Spotlight on: Theatre Tour and Tea at York Theatre Royal

April 2022 – York Theatre Royal

On October 1st, 1744, Thomas Keregan founded a theatre on the site of the current York Theatre Royal. As the first permanent theatre in York, it paved the way to our enjoyment of theatre of all kinds well over two hundred years later. So with a history beginning way back in the 18th century, this theatre has many a tale to tell – and not just on stage! I was delighted to be invited to take a tour backstage to see just what York Theatre Royal are offering with Theatre Tour and Tea (currently available until October), and I was not disappointed.

If, like me, you’ve spent many a lovely evening enjoying a show at York Theatre Royal, you may well be surprised by some of the features suddenly pointed out to you. I mean, who knew the pattern on the foyer floor is actually an homage to the foundations of what lies beneath? You’ve surely noticed the striking poured concrete alcoves of the bar area, but do you know why the foyer is considered a modernist landmark? Or why the internal walls cry out “I’m a Church!”? In fact, this gorgeous theatre with all its distinct and varied details contains architecture from the Medieval, Georgian and Victorian periods – and you’ll find echoes of various periods throughout the tour.

So, head through the covert doors most of us haven’t even noticed and you’ll see theatreland from the opposite side of the velvet curtain. You wouldn’t know it from our usual front of house vantage point, but a fair few relics of the past can be found nestled backstage. You’ll find Roman walls side by side with top notch lighting rigs and a once-functioning Roman well beneath the fancy modern stage. Green Room? Check (though not as glam as we might expect!). Wings? Check. Quick change areas? Check. As we took our tour during Footloose’s run, we also got a close-up look at the costume and set pieces (no touching, obviously!) while also marvelling at just how much gear can be packed in to the areas unseen by eyes in the auditorium.

Take a trip down a few well-worn steps and you’ll find yourself beneath the stage – you’ll see how nooks and trapdoors can be formed at will thanks to the segmented design – and you’ll also get to see the contraption behind those magical or villainous entrances… Surprising questions are floated and answered along the way – what’s the connection to St Leonard’s Hospital? Why were sailers preferred for technical prep? How are set pieces flown in? Who is the Grey Lady and why does she haunt the auditorium? One of my favourite stories being the one about the old alcove and mysterious door at the back of the stage which hold evidence concerning armed Roman guards and valuable goods… And most importantly for some is the anticipated moment: what’s the view like from the stage rather than a cushy seat? It’s quite a view!

Updates to the theatre are proudly pointed out, along with the multitudinous benefits to casts, productions and audiences alike, but it’s also genuinely fascinating to learn of the historical progression of the building. We learn of the cheeky reason why the Georgians cannily moved the main entrance to the opposite end of the building. And where the doors to the main auditorium once stood, just steps from the pavement outside rather than the box office. If you’re lucky enough to snag the lovely Maria as your guide, you’ll also benefit from anecdotes across sixty years of insider knowledge – who’s played in what and when, or where the best dressing room used to be and who she once ran up the stairs to fetch an autograph from. She can vividly paint a picture of productions past and the ghostly run-ins various cast and crew members have reported over the years…

And after a trip to the latest sign of the theatre’s progression, The Studio Theatre – once a workshop space and recently reconfigured, it’s time for a brew! You can expect the classic trappings of an afternoon cream tea: a pot of good old Yorkshire Tea (what else?), scones with jam and cream and a wee slice of fruit cake too. And if that’s not your bag, alternatives will be provided on request, much to the delight of my non-tea-drinking and fruit-and-cream-averse pal (can’t take her anywhere and all that…)

This is a genuinely lovely way to spend a couple of hours at the theatre without actually seeing a show. Now owned by the York Conservation Trust and established as one of the oldest theatres in the U.K, it’s a theatre with almost 300 years of history to its name and it continues to evolve with the times both back stage and front of house. Do I recommend heading behind the velvet curtain? Absolutely!

The Theatre Tour and Tea package offers the full guided tour followed by tea and cake for £12 per person (under 12’s go free) – you can book your backstage adventure here.

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