Sunday sit-down with… Sophie Teasdale, Photographer
Hot on the heels of the launch of her new book of theatre photography, we caught up with local photographer, videographer and media company founder Sophie to find out what life is really like backstage…
We love the theatre.
Be it big West End musicals on tour in the North East or small indie shows exploring the meaning of life in our neck of the woods, local pantos or international smash-hit productions, we find theatre brings a little drop of magic into our lives.
It’s a chance for adventure, isn’t it? To live another life. To not only escape normality for an hour or two, but to also re-examine our sense of normality by seeing things from a different angle.
Which, funnily enough, is just what South Shields based photographer and videographer Sophie Teasdale loves about the theatre, too. Except her fascination is more about who and what lives behind the curtain than any of the onstage action.
The half-done makeup and costume checks, the last-minute run-throughs of lines with crumpled scripts, the actors enjoying some downtime before their star turns – Sophie has spent the best part of a decade in the dressing rooms of theatres all over the North East with her Canon 5D Mark IV in hand to capture the halfway house that is the world of backstage theatre for her new book, Dressing Room No.1. And she’s even bumped into a few famous faces along the way…
From laughing and lounging with Alan Cumming to capturing Vicky Entwistle applying her lippy and catching Notting Hill legend Tim McInnerny mid-shave, Sophie’s seen – and snapped – it all. Which is why we caught up with her to find out if life backstage is really as glamorous as we’d like to imagine…
Why was backstage theatre an area you wanted to capture on film?
Because it’s not really seen by a lot of people. Everyone can see what goes on onstage, but people are interested in stuff they don’t normally get to glimpse. I definitely was, because I’ve always been into theatre. Not as a performer! But I always loved going to see live performances. When I was doing my A Levels, I discovered a photographer called Eve Arnold. She did a series of backstage images of Joan Crawford and they were like nothing I’d ever seen before. She inspired me to start my own backstage theatre photography project here in the North East.
You were studying for your A Levels when you began the Dressing Room No. 1 project – a project which has taken you a decade. What have you learned about life behind the curtain in that time?
I guess that performing is still just a job for some people. It’s still so special to me, but I’m also now a Theatre Technician and Stage Manager, so I’ve got used to the backstage environment now, too. Actors are just like everyone else and backstage theatre is always just super-chill. You can always just chat to performers as though you’re getting ready for a night out with your friends. When I first started the project, I was so nervous about going backstage – I kept thinking: what if they’re divas?! But (mostly) they’ve been so nice and normal!
So your subjects have been pretty receptive to you taking their photos then? Have you met any resistance?
Most of them have been really accommodating and have welcomed me into their dressing rooms. There was one occasion where there was a bit of a communication problem; I’d asked the Stage Manager if I could come along and take some rehearsal shots of a company, and when I got there no-one knew I was coming. I started taking photos thinking that they’d all been informed and then they turned round and said: ‘what are you doing here?’ It was really tense! But we figured it out in the end. On the whole, though, everyone has been really receptive.
How ‘candid’ are your photographs?
Most of the time, they’