Behind the Scenes on ‘Sweeney Todd: The Shock’n’Roll Show’
No production would go ahead if it were not for the team of people backstage.
We talked to a few of that team about the joys and challenges of staging a youth theatre production.
How many costumes?
Indigo: “Well there are 19 actors”
Sue: “– ok, so manageable.”
Indigo: “Yes, but they each play multiple roles and some of those roles have more than one costume.”
Sue: “So how many costumes?”
Indigo: “…..um, 56.”
That was better news than the 96 required for Alice in Wonderland, so off I went.
Relatively straightforward, as no animals unlike Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but it is set in Victorian times. Why is that an issue? Well, the next production in the main season (Hobson’s Choice) is also Victorian, so we were running a little short!
But with a little suspension of belief for historical accuracy, we commandeered every waistcoat and collarless shirt owned by the theatre and we were off. The actors love it when they get to the costuming stage and they are so grateful and excited. It is quite a joy during those mad few costume sessions. I’m forever grateful to Maura and Louise who are so brilliant at organising (it helps that they know who’s who too!), we gradually collated the costume haul.
Now, our Youth Theatre actors are generally smaller, so many an outfit was taken in or adapted in some way. Small though they might be, how is it that today’s kids have such big feet? Ah well, an excuse for some eBay shopping and increasing WT’s stock of boots!
As per normal, we have the last minute plea for pockets to be added to some costumes to hold their props. Then there is the job of allocating the dressing rooms – a maths exercise in itself with the requirement for segregation of genders and age groups.
Now I just have to teach them how to hang up trousers!
A Chaperone’s Life
It can be quite a revelation to the average teenager that they have to be chaperoned and as such can make managing the dressing rooms, green room and wings feel like an impossible task.
The cast of every youth theatre production always get on so well that the backstage chatter can potentially mean missed queues or the front row possibly hearing about what happened in science class that day! A chaperone certainly has to have eyes and ears everywhere.
But the joy of seeing them collaborate to help get a dance routine together, make sure lines are remembered and quick costume changes are executed slickly in the wings, is worth every moment.
Props & The Set Build
So how is the children’s version of Sweeney Todd different from the ‘normal’ version I ask? Well, it’s more a comedy and we need a pie machine and lots of pies was the Director’s response. And we will also need two shops with a rotating barber’s chair that disposes of bodies.
As ‘props’ on other productions I made ‘cakes’ for Taming of the Shrew so pies would be easy. How many? I made a batch of 12 out of expanded polystyrene foam first time round. Not enough, never enough! Finally made about 30 of various sizes. Silver foil cake trays and cling film came in really handy. Difficult to judge just how much foam pies will rise – the fire-retardant versions stay pretty flat!
So onto the pie machine. You feed in flour, water & human limbs, switch ON and pies are ejected automatically – until the machine blows up revealing a human-engine. The challenge here was to enable the sides to collapse without them breaking – lots of nuts and bolts and magnets did the trick. Also, it had to be wheeled on from beneath a 5 ft platform – no issue here as it was sized by the designer (5ft 6”) who could be seated comfortably inside – but small child-actor turned out to be 6 ft tall!
Next the two shop fronts. These had to be light enough to be carried on/off the stage but look a realistic size. Solution was to use lightweight windows (no glass) and a wooden frames covered in plywood and vacuum-formed brickwork. Some effective paintwork added and we had a result.
The rest of the ‘props’ were fairly straightforward apart from childrens’ understanding of the difference between gin, wine and champagne glasses – the cast were all keen to drink the aforementioned out of tankards!
As for the demon barber’s chair and his kit – I will leave that to the Stage Manager aka Paul.
The Chair, The Slide, and The Corralling
The chair was a challenge. It had to look like a Victorian barber’s chair from which Sweeney’s victims had to disappear. Because of the age of the cast, safety was paramount so tipping was not allowed! As an alternative, the chair swivels round to a shute which the ‘body’ can slide down without risk. Scenery shifting between the 8 scenes is kept to a minimum and the cast take this on in addition to their character roles.
Every year I am amazed how our young actors are so ‘laid back’ in the green room and the wings and then flick a switch and become totally focused on their character. Some of them are more experienced than others but they work together as a team and make my job as SM much easier. Which is exactly why I am happy to take on the job year after year.
Logistical and Technical Challenges
One of the biggest challenges we face when producing a WYT show is having enough backstage facilities to fit a large cast. With this I’m mind during lockdown we were able to double our number of changing rooms and add a green room making the logistic much easier to manage.
We’ve also carefully designed the 2 shows either side of WYT so that we could get the Sweeney Todd set up quickly to give the children the most time we could rehearsing with it – especially the raised platform.
Working with our Youth Theatre is a tremendous joy as much as it is a challenge. We have students from age 14 to 19 included in this production. Regardless of the age difference, they have really enjoyed working together and it is wonderful to see how supportive they are of each other. COVID posed a huge challenge for everyone, as there were some rehearsal weeks with numerous cast members missing due to having to isolate, but even the actors in isolation were rehearsing their lines and songs at home.
It is a huge delight and privilege to see young people who may have never taken part in a larger production before tread the boards for the first time; especially those who were maybe less confident at the beginning of the rehearsal process, and are now raring to go and so excited to perform.
One of our aims is to promote confidence in all of our students, which I hope you will see shine in all of them in this show.
Our small but effective youth theatre team work so hard, frequent WhatsApp messages sent at odd hours resolve all manner of problems. Thanks also to our parents for supporting their young people with line learning, lifts to rehearsals and helping backstage.
Without all of the above we would not have the very special Wokingham Youth Theatre.
Tickets for The Sweeney Todd Shock’n’Roll Show are now on sale and the production runs from 24-26 February 2022.
Find out more about Wokingham Youth Theatre here.