Behind-the-scenes on Of Mice and Men

Behind-the-scenes on Of Mice and Men

4 March 2016

by Mercedes Assad

Young Reporter Mercedes writes on her visit backstage on Of Mice and Men with Associate Producer Neale Birch at Theatre Royal Nottingham.

I have a set of questions prepared to ask Neale during our backstage tour. However, after my first question “What does an Associate Producer do?”, these quickly fly out of the window as he guides me through the space and introduces me to parts of the production process I never even knew existed.

Mercedes with Neale Birch on the Of Mice and Men set


One question I have that springs to mind as I’m stood on a set: Is set design made to work around direction or is direction made to work around set design?

Neale explains that it is ideally a process that is harmonious, and this is what he strives for on every production. From pre-production, right through to seeing the set for the first time, there is regular communication regarding the set and direction.
One of the first stages involves a White Card Model which is presented to the Director. The floor plan for this is made clear before the first day of rehearsals so that the company can begin rehearsals in the correct space. Additionally, Neale says, he, the set designer, sound designer, and other crew members are present in rehearsals in order to maintain this sense of harmony.

What about different theatre spaces, Surely different theatres have different sized stages?
Neale sighs in acknowledgement. He explains that every theatre space is very different and that this is something that must be thought about during the first stages of set design. One of his jobs is to have a floor plan of each theatre and ensure that the set can be adjusted to accommodate each space. Impressively, he goes on to give detailed examples and dimensions of theatre spaces off the top of his head and how the set will have to be altered. Neale draws my attention to the shoot suspended above us that appears in the second half. It has had to be suspended as high as the grid in our theatre for it to be out of view, and in some theatres, they don’t have as much height, so will have to work on ways they’ve planned to conceal it during the first half.

Already I can see the amount of thought and attention to detail that must be paid and as an aspiring actor, I feel guilty for not knowing enough about this side of a production.

I ask about the backdrop and what material it is made from. It is a canvas cloth and was sprayed by Chris Tate. We talk about its effectiveness in terms of showing night and day throughout the play.

Backstage on the cue deskHow many lighting cues are there?
“Let me show you” He takes me over to the stage management desk and I underestimate miserably the number of lighting and sound cues, telling him “I thought the sound was really minimalistic!”

 

Neale goes through the lighting desk with me but the facts and figures go straight over my head. He goes on to show me the lights they bring in with them, there are a couple of bars suspended rigged with their own lights. There are lights in the auditorium pointed towards the stage. Neale tells me of his frustration with some issues the shape of this particular theatre give him with this production. Unfortunately, he can’t move a solid brick wall.

We dodge past the actors who are now involved in a heated, warm-up game of volleyball on set (coloured arm bands are involved – it's serious).
Neale shows me the different types of microphones they have and what kind of sounds they each pickup.
Boundary mics are for ambient sounds and they have four of them on set.
“There’s a rifle mic which picks up Foley sounds”
“What is a Foley?” I replied.
Jack Foley worked on radio drama in the 1920s, working with Universal Studios, he created sounds that weren’t picked up on mic. These sound effects are now called Foley sounds. The actors in this production use coconuts to make the sounds of horses trotting.
I didn’t realise that the music in the production is live and done from the side of the stage, I didn’t get to see much of this from my seat in the stalls. Each instrument also has a mic. 

It’s here we bump into Samantha Hopkins, the Assistant Stage Manager, who is holding a couple of cans of butter beans which she’s painted to give them an aged look. Later on, she shows me how she sets these ready for the actors. She wraps them up into a haversack and ties a string in a way the actors can easily undo it. Samantha mentions that she is also an actress and picked up her skills by asking previous stage managers how they did certain things.

The side of the stage has been officially taken over by cases and bits of the set belonging to the Touring Consortium Theatre Company – there’s two truck loads worth of equipment and each get-in takes about two days. Neale says it could be done in one, but he and the crew would rather use the full amount of time they have to ensure the shows are the best they can be. Every Wednesday morning, there is an extra technical rehearsal to cover things that may or may not have worked in the new venue on the opening night.

After the tour, I thank Neale for giving me more information about the technical side of a production than I even knew existed, and I’ll definitely be paying more attention to these elements next time I’m at the theatre. 

Of Mice and Men premieres at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where it runs from 4 to 13 February 2016. It then tours to Cheltenham, Nottingham, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Blackpool, Cambridge, Brighton, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Oxford and Leicester where it concludes on 28 May.