signor Pepi died at home of cancer. We didn't see Signor Pepi, or any of the theatre's other ghosts, but we did get to go onstage and have a look about in the wings at the prop tables laid out for Beauty and the Beast.

Later, up in the Gods, Peter answered dozens of questions from the children. My favourite fact was that there are 1500 light bulbs front of house, and that each one is checked before each performance. The chandeliers in the ceiling are on winches and can be lowered down to the stalls when the bulbs need changing. We also learned that the theatre today seats an audience of 901. When it opened in 1907 it could accommodate around twice as many. Peter painted a vivid picture of what it would be like in the unventilated theatre amongst that crowd. The upper classes in the Dress Circle would be wearing white tie and tales. They'd be dropped off be their horse drawn carriages and would never see the working classes about in the Gods or below in the stalls. Downstairs the stalls had around ten rows of seats with a pit behind where there were benches for the rest. Above in the Gods there were again benches and the audience might arrive "early doors" to buy a more expensive ticket for a better view. The cheapest tickets for the Gods would be a couple of pennies, whilst a seat in a box would cost a few shillings - forty times as much as the lowest price charged.

There was no ventilation and most of the audience wouldn't have bathed for weeks. The auditorium would get very hot, and the smell, along with the smoke from the cigarettes and cigars that everyone would smoke throughout the performance would all rise to the top of the theatre and make the experience in the cheap seats quite nasty.

The children were impressed by the visit and took a lot of ideas back to school that they can use when they come to do their next school production. They all enjoyed going on stage and seeing what it's like for the cast members coming on from the wings. I found the history and behind the scenes elements fascinating.

Darlington Civic Theatre is under threat as a result of the cuts following the Spending Review. It would be a real shame if Darlington loses its theatre after 103 years, but councils everywhere are making tough decisions. If nothing else we need to support the arts if we want them to survive. I'm going to book some panto tickets now. Oh yes I am.

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