Setting the scene

NEARLY every night of the year, theatre audiences across the nation are gripped endless range of plays, musicals, comedies and everything else in between.

NEARLY every night of the year, theatre audiences across the nation are gripped endless range of plays, musicals, comedies and everything else in between.

But for every actor they see take a bow, there's a whole cast of others who never get their moment in the spotlight. In the first of two features looking behind the scenes at the New Wolsey Theatre, HELEN JOHNS asks who brings the scripts to life.

PICTURE the scene…

You've just watched a great play and been entertained by a talented cast of actors who might have made you laugh, or cry, jump out of your seat in horror - or held you in suspense until the final scene.

The house lights come up and the cast take their bows to rapturous applause. Talk on the way home is all about how well the lead actor played their role, or sang their solo, or the group comedy scenes.

But how often do you talk about the direction, set, music, costumes or lights?

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Of course it takes more than one cast of people to make a theatre production work, and when the finished show finally hits the stage, it is the product of weeks of planning, building, creating, rehearsal and discussion.

The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is preparing to begin the autumn season, and welcome visitors into it's refurbished auditorium for the first time, with a production of Stephen Sondheim's musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

The man charged with overall control of this production is Peter Rowe, who is the New Wolsey's artistic director, and in the case of this production, the director too.

As director, Peter not only decides how the cast should perform the play, he also has final say on script changes, music and how the set, costumes and lighting should look. Working with a team of professionals in each area, Peter ensures all the different elements come together to create the final show.

It has become something of a New Wolsey tradition to start the season with a musical show, using a cast of actor-musicians (performers who both act and play all the music rather than having an orchestra or band).

“It all starts with choosing the play and looking at options,” said Peter. “Sometimes we look at scripts and sometimes listen to CDs. We're looking for shows that will work for actor musicians. We've tended to start the season with a big musical show and we're always talking about what shows will work in this style.”

Some of the chosen cast have worked at the New Wolsey before, but auditioning new actors falls to Peter and Greg Palmer, who is the musical director of this production.

“In the West End you have actors and actresses who can sing, and dancers who are cast to do the big numbers and an orchestra, but we're looking for people who can all of those things,” said Greg.

“We've become good at finding people who can do all of those things, but they are quite rare.

“If they can't play it becomes difficult to accommodate them, because of the way we do things.”

So once someone has proved to Greg they can perform musically, and Peter has been convinced they can act, and it's down to Peter to start bringing the show together.

“I direct the actors in their scenes and talk to them about their characters and their motivation, and decide who moves where and when. I'm the co-ordinator of the whole production.”

While the final say always comes from Peter, making the production work is a team effort, with contributions from all the crew and cast.

“When it's working well, everyone is contributing and I'm leading,” he said.

“It starts with an idea and if someone comes up with something better we take that too. Everyone has to contribute to the process and my job will be to say 'lets go with that one'. I'll expect that some ideas will be done and some won't.

“It can be hard and I've learnt by experience. When I started out I planned everything, and it was hard to let go of a plan - I'd start to worry about whether you can stay in control but you learn to trust other people and their opinions.”

For Greg, there is less opportunity to be flexible. “A musical by Sondheim will be very detailed and he is a composer whose work I admire greatly and his orchestrations are fantastic - I go to pains to recreate them as faithfully as I can,” he said.

“In a show like this there's not really opportunity to put my own take on the arrangements, but there is always a certain part of me in there. But in a different show there is more opportunity and I can put my own stamp on it.”

Masterminding a show gives Peter and Greg a big buzz, but on opening night neither wish they were the ones on stage.

“I remember it being a shock the first time I directed, and sitting there I realised it no longer had anything to do with me,” said Peter.

“But I feel as strongly about the success of the show as would if I was on stage.”

For Greg, the final article is a chance to take a breather. “I think I sometimes feel relieved to have got to that stage, and I can sit back and take heart in what we've made together.”

With the music and action under control, it is down to designer Dawn Allsop to take charge of the set and costumes.

