WATCH: See behind the scenes at the Victoria Theatre to find out how the Halifax venue's manual fly system works

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“A robot can’t produce emotion, whereas a person can.”

This is what Keilidh Whyte, stage manager at the Victoria Theatre, says as she explains how the Halifax venue’s design and layout presents unique quirks for the production team to deal with when presenting shows.

Opened initially as the Victoria Hall in 1901, the Victoria Theatre has evolved several times in its 123-year existence.

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Originally a concert hall, it had a stint as a picture house between 1904 and 1953 before being refurbished as a theatre in 1960.

Halifax's Victoria Theatre initially opened as the Victoria Hall in 1901Halifax's Victoria Theatre initially opened as the Victoria Hall in 1901
Halifax's Victoria Theatre initially opened as the Victoria Hall in 1901

The theatre’s beginnings as a concert hall afford it several quirks.

The proscenium arch, added during the refurbishment in the 1960s, is wider than most theatres.

The stage itself, however, has less depth and wing space than most. This can affect performances such as dance shows, making the process of spacing in rehearsals all the more important.

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It also limits the number of lines the venue can fly to 33 pieces of scenery per show, compared with the some 60 possible at other venues such as the Palace Theatre in Manchester.

The followspots at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax. These manually operated lights project the classic spotlight down onto the stage and are operated manually throughout a performance. A red laser beam on the right-hand side of the followspot guides the operator in placing the spotlight accurately in the darknessThe followspots at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax. These manually operated lights project the classic spotlight down onto the stage and are operated manually throughout a performance. A red laser beam on the right-hand side of the followspot guides the operator in placing the spotlight accurately in the darkness
The followspots at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax. These manually operated lights project the classic spotlight down onto the stage and are operated manually throughout a performance. A red laser beam on the right-hand side of the followspot guides the operator in placing the spotlight accurately in the darkness

One of the most fascinating features is the manual fly floor. It is a system of weights and ropes present above the stage in most theatres that allows for the raising and lowering of backdrops.

But while the automated fly systems now used across some thespian venues vastly reduce the physical demand required, Keilidh makes a strong case for the benefits of the old manual system.

The manual fly system is operated by a flyperson. Weights, 7.5kg each, are loaded into cradles which counteract the weight of the corresponding backdrops.

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A single cradle can take up to 60 weights, and so it quickly becomes apparent how physically demanding a flyperson’s working day might be.

Behind the scenes at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax. The theatre's manual fly floor is located on a platform above the stage. The system of weights, ropes and pulleys is operated by a flyperson to raise and lower backdrops during performancesBehind the scenes at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax. The theatre's manual fly floor is located on a platform above the stage. The system of weights, ropes and pulleys is operated by a flyperson to raise and lower backdrops during performances
Behind the scenes at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax. The theatre's manual fly floor is located on a platform above the stage. The system of weights, ropes and pulleys is operated by a flyperson to raise and lower backdrops during performances

The ropes are then pulled by the flyperson to raise or lower the scenery at the appropriate point in the performance, often in time with music, which naturally can be subtly different in each performance.

Keilidh said synchronising the movement and music is not necessarily something that can be replicated by a machine - that is, an automated fly system - and that the human element, coupled with the full speed control that this enables, is what can add a little magic or finesse to the performance.

She said: “A robot can’t produce emotion, whereas a person can.

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“It’s the same with flying; it might sound really cheesy, but a person [operating the fly system] at the same speed as the music is playing really makes a subtle difference.

Backdrops for the Guys 'n' Dolls production suspended above the stage, looking down from the fly floor. Each piece of scenery is attached to a bar and is moved via the manual system of ropes and pulleysBackdrops for the Guys 'n' Dolls production suspended above the stage, looking down from the fly floor. Each piece of scenery is attached to a bar and is moved via the manual system of ropes and pulleys
Backdrops for the Guys 'n' Dolls production suspended above the stage, looking down from the fly floor. Each piece of scenery is attached to a bar and is moved via the manual system of ropes and pulleys

“You can’t teach that, but it makes such a difference when you can see it live.”

