Tuesday, May 7, 2013

More Theater Lore

London's oldest active theater site, Theater Royal Drury Lane, opened in 1663 in the early years of the English Reformation. Four theaters have occupied this site over the years. 

The first theater burned down in 1672. It was rebuilt by Christopher Wren and reopened on March 26, 1674. One-hundred and seventeen years later, Irish playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had the building demolished and opened a larger theater in 1794. That building burned down only fifteen years later in 1809. The current building was rebuilt and reopened in 1812. Presently, it is owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Theater Royal Drury Lane was really the first modern proscenium arch theater which provided a visual frame for the audience with permanent wings to the left and right of the stage to hide and shift scenery on and off the stage.

Learning about theater lore from a backstage tour is a fascinating excursion into the past. On the Royal Drury Lane Theatre tour at Covent Garden in London, the tour includes guides who dress in period costumes as they trade off their docent duties for quick costume changes. 

At one moment, a Victorian cleaning woman comes singing "I could have danced all night" down a staircase with a feather duster, then an eighteenth-century, English nobleman in costume suddenly appears and continues the tour. Next, a woman from the gaslight period comes out in a red dress and tells about how the theater was in her day. The tour is quite entertaining.

***

Learning the origins of words from these tours is an article of faith, but because it is lore, I have a willing suspension of disbelief. For instance, I learned that the term "crew" as applied to the backstage crew derives from a little known fact.

In the early nineteenth-century, the new theater owners rebuilt and redesigned the theater once again. They hired out of work sailors who were between sea tours to work backstage; they became known as "the crew." These sailors devised the system of pulleys and battens which raise and lower scenery from the loft above. This innovation created new staging opportunities for playwrights and directors.

***

On the Shakespeare's Globe Theater tour, I learned the origin of the term "box office." 

At the various entrances to the original Medieval theaters in the sixteenth-century, patrons would place their pennies in a ceramic box as they entered the theater. These boxes were collected at the box office. The theater owners would "break the bank" there for security reasons.

Today, box offices are where patrons purchase tickets for events, but the term has an additional context also. It has come to be associated with the amount of money a movie or play takes in.

"Good box office" means the production is making money; "box office poison" means the producers are losing money. Weekly and yearly figures are important to the entertainment industry and are reported widely around the world.