Backstage in a theatre, half an hour before curtain up, is a pretty intense place to be.
It is the time when actors are steadying their nerves, checking their costume and make-up and generally preparing to make that psychological leap from the person they are to the character they are portraying.
It is the drama of those 30 minutes or so, prior to the lights coming up on stage and the first lines being spoken, that renowned theatre photographer Simon Annand has been fascinated by for the past three decades.
Over the 35 years of his acclaimed career, Annand has photographed some of the most recognisable stage actors in the country, and across several generations, including Dame Judi Dench, Daniel Craig, David Tennant, Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dame Maggie Smith, Jude Law and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and images of them, alongside many others, appear in a new exhibition entitled The Half which opened recently at the Lawrence Batley Theatre launching the Huddersfield venue’s new gallery space.
Annand began the project around 10 years ago and the show has been touring from time to time since 2009 – a book was also published in 2010 – but the exhibition in Huddersfield is the most extensive to date, showcasing 74 images, most of which will be on display for the first time.
“Around 70 per cent of the work has never been seen before,” he says. “It is a long-term, ongoing project and I have taken a lot of pictures since the last time the exhibition was shown. I had the idea of revisiting some of the actors I had photographed before so that you get the sense of the journey they have been on. I have seen young actors coming through and then watched them over the years seeing how their careers have progressed and changed.”
Annand is hugely respected as a photographer in the theatre world for his ability to take striking production shots, capturing diverse moments on stage and it is undoubtedly his reputation for creating those honest and sensitively thought-through images that has helped him to gain unprecedented access behind the scenes. It is a question of trust. “I suppose I am fortunate these days that I am quite well known,” he says modestly. “And the actors know that I am on their side. It’s all done with consent. I feel that the actors are the front line of a production – they have to give themselves to another audience every time, there’s no escape and there’s no bluff. All that tension is compressed into that half hour before they go onstage, and that is dramatic.”
Theatre dressing rooms are not particularly glamorous places. Even in some of our grandest playhouses, the backstage areas are pretty functional and can be fairly basic. This is another hugely engaging feature of the photographs – there is an attractive informality about them both in the setting and in the composition. Nobody is posing here – each individual is captured in their own world, in a kind of transitional state, with their own thoughts. “Not a great deal happens in that half an hour before an actor goes on stage, but what’s fascinating is that they go into the theatre as themselves and then they transform into someone else.
“What I’m interested in as a photographer is what’s going on in their heads at that point of transformation; that process is what I am drawn to. They have spent the day as themselves, coping with whatever else is going on in their lives and then they take on a fictional character and go on stage as someone else.”
The photographs are a mix of black and white and colour. More recently Annand has been using colour, whereas earlier photographs are in black and white. Four monochrome pictures stand out, including Anthony Hopkins backstage when he was playing in Pravda at the National Theatre in 1986, looking away from the camera, hand at his head, focusing intently; an unfeasibly young Colin Firth applying stage make-up while preparing to go on in the 1985 Old Vic production of The Lonely Road; and David Tennant in full period costume and wig – shortly before going on in Restoration comedy The Rivals at the Barbican in 2000 – looking serene and slightly amused sitting on the dressing room floor, leaning against a door. Of the colour pictures, there are striking close-up portraits of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, curling pins in her hair, looking out of frame as she prepares to go on stage in Rope at the Almeida in 2009; Gillian Anderson, glancing back at the camera over her shoulder; a lovely shot of Judi Dench sitting on a sofa backstage at the Noel Coward Theatre in 2013 gazing off pensively into the distance before appearing in John Logan’s Peter and Alice; and an interesting portrait of Sheila Atim, who appeared in Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic last year, standing in her dressing room, seemingly watched by her own reflection in the mirror.
Out of all of the pictures, however, the one that leaves a lasting impression is a black and white portrait of Cate Blanchett preparing to appear in David Hare’s Plenty at the Albery in 1999, cradling her right elbow in the crook of her left arm, staring down and past an almost-smoked cigarette in her hand.
“I don’t really take a photograph unless I have an idea or a story I want to tell,” says Annand. “I don’t like the word snapshot because it implies that there is some kind of brevity about it. With The Half you are entering into a room where the rhythm and atmosphere is different. And you have to respect the room as the actor’s space. In some sessions not much gets said and that’s fine, I wouldn’t want to impose. That period of preparation, there are a number of different ways that actors do it and I don’t want to go in with an idea and impose it on them. Mine is a Magnum aesthetic, an old-fashioned humanist approach.”
It is an approach that gets memorable results, capturing unguarded moments that never feel intrusive. The images are intimate yet respectful, closely observed yet at the same time there is a definite sense of the subject of the portrait being very much in charge of their own space. The viewer feels privileged to have been able to get a glimpse into a very specific time and place and gain real insight into the actor’s process. “I am emphatically not trying to be a fly on the wall with these pictures,” says Annand. “We are not pretending that there isn’t someone else in the room. It has become more and more interesting as I have become more experienced – it is a view of this situation through my eyes.”
And Annand intends to keep adding to his experience. “This is a project that just keeps on giving, partly because of my own interest in and fascination with theatre,” he says. “But also because I think the value of theatre is increasing, in the sense that live performance is an important antidote to the digital world. When you get a great performance on stage it’s unforgettable; the relationship between the performer and the audience, that connection is very powerful.”
The Half is on at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, until February 29, 2020. Free entry. Open Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm (and before shows). A new book is scheduled for publication in 2020.