London has one of the most vibrant theater scenes in the world, with leading playwrights, directors and stars creating thrilling work in any genre you care to name. But what makes it all the more exciting are the opportunities for you to get closer to the action, whether through backstage tours or insightful talks. Here we round up the best secrets of the bunch, as well as offer our top tips on underrated theaters to check out and how to score hard-to-get tickets to the hottest shows.
Get to know one of the capital’s grandest theaters during an intimate 90-minute tour of the London Coliseum. Built by great Edwardian theater impresario Oswald Stoll and architect Frank Matcham in 1904, this beautiful building was designed for a variety of performances but is now home to the English National Opera and English National Ballet. Rehearsal and storage space at the theater is limited, so you’re likely to hear singers preparing for that evening’s performance and see sets moving to and fro onstage while you’re walking about the halls.
You can learn the secrets of London’s other major home to ballet and opera, too. The Royal Opera House runs two regular tours, the 45-minute Velvet, Gilt and Glamour tour, which focuses on the architecture of the 1858 auditorium, and the 75-minute backstage tour, which tells the history of the theater and looks at aspects of current productions. You might even get to see a ballet class in progress.
Get to know a more modern but no-less-esteemed institution on a tour of the National Theatre. The imposing concrete building on the South Bank holds three venues and is currently undergoing a $130-million redevelopment project, making this a really exciting time to stop by. Backstage visits last 75 minutes, while costume tours, where you see the wardrobe and wig teams at work, take two hours to complete.
While you’re at National Theatre, grab a seat for Platforms, the long-established program of talks featuring some of the biggest stars of UK theater, from famed playwright Tom Stoppard (February 6) to Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes (May 15). Events are scheduled to allow you to catch an evening show or matinee in the Olivier, Lyttelton or Dorfman theaters (all on the NT campus) directly afterward. For those looking for an even more in-depth experience, the recently opened Clore Learning Centre at the NT runs a wide range of workshops on everything from playwriting to puppet-making.
Shakespeare’s Globe hosts regular post-show Q&A sessions with actors and other members of the creative team. There’s at least one meet-the-cast event for each show in the Globe’s summer season, while the plays staged at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in the wintertime are accompanied by pre-show “Setting The Scene” lectures, which provide an introduction to the drama and are presented by leading scholars.
It’s best to plan your London theater outing in advance when possible, but don’t despair if you’ve left things to the last minute: you can get hold of great tickets on the day of the performance to most London theaters, even for sold-out shows.
Your first port of call should be the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. The outlet is run by a non-for-profit company on behalf of London’s theaters, so you can breathe easy knowing your last-minute tickets are the real thing. They offer some great deals on West End shows.
Several theaters operate their own schemes to ensure that late bookers don’t miss out. Donmar Warehouse, for example, holds back all its front-row tickets and releases them online at 10 a.m. every Monday for the next two weeks of performances. As is common practice throughout the West End, additional seats are also made available at the venue on the day of each show.
You can also get same-day seats and standing tickets for shows in the Olivier and Lyttelton theaters at the NT. They’re released every day at 9:30 a.m. (noon on Sundays). Returned tickets for otherwise sold-out shows often come available on the day of the performance, too — check the website or get in line 90 minutes before the start of the performance.
Another theater that regularly sells out is the Royal Court. But never fear, half of all the tickets to Monday performances are released at 9 a.m. online (or 10 a.m. in person) on the day of the production.
Why not take a chance on one of the smaller outlets in London’s off-West End scene? Venues like Bush, Southwark Playhouse, Battersea Arts Centre and Arcola Theatre serve as important incubators for the talent that goes on to draw huge crowds and win major awards in the West End. Check out new writing at Bush, Southwark Playhouse for new musicals, Battersea Arts Centre for experimental theater and the Arcola for small-scale productions of classic drama.