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Behind the Scenes at the New Alexandra Theatre
Imogen Tink explores the history behind one of Birmingham's most well-renowned theatres
Old theatres are like archives. They quietly sit in the middle of cities shielding their magical contents from the busy world outside. They have been through both world wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the construction and eventual destruction of the buildings that surround them, and many other moments of the 20th and 21st century; yet they have never failed to provide us with drama, music and entertainment, without their foundations even shaking. The New Alexandra is one such theatre.
“The New Alex is a living piece of the city’s cultural history
Nestled in the centre of Birmingham, the New Alex, with its backstage maze and historic frontispiece, is a living piece of the city’s cultural history. The theatre was opened in 1901 as The Lyceum under the ownership of one William Coates; it was purchased from Coates in 1902 by Lester Collingwood, who chose the name that is so familiar today, ‘Alexandra’, in honour of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII. Under Collingwood’s ownership, The Alexandra saw the likes of Charlie Chaplin hit the boards. Sadly his success was not to last, as Collingwood was killed in a road accident in 1910. His replacement, Leon Salberg, took control of the theatre in 1912 for almost thirty years, until his son Derek took on the theatrical reigns. The Salbergs also had an eye for talent which they brought to their stage, including names such as Morecambe and Wise, Lawrence Olivier and Spike Milligan. The Salberg family owned The Alex theatre until 1977. Since then, it has been owned by various theatre groups and Birmingham City Council, until The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) took over in 2009 and added ‘New’ to the theatre’s name. Nowadays the theatre holds host to all manner of plays, musicals and dance shows, adding layer upon layer to the theatre’s performative history.
“backstage at the New Alex conveyed the true excitement of theatrical life
It is over one hundred years since the theatre opened, and this means that the New Alex has seen radical changes, many different shows, actors of great skill and actors perhaps less dramatically inclined, with all manner of people arriving through their doors, whether that be backstage or through the front. The theatre certainly has an atmosphere held only by old buildings that have experienced all manner of events and all manner of people. The Dress Circle, Grand Upper Circle and the stalls look out onto the vast stage, complete with a magnificent perennial arch commissioned in 1935 by Leon Salberg. Backstage, however, was rather refreshingly slightly less grand. Complete with winding passages and endless steps, backstage at the New Alex conveyed the true excitement of theatrical life. The underground, complete with the Crew Room, dressing rooms and orchestra pit, were deserted, creating a sense of anticipation in the hours before the players will return to perform the next show. The dressing rooms were in particular far from glamourous, full of cluttered assorted papers, grooming products and the odd wig strewn around… Equally eclectic was the backstage of the theatre, with assorted props and cables and musical instruments stacked up just out of site of the audience. To me, this symbolises the essence of theatre and of performing itself; improvising and disguising the chaos occurring in the background in order to create a performance which will bewitch and bewilder its audience.
“According to local legend, the theatre is haunted by some supernatural residue
What with a one hundred and sixteen year history, the New Alex surely holds some secrets. According to local legend, the theatre is haunted by some supernatural residue. The ghost of a woman has been spotted in the theatre’s Ambassador Lounge; the Leon Suite – the original office of the theatre’s previous owner, and the site of his death – is apparently occupied by its old inhabitant, to the extent that champagne trays seem to move at their own accord: if that doesn’t scream showbiz, I don’t know what does… and thus, my potted history of the New Alexandra Theatre comes to an end.
Follow this link to see what the New Alexandra is showing over the next few weeks: http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/new-alexandra-theatre-birmingham/