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Blog: Why I love shooting backstage

Posted by Matt Humphrey on 4 Sep, 2018

Curtain Call founder and photographer Matt Humphrey talks about his experience of shooting backstage and our recent NT Live partnership

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We recently covered our first show for NT Live (Julie), and it took me right back to why and how I got in to backstage photography. It is such a honour to be invited backstage on any production, and this was no exception.

When I started working in theatre at The Old Vic over 10 years ago I became absolutely fascinated by the process of how a production comes together. Having never had an active passion for theatre or spent any time in the backstage area prior to my job on the stage crew, I was immediately drawn in to this world, and began documenting it through my lens (in between cues of course, which obviously took priority).

I’ve been lucky enough to be in a unique position to document the backstage world of hundreds of productions now, and it still gives me a buzz. 

The backstage area is a hallowed space, filled with intrigue to the uninitiated yet quite the norm to those working on the show itself. The routines, cues, procedures and preparation start hours before the curtain goes up, and are as sacred as the lines in the script, lighting plots, or movement onstage. People regularly refer to the choreography of backstage, and how precise the timings and process of being offstage contribute to the success of what’s going on onstage.

'As much as I can anticipate something happening, there are always shots that are total gifts'

 What I love are the moments that occur just before, just after and in between appearances on stage. These become as routine as the scenes of the play, and help to tell the real story of life behind the scenes and of the production itself. These scenes are not lit or designed or directed or choreographed, yet for me they represent a natural osmosis of all those creative elements – these moments would not happen anywhere else, and embody the style, mood and vibe of a production.

It is a huge privilege to be invited backstage, and it is important to respect and recognise that people are at work and to know my place as an observer, rather than an active participant. This is key. The company will have been rehearsing and practising the show for several weeks before we go for our experience behind the scenes. Stepping in to this for one show means I have to be on the ball, react quickly, and try and capture all I can from the best, and most unobtrusive, angle.

This announced observational presence allows the cast, crew and company to be aware of the fact that I am there, without getting in the way, and allows everybody to get on with what they usually do. The more relaxed and informed everyone is, the better, as then I just need to make sure I’ve planned well or am lucky enough to be in the right position to capture those unforced, unguarded moments of life as it is backstage. And luck certainly does come in to it – as much as I can anticipate something happening, there are always shots that are total gifts. I love that rush when you know you’ve just caught one.

In Matt's next blog, he will be looking at the process of preparing for a shoot, and working with available light sources.

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Topics: Blog, photography, backstage


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