I never knew, but the Abbey Theatre do a really interesting backstage tour. What’s even better is, it’s an absolute bargain at only €8 for about an hour of theatrical history. As part of a birthday treat a friend had organised for us to go on the tour.
Although I’ve been in the Abbey plenty of times I know surprisingly little about it. The tour kicks off at 12 midday in the lobby where tea and coffee are served. You can actually get a take away cup and bring it along on the tour with you. Our guide for the day was actually an English girl who was wildly passionate and knowledgeable about the Abbey Theatre.
The Abbey Theatre was founded as Ireland’s national theatre, by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904. The original building was damaged in 1951 and the theatre relocated temporarily to The Queens Theatre on Pearse Street. This temporary relocation lasted 15 years.
The foundation stone of the new Abbey was laid by President de Valera in 1963. The new Abbey building opened in July 1966. The building was essentially a bleak looking rectangle box. The original building didn’t have the porched area in the middle. This was added at a later date to improve the appearance.
The lobby of the Abbey has a large copper framed mirror hanging pride of place. Originally the mirror was one of two which hung inside the seated area of the theatre. During the fire one was rescued by a passer by and the other is rumoured to be hanging in a former Abbey directors home. No one knows for sure. If you look on the left of the second picture below you can see the mirror hanging in the gallery of the seated area.
The tour took us behind the scenes and out onto the actual stage itself. The theatre is surprisingly big when you stand on the stage and at the same time you feel surprisingly small!
During the visit the stage itself was set up for the play The Risen People. An enormous about of research goes into ensuring the stage is historically accurate. You will see from the pictures below the attention to detail taken in recreating posters which were typical of the time.
As it’s a working theatre and there was a maintee scheduled we got to see some of the hustle and bustle of behind the scenes. Actors and stage hands coming and going and costumes being prepared. It certainly gave me a greater appreciation of what is delivered when I sit in the theatre and watch a story unfold on the stage.
The tour took us to wardrobe and makeup. Apparently they hold thousands of costumes in a separate warehouse and you can actually hire them out. For all the shoe lovers there are literally presses and presses full of every kind of shoe imaginable.
The Abbey Theatre has produced the plays of major playwrights such as J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey. They have also had more contemporary playwrights such Brian Friel and more recently the infamous Panti.
The tour also takes you through the bar area where a short presentation is given. The bar also houses numerous portraits such as that of Lady Gregory.
We also got to learn a little about the current Abbey Theatre logo. In 1904 Yeats commissioned Elinor to create a wood cut engraving using images from Irish mythology. The result was a carving with the Irish Wolfhound (symbol of Ireland), Queen Maeve and in the right hand corner the symbol of a rising sun. These elements are today shown in the Abbey Theatre logo.
The tour finishes back in the lobby where we started. It was a highly informative and interesting tour full of historical fact mixed with an inside look at all the elements which go into running a modern theatre. I would highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether you are a theatre buff or not.