Most of us take up our position in the audience and settle in for the show. We are not the performers. We have little idea what goes on behind the scenes. We press our faces to the glass but don’t go in. We pass buildings and wonder what goes on inside but never venture a peek.
Along with well-trodden paths and familiar acquaintances, there are these types of places and institutions we are complacently confident that we know everything about. We don’t really see them. It is as if the vision blurs close up and it is only if we approach them with the eyes of the first time traveller or homecoming that we are able to see what familiarity can obscure.
That’s what to me made it even more fascinating to pull the curtains back and venture behind the scenes
My first was the most familiar of architectural icons in Sydney, the Opera House. I’d been fortunate already to have been on one of the excellent tours run by Sydney Architecture Walks (the Utzon one). It changed forever the way I looked at the Opera House. Together with tales of political intrigue and shameful dealing, the guide explained the way Architect Utzon took the influence of ancient Aztec and Greek designs and combined it with an acute appreciation for the natural environment of the harbour and in so doing, followed the form of the sandstone peninsula and staggered it under a canopy of clouds.
This backstage tour was intimate, and revealing, like taking the face off a clock and seeing the workings ticking away. Deep underneath the stages, equipment, bits of sets and props, storage for costumes, narrow spaces to negotiate and bottles of fake blood. There was even a wall covered in the lip prints of performers as they puckered up for luck on the journey toward that opening curtain. We saw the green room, doors dedicated to the famous and the view from the stage with all its complicated machinations (both human and mechanical). We were able to have a go at wielding the conductors baton and see the rooms where dancers practiced their routines.
At first blush it would seem that a tour of a Library couldn’t have offered a more contrasting glimpse beneath the surface than that of a performance venue. Even at rest every nook and cranny of the Opera House bristled with the expectation of intense activity. Surely, the library was just large gracious spaces, grand thought, and stillness?
I joined my free tour of the Mitchell Library in Sydney on a warm December day and along with the other, mostly overseas visitors, trotted along behind the knowledgeable volunteer guide around the Macquarie street side to reach the main entrance. On the way we lingered for a bit at the statue of Matthew Flinders and his cat Trim.
Inside, the wonderful map on the floor with all its intricate, colourful images of ships and creatures, the overhead sculptures and the inscription paying homage to books. From our vantage point we could peer down at the vast interior of books and people bent over reading them. There were attractive stained glass panels in the Shakespeare room and a Reading room lined with copies of Don Quixote. Linking the old and new parts of the library the treasures room containing the pocket globe, Dorothea McKellar’s poem, Norman Lindsay’s drawings and a scene of bushfire in the Blue Mountains.
I came away from the tour reminded that for all it’s apparently peaceful demeanour, for me, the library is one of the most subversive and exciting places to visit, containing as it does knowledge and ideas that enrich and disturb, stories that fire the imagination and obscure histories yet to be revealed.
Between my tours of the Opera House and Mitchell Library I took a rare chance to be shown beyond the general public area of the Conservatorium of Music. Hearing the strains of music being practiced I thought of all the students following their particular passion for it. I’m glad they do.
My remaining peek behind the scenes was a tour of the studios of the public broadcaster, the ABC. It was probably the one I had most anticipated because I just have such a love of radio and most particularly all the extraordinary programs I’ve listened to over the years and how much they have brought into my life.
Most of the rest of the group were enjoying an outing through one of the wonderful community based trip for seniors, this one run through the local council at Parramatta. We were an enthusiastic bunch to match another equally enthusiastic volunteer guide. Allowed in through the secured entry, we passed excitedly into the ‘inner sanctum’. There we marvelled at the massive studios, shared our favourite productions, waved at friendly Helen Zerimus reading the news in a rather snug fitting booth and James Valentine getting ready for his afternoon show. Some of the group sat at the evening TV news desk imagining a career reading the nightly bulletin. We saw the backdrops for presenting the weather, the make up room complete with gory creations and watched a bit of the taping of a children’s show. I loved it. It did nothing but increase my admiration for the quality and variety of the work done there and the dedication and talent it takes to bring it to me.