Behind the scenes at Staatstheater Mainz
Have you ever taken a behind-the-scenes tour of a theatre or opera house? Most cities offer this glimpse into the land of make believe. We did a great one at the Marionetten Theater in Vienna. They’re a good way to see some tricks as well as get under the skin of a culture, as I found out when I took a guided tour of the Staatstheater Mainz as part of my exploration of Accessible Tourism in Germany…
Big knickers and frisky tutus
Psst. Want to hear a secret? The most graceful swan in Swan Lake wears big knickers! Not thunder pants exactly, but way bigger than a thong. And so do all her followers. The pants are hanging in a neat line in wardrobe, along with matching flesh coloured socks. “They all know exactly whose pants belong to who,” my guide Eva Von Hulst assures me. That’s a relief. It would be weird if they were all wearing interchangeable knickers under their tutus.
The tutu’s are contained in a tall cage. In case they bite? No, apparently it’s the best way to store these voluminous white powder puffs. If you’re not careful they can start to take over the theatre. And these are just one type of garment in a theatrical wardrobe of 40,000 costumes, locked away in huge filing cabinets in the bowels of the theatre. Many of them are recycled and reinvented as productions come around again over the years; if the tutus ever make a break for freedom then the dresses and shirts for Die Feldermaus are literally waiting in the wings for a new starring role.
A tour for all, regardless of mobility or motivation
I’ve always wanted to take a tour of a national theatre or opera house. The trouble is we often travel in the summer, where European theatres tend to take a two month break, and even if you can get in, there’s not a lot to see. Not so today. A new musical is soon to start in Staatstheater (State Theatre) Mainz. They’re just doing the technical rehearsal. And we sit in.
As a former drama student who had dreams of the spotlight, I find it thrilling to be on the stage, watching the crew put the finishing touches to a set, and looking up at 857 beautifully lit seats. As usual in Germany; everyone is catered for. Families are welcome to take the behind the scenes tour, which is great for kids with all its strange props and intriguing facts and figures. Wheelchair users can take the behind the scenes tour, but if they prefer to see a production, there’s disabled access on every tier. Two years ago the theatre proudly staged a performance of Wagner’s Tannhauser for the blind and deaf, where the words and even the score were communicated in sign language and gesture, while headphones relayed a description of the action, with handouts outlining the plot in braille. Eva says people are still talking about it today.
I sit on a step in the centre of the stage and imagine myself in my tutu, until the Lighting Director asks me to move in case a piece of lighting falls on my head. I’ll bet that never happens to Judy Dench when she is discovering her motivation.
Getting into character at Staatstheater Mainz.
We move on, into ‘hair’ where I learn it takes 60 hours to make a wig. There are all manner of wigs here, and all manner of heads too. Eva picks up one and starts to dance with it. She shows us how the pieces are woven using nets of different textures and thickness, and explains the wigs are made from a mixture of human and animal hair. We hear that the accompanying make-up takes between 15 minutes and one and a half hours, and that the make up people are part artist and part therapist, “Some actors need to be calmed down, others want to talk, while others just want to relax.”
More Ikea than Aida?
I brush past a New York fire hydrant lurking in the semi darkness next to a Victorian bath filled with antique chairs. It’s all feeling vaguely surreal…and then we descend to the centre of the earth for a visit to the set department. This is like being in Ikea before it opens; a giant, spookily quiet warehouse filled with wooden panels, doors, lights and all the other detritus of modern living. “This is the Eiffel Tower,” says Eva pointing towards a tall grey lattice. And indeed it is. Well, a miniature version of it anyway. A clarinet player and a prompter walk past. They aren’t impressed by the Eiffel tower. Perhaps they are French.
Anyway, if you don’t want to know how stage hands manage to turn a palace interior into a dark wood in seconds, then look away now…
For those still with me I can tell you they pop the whole thing in the lift. The biggest theatre lift in Germany. Next to this set is yet another cage of tutus. They get everywhere those tutus. This theatre has obviously worked hard to ensure access for all. I wonder if there are tutus for all? You know, even for a girl like me?
This post is part of a short season of posts about accessible travel and tourism in Germany. Follow the link to find other posts on this theme. You might also like this on accessible art and history at the Landesmuseum Mainz and our Talking Point on Accessible Tourism. There’s lots more information on accessible travel in Germany available from the German National Tourist Board website.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to the German National Tourist Office and the Staatstheater Mainz for their support in helping us to bring you this story.