Housed inside a stunning Grade II listed building, Manchester’s Royal Exchange is the country’s largest theatre-in-the-round, with a 360 degree performance space that allows every audience member to see the performance from their own perspective. Since 1976, the Royal Exchange has welcomed some of the greatest names in British theatre, film and television, including Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Maxine Peake. This year the famous theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary, a grand age that seems to have been reached predominantly thanks to the adaptability and innovation of both the building and its staff.
Finding a new lease of life
The theatre’s Great Hall used to be twice its current size (once considered the ‘largest room in the world’) and was one of the world’s primary centres for cotton trade, until the Second World War when the building took a direct hit during the Manchester blitz. It continued trading until 1968, and the original trading board with the day’s closing figures is still on display.
The building was devastated by another explosion in 1996, when an IRA bomb was detonated less than 50 metres away from the Royal Exchange. After two years, a lot of fundraising, and over £32 million from the National Lottery, the theatre was back up and running, having temporarily located to Castlefield.
A unique set-up
Rather resembling a lunar spacecraft, the theatre module itself (which weighs 150 tonnes) is suspended from four huge columns. Only the stage area and its ground-level seating actually rest on the floor of the Great Hall.
The main theatre seats up to 750 people on three levels, with no seat further than nine metres away from the stage to give a uniquely intimate audience experience – though actors unused to performing with so many entrances, exits and angles to consider can sometimes find it challenging. Actors don’t wear microphones (except for in some musical productions), and if the theatre wasn’t encased in glass there would be a seven second echo.
Behind the scenes
Costume changes – performed in tiny dressing rooms outside the auditorium – are also a challenge. Make-up and costume changes often have to be done at great speed, with several people helping. “It can be a bit like Formula One at times,” says hair and make-up supervisor, Jo Shepstone. Shepstone (who works in a rather magical-looking studio crammed with wigs, make-up and special effects) has become adept at working inventively.
“You need to keep the design integrity, but sometimes actors might have thirty seconds to change into something – or someone – else. If it was a traditional proscenium arch theatre it would be different, but there’s nowhere to hide anything in-the-round.”
Once presented with a vision of how the performance should look, Shepstone comes up with a cost, which then is revised according to feasibility. She recalls one character requiring part of her brain to be eaten out of the top of her head in a script, so Shepstone designed a wig with a sunken section filled with blancmange – which had to stay secure – with a hinged lid for access.
“The actress had issues with her neck, so the wig couldn’t be too heavy. But she was amazing, she could actually flip her head a certain way to open the hinge on demand,” laughs Shepstone, who then points out a selection of gruesome-looking prosthetic tongues – because you never know when a character might need theirs ripped out.
Dressed to impress
Costume is as important as hair and make-up. Most costumes are made in-house at the Royal Exchange, with the majority of lead roles created from scratch. Outfits have to be washed every evening, in an on-site laundry room. Rails of meticulously catalogued rails, tailor’s dummies and drawers (with intriguing labels such as ‘hip frills’ and ‘bum pads’) reveal memorable costumes and accessories, from Don Warrington’s imposing King Lear outfit to Maxine Peake’s elaborate floral dress in Skriker.
A theatre unlike any other
Much like any other theatre, backstage you’ll find actors’ dressing rooms, as well as a number of rehearsal rooms. Here, however, as well as rehearsing lines and stage directions, actors must also put time into keeping their performances fluid, despite the pressures of being visible from every angle at all times. It’s not just the big performances that make the Royal Exchange an important cultural hub for the city.
The theatre also offers backing for new writing through initiatives like The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and new writers residencies, as well as supporting emerging artists and offering an extensive learning and engagement programme. Having won the 2016 Regional Theatre of the Year award, the future looks bright for storytelling and performance in Manchester at a time when we arguably need it more than ever.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.