For the Guys ‘n’ Dolls production which took place earlier this month, more than 150 lights were used, which were requested to be halogen bulbs to match the 1920s and 30s period of the show.

The Victoria Theatre is working towards a switchover from halogen to LED bulbs. While the LED bulbs “do more” and cost less, the trade-off involves losing the distinctive traditional glow of the halogen bulb which evokes a nostalgia beloved by theatre-goers.

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Keilidh said the eventual phasing out of halogen lighting “will be a sad day for theatre, but it’s good for the environment. They’re working really hard to recreate halogens, but they’re not just quite there yet.”

And yet, by the same token, Keilidh suggested the sentimentality audiences feel for the halogen glow will eventually fade away.

“A hundred years ago they used limelight, it had a really nice colour to it, but we don’t have limelight anymore, and people have forgotten about it,” she said.

Victoria Theatre's manual fly floor, which is above stage left, allows the flyperson to move backdrops on and off the stage. Weights are loaded into cradles behind the ropes which counteract the weight of the scenery. Each set of ropes correlates to one piece of scenery. The flyperson releases the respective brake which allows the rope to be movedVictoria Theatre's manual fly floor, which is above stage left, allows the flyperson to move backdrops on and off the stage. Weights are loaded into cradles behind the ropes which counteract the weight of the scenery. Each set of ropes correlates to one piece of scenery. The flyperson releases the respective brake which allows the rope to be moved
Victoria Theatre's manual fly floor, which is above stage left, allows the flyperson to move backdrops on and off the stage. Weights are loaded into cradles behind the ropes which counteract the weight of the scenery. Each set of ropes correlates to one piece of scenery. The flyperson releases the respective brake which allows the rope to be moved

At the back of the auditorium, watching over each performance, are two followspots – the signature spotlights emblematic of any live theatre performance.

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They must be operated manually throughout a performance by a followspot operator, who is directed by a cue sheet and communications through an earpiece from the deputy stage manager (DSM) throughout the performance to determine which performers to track, which colour light to use, the light’s sharpness, and the size of the light – they may need to hone in on just one performer or perhaps do a sweep of a line of performers during a bow, for example.

The DSM is responsible for calling the show; they have a script with all the cues on, and use a headset to communicate with the people responsible for flying, lighting and sound to ensure the performance runs smoothly, telling them when to act. The DSM would also stop the show if there were any problems.

Martyn Green, theatre technician at the Victoria, explained the importance of the DSM in “cuing” the show: “[Having that person means] it’s more controlled, you remove the chance of human error.”

Martyn said the followspot operator’s job can be demanding, for example during shows with stand-up comedians, as their performances require the operator to constantly follow them around the stage throughout.

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Another difficulty which can arise for the followspot operator is when a spotlight needs to find its target starting from darkness. To help with this, the light is equipped with a red laser beam which is emitted onto the stage and can be moved around to locate a certain point. This can act as a guide for the operator before turning on the spotlight and which largely goes unnoticed by the audience.

Martyn said before most performances a recalibration is carried out on the laser beam to ensure its positioning gives the operator an accurate guide for where the light will be projected.

A “profile” is used for the classic spotlight. It features a zoom lens which allows the spotlight to be made bigger, smaller, sharp or soft.

Many different types of light are used depending on what is required for individual shows, such as a Fresnel light – pronounced "fruh-nel” – which has a lens with concentric circles and which was originally invented for lighthouses.

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Keilidh said the team which works behind the scenes to deliver the lighting, sound and staging can face long hours, particularly for the bigger shows, possibly working from 5am until 1am the next day to set up, carry out checks, run the show and pack everything away.

Keilidh said: “If you watch a show and go ‘wow’, that’s what makes it worth it for us.

“That applause isn’t just for the actors, that applause is for the show, and we get that too.”

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