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A Few Surprises in a Peek Backstage at The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Published on: 4 Jan, 2023
Updated on: 8 Jan, 2023

By Hugh Coakley

We think we know what’s going on at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, I mean, we’ve all been there over the years. But do we really?

There were a few surprises for me when I met Liza Cheal, the theatre’s head of production and technical manager, for a peek backstage (January 4).

Backstage at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre is enormous.

For a start, it’s huge. It is obvious when you think about it, moving the enormous sets around and all the technical lighting, curtains and special effects.

But still, the height and breadth of the area above and around the stage itself was unexpected.

But back to the chat with Liza. She is a key player behind the scenes, literally. “I’ve already ordered the scenery for next year’s panto, Cinderella“, said Liza. “We’ve already started to sell tickets.”

Liza Cheal with Scamper in the stage crew room at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. “He is a lovely theatre dog. Nervous actors calm down when they pet him.”

The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre mainly puts on touring shows, around 40 each year, compared to the two a year they produce themselves.

Touring shows are relatively straightforward for the theatre. Liza works to the “rider” from the tour’s promoter a couple of months in advance of the show being staged. The rider defines the sets being provided including photos, how it fits into the stage, what lighting rigs are being provided or required, sound requirements and even the number of dressing rooms needed for the tour cast.

The Lavender Hill Mob with Miles Jupp and Justin Edwards, on from January 24, is the next touring show to hit the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

The touring company arrives at 8am during the morning of the show to get the set in position and check the technicals are OK. The show can then be put on that evening.

The actors arrive at around 5pm to get used to the theatre. The set will be familiar to them but theatres can be very different. They have to be comfortable with the acoustics and the backstage layout.

It’s all very professional and slick.

Away from the glamour and glitz, the very mundane laundry room where costumes are repaired, cleaned and dried ready for the show to go on.

But the theatre wants to be more than just a home for touring companies. Liza said the theatre is planning to produce shows itself for tour. “It’s all about making the Yvonne Arnaud a wider part of the theatrical landscape across the UK,” she said.

She believes there is a market out there. “All theatres want new shows but the barrier is raising the capital to stage it.

“People are still nervous to go out. They have got out of the habit since Covid. So it’s a gamble.”

The dressing room for the dame, Peter Gordon, at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre panto is tiny but has everything a dame could wish for.

It is an expensive business. A West End production costs millions to stage. A touring show for theatres like the Yvonne Arnaud costs between £150k to £400k to get the show on the road and more, depending on the quality. The higher-end shows would have at least one star, good quality sets and technical backup.

Liza’s background in the theatre and in the wider staging of events is extensive. She attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and then worked in TV, theatre and corporate events for 12 years. She said: “I came to Yvonne Arnaud as a stage manager and that role has evolved.

“There is pressure to get the job done and there are no excuses. Every day there are 600 people who have paid for the show. If you are sick, someone still has to do the job. So we all manage to pull it together.”

She heads of a team of six stage crew and technicians but there will be freelancers when needed.

The pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, finishes its run on Sunday (January 8) and the set, hired from Imagine Theatre, will be stripped out that evening and dispatched to a huge warehouse in Coventry. Why the rush? “It saves us a week’s hire,” said Liza.

“On Sunday night, I will have about 10 freelancers as well the six in the core team.”

It is a labour-intensive business. Liza explained: “People are our biggest cost. The hours are difficult and you need to be committed to the theatre and the pay is startlingly low, starting at about £20,000 a year.”

The shows never stop.

The following Saturday, Liza’s team will be setting up the lighting and staging for a home-grown, one-night music gig called One Winter’s Night.

Hosted by local singer-songwriter and promoter Gavin Thomas, it will be the sixth year running local bands will be getting exposure on the famous Guildford stage.

It is all for charity, the profits going to the St Luke’s Cancer Centre at the Royal Surrey County Hospital and it is a sell-out.

Liza has been at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre since 1995, but she works hard to keep herself and the theatre evolving.

She said: “The theatre is happy that I still do festival stages and corporate events. I’m off to Amsterdam next month to do Cisco Live. I’ll be the keynote show caller, helping the presentation. This keeps me fresh and that’s really important in the theatre.”

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