Housed inside a stunning Grade II listed building, the 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.
Rather resembling a lunar spacecraft, the theatre module itself (which weighs 150 tonnes) is suspended from four huge columns. The main theatre seats up to 750 people on three levels, with no seat further than nine metres away from the stage to give an intimate audience experience.
It’s a space that can prove uniquely challenging for actors, directors and technical staff, as I discovered on a backstage, behind-the-scenes tour ahead of their big Christmas musical, The Producers.
This wickedly funny, outrageous love letter to the Broadway musical builds upon the Exchange’s growing reputation for reinventing celebrated musicals for its unique theatre.
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.
A team of costume makers is busy at work, having just five weeks to make every outfit for the production – in this case, around 180 different bespoke costumes.
“Not many people get to see this bit, but everything you see at the Royal Exchange comes through this room,” says designer Ben Stones.
“Costume here is like HDTV, because there’s nothing to hide behind.”
Ben trained at Barnsley College before being offered a place at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and went on to receive a Linbury Prize commission to design Paradise Lost for theatre director Rupert Goold. His designs now span theatre, ballet, comedy, fashion and hip hop.
“About 10 years ago I came to the Royal Exchange to do A Taste of Honey with Sally Lindsay. That’s how I started here,” he says.
“I’ve never said no to anything I’ve been offered here. I just love it. The space is amazing, but so are the staff who make everything by hand. It’s a rare thing.”
Ben has found it challenging to translate The Producers, which has always been seen in a traditional proscenium arch theatre, into the round for the first time, where there is nowhere to hide and actors and props can be seen from every angle.
“It’s been so much fun, but if I’m honest it’s been really hard, too. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” he says.
“It’s never been done in-the-round before. The estate can be quite picky about how it’s done, but they’ve been very supportive. It’s a very bespoke thing they create here at the Royal Exchange. It only exists in Manchester, in this place. It’s not a threat to anything in the West End, or any other production.”
Rehearsals take place in a designated rehearsal room for the first few weeks. It’s big enough so that the stage management team can mark it all out so that it’s an exact replica of the stage, with numbered entrances and exits.
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 hard getting the acoustics right for a big musical number as well, says Ben.
“There are specially angled sound speakers so that when you’re sat on the banquettes it feels like a person in front of you is singing to you. But in reality it’s going into a mike, and then coming back technically balanced.”
Ben started work on this production earlier in the year, and says he was keen to “drag it into the modern world.”
Featuring show-stopping songs such as Springtime for Hitler and When You Got It Flaunt It, the show tells the story of theatre producer Max Bialystock, who has a string of failures in his wake.
But his downtrodden accountant Leo Bloom thinks that could be a good thing, and a producer could make more money with a dud than a hit. They set out to find the worst script, the worst director and the worst actors in the industry, produce the biggest flop in Broadway history, and make a heap of cash in the process.
How have the team reacted to being surrounded by Nazi costumes and symbols over the past weeks?
“”You almost forget it’s so shocking, because of the way Mel Brooks has written it,” he says. “It’s shocking but in a really funny way. There’s no way you could take offence. And whenever we do the shocking Nazi visuals, we subvert it quickly.
“It’s offensive to everyone. They really go for it.”
Ben has also updated the production for a modern audience.
“With what we’ve done with it, it stands up really well,” he says. “We were very clear about how women would be portrayed. And a lot of the references were dated when it comes to gay people. We didn’t want to give anyone who might be homophobic the opportunity to laugh at a camp man. We’re post-Drag Race now.
“To make Village People jokes now just wouldn’t land. We’ve updated some of the jokes. It makes it joyous. We also end our production with a giant Pride flag. It has been pulled up to date with a lot of careful thought.”
Ben currently lives in London, but loves returning to Manchester.
“I see Manchester get more cultural every time I come,” he says. “I absolutely adore the Northern Quarter and that’s where I hang out, I sit in my favourite bar Common.
“I just love this city.”
The Producers runs from 30th November 2018 – 26th January 2019 at The Royal Exchange.