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Vicki Mortimer introduces her Sherling High-Level Walkway exhibition

The newly-opened Sherling High-Level Walkway offers a unique, free view into the backstage world with an exhibition designed by Vicki Mortimer, whose many NT productions include Waves, The Cat in the Hat, The Last of the Haussmans and Othello. Here she describes her approach to designing the exhibition, which explains what visitors can see in the workshops beneath them.

Each time I work at the National, I am amazed anew at the breadth and refinement of the skills in the the production departments. The building is quite extraordinarily rich in its craftspeople, and not only their making skills, but also their collaborative contribution in taking the designs from proposal to reality. The information on the walkway seemed a genuine chance to evangelise about these people and their crucial place in the scheme of theatre-making.

The exhibition is essentially a reverse view of a production’s timeline from opening night to first concept: as if unpeeling the sequence which builds a show to performance, stretching right back to the moment a piece is first discussed, months before a model is made, let alone a piece of scenery or a costume… before an actor is cast, or a rehearsal room made ready.

The Walkway begins overlooking Drum Road – the main backstage arterial thoroughfare which links the theatres with the rehearsal rooms and production workshops, and continues past the workshops for prop-making and set-building, and into a gallery overlooking the vast scenic painting studio.

Drum Road is a bustling enigma, with sections of scenery, skips, raw materials and furnishings either stored or on the move. To suggest the full scope of the building and encourage the visitor’s eye to look into the deepest reaches of the view, we developed signage which I called “deep labelling”. Then, in conversation with architect Steve Tompkins, we decided to rub some of it away, in recognition of the patina of use elsewhere: the wear and tear of the energy of the building.

Crucially, the exhibition must reflect what the visitor is actually seeing in the workshops. Hence we’ve included blackboards and sample boards which are continually updated with information, connecting what’s behind and on stage each day. I hope that visitors will see the thrilling industry and momentum of what is achieved at the NT, even if they visit at a time when the spaces are largely uninhabited (for example just before an evening performance).

It is such a rare thing for a theatre to have all its making departments on site, especially in the centre of London; the National is uniquely fortunate in that respect and it’s great that these once-hidden areas are being opened up. For example, I didn’t come from a theatre-going family and arrived at my career as a theatre designer circuitously, via an English literature route. Had I come on a school visit to the Walkway, I would have been so intrigued to discover this great army of people and the sheer physical, creative effort that goes into making theatre. Apart from the enjoyment of this discovery, I hope a visit to the walkway and its exhibition might provide a first step for people towards investigating skills and careers they might never have thought of before.

The Sherling High-Level Walkway is open daily from 9.30am to 7.30pm and runs from the Dorfman Theatre foyer (Gallery level) and is free to visit. The Walkway has been developed with the generous support of Clive & Sally Sherling and is part of the NT Future project, which is opening up the National Theatre building and allowing audiences and visitors closer engagement with the theatre, both on stage and behind the scenes. Vicki Mortimer’s exhibition is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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