Dawn works closely with Peter, to ensure the set matches his vision for the play and allow the actors to enter, exit and move in the right way - as well as instantly transporting the audience to wherever the play is set.

“Myself and Peter will have read the script and will talk through ideas to get a general sense from each other of where we think we want to be going and the feeling we want it all to have,” said Dawn, explaining the early stages of designing a set.

“We talk through the practicalities, and from there I go away and do some research and gather together pictures and images. At the next meeting I bring along some sketches and we start to firm up ideas.”

At the next meeting there will be input from Peter, Greg, Dawn and lighting designer James Farncombe. This is known as a white card meeting, because Dawn brings along a model of the set, made of white card. She said: “I come with a full idea of where I think we're going, but it's still up for change, so we can get our scissors out and chop things about and move them around.”

After the final decisions have been made, Dawn then makes another model of the set, which helps James plan the lighting and let the actors know what the set will look like.

“Set and costumes come together in this job and in my mind I'm always thinking about the two together - in terms of colour and design they need to look like they come out of the same time and place,” she said.

“The first read-through of the script is the first time the actors will see the set model, and find out what costumes they'll have. We always do it at the start of the rehearsals, as it helps them to know what they're performing on - it's important that they see it and can keep it in their mind's eye.”

Dawn said: “When it gets t building the set and in to rehearsals it all starts getting more exciting. It feels much more like the play is really happening and it's not just me at home with my ideas and glue!”

It only essential the audience can see what is happening on the stage, but they must also be convinced it's a hot, sunny day, or a sunset, a dark, eerie night, or a cosy room indoors - and that is where lighting designer James steps in.

“The first involvement I have is a meeting with the director and designer with a model of the set and I make suggestions about how we can begin to light it,” he said. He plans the layout of the lighting rig and what lights are needed where, using a computer programme to plan and store each of the lighting changes.

He said: “I visit rehearsals to how things are developing and to keep up with changes and ideas.

“The fullest work is when all the different elements begin to come together. In production week everything moves to the theatre, and we start putting everything on the set. That's when it gets really busy for me, because up until that point everything is very hypothetical, it only when we are in the theatre that we know whether everything is going to work. We go through the whole production scene by scene and do all the lighting and sound. It's a bit like painting with lights, and different levels and colours.

“There are certain conventions with a musical that people expect to see, like when there's a song the lighting changes and reflects the mood of the song.

“It's about turning the things that are in my head and on paper into reality, and no matter how much preparation I do beforehand, there's always an element in my head that's just hoping it will work.

“And you have to be able to respond to it if things don't work and you have to be able to change it.”


See Monday's Evening Star for the crew who make it happen on opening night.

NO amount of planning can prevent the occasional mishap.

This group of theatre professionals bravely confessed some of the times when they're especially glad they haven't had to stand on stage and face the audience.


“I did a show that was an adaptation of Les Miserables in Nottingham. There's a character who is run down by a cart in one scene and I could see that everyone was there apart from the guy who gets run down. It felt like it went on forever and there was nothing anybody could do because it had a direct impact on the rest of the play.

“I had to run out, I couldn't stand it, I couldn't be there so I ran out in to the street. I was distraught, it was just awful.”


“I once did a production of Company in Taunton. There's a complicated sequence where you have 14 people on stage and they are all singing Bobby's name, but at slightly different times. One person forgot to come in when they should have done, it completely freaked the person who had to follow, and the whole thing ground to a halt just for a moment. I was sliding further and further down in my seat and praying someone would have the good sense to get it going again. Thankfully someone did and I could gradually get myself sitting up again!”


“I designed A Passionate Woman with the Theatre Royal. It's set in a loft that revolves round on to it's roof, and the action happens there. Once, it just didn't revolve, and nothing was happening! I've not had anything fall off or fall over yet - and I suppose that's encouraging!”


“The worst occasions can be when I've accidentally put the house lights on during a show, and that confuses everyone. And once I plunged it into a blackout, that's embarrassing and you want to disappear into a hole, but it happens every now and then.”