"Pencil marks appear like sinews, forming the habits of the body."Margaux Emmanuel with permission for Varsity

Whether it be the fashioning of wigs, the careful design of fabric, or the assemblage of puppets, The Makers: Portraits from Backstage focuses on the question: what does it mean to make theatre? The exhibition, curated by Kate Bryan, showcases sketched portraits of backstage crew and technicians, drawn by the National Theatre’s first ever artist in residence, Curtis Holder. As I wander through the venue’s Lyttelton Lounge, tucked away in the South Bank, those usually roaming among the theatre’s wings are now centre stage.

“Stage crew members do not appear in their habitual black garments, shadowy presences of the backstage, but are bursting with colour”

I have always considered “making theatre” as synonymous with “performance”; as the actor pronounces their lines onstage, a world – that of theatre – is made. To “make”, however, undeniably evokes the more practical, tangible, and manual aspects of the theatrical production. Holder was first inspired when he was invited to sketch the rehearsal room of The Corn is Green (2022). In these sketches (included in The Makers), the works’ titles are centred around verbs: “Constructing a shirt”; “Hemming a skirt”; “Making eyebrows”. The anonymity, and the focus on capturing movement, precedes the whole exhibition’s deeply personal focus. In The Makers, sketches are accompanied by interviews of each individual, in which they explain how they took their first steps in their career. Together, these reveal theatre as essentially the product of collective contribution from a diverse group of people.

Through these portraits of wig stylists, puppet makers, tailors, stage door supervisors, stage technicians and makeup and hair assistants, it becomes apparent that theatre is a carefully and skilfully crafted material reality. The viewer gets to delve into the lives and crafts of the individuals drawn, such as Reuben Hart, Rufus Norris, David Olayini and Skye Nichols. In these sketches, stage crew members do not appear in their habitual black garments, shadowy presences of the backstage, but are bursting with colour. Holder’s portraits render the individuals in vibrant pencil marks and acrylic gouache brushstrokes. Pencil marks appear like sinews, forming the habits of the body. It becomes clear that movement in theatre is not confined to the stage space, the space actors solely occupy; the artist’s use of hatching, cross-hatching, and scribbling brings depth to the sketches, conferring a sense of motion.

“Passion is evident; through the depiction of motion arises clear emotion”

In the exhibition’s first sketch, David Olaniyi, a tailor, is placed in the middle of the paper, and he seems to be cutting through fabric. His gaze is facing upwards, angled straight towards the viewer. Over the central figure, a second version of him appears with his head tilted to the right. Another figure of him, to his left, is looking away. With this multi-layering technique, the portrait emulates a clear sense of the repetitive motion his job demands, and the attention and meticulous gesture that he dedicates to it. Passion is evident; through the depiction of motion arises clear emotion. Holder renders the practical motions into an aesthetic: suspending this motion, depicting it as frozen choreography. The portrait of Tilly Catrell, a wig stylist, also caught my attention. Her face, hands, and posture are poised like a ballet dancer, prepared to leap into movement. The hairs of the wig are spun around her fingers, sketched in the same tint and style as her face.


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Holder’s freehand style brings an indefinite, transparent quality to his works. As each pencil mark is visible, the individuals seem perpetually in motion. While the portraits of the stage crew showcase the practical, material reality of the theatrical craft, the indefinite brushstrokes and pencil markings appeal to the imagination. And isn’t it the exploration of the possible, the playful, the indefinite, that makes up the essence of the theatrical experience?

The Makers: Portraits from Backstage is open in the Lyttelton Lounge at the National Theatre from 27th January – 4th November 2023, from 10am –11pm. Admission is free, no booking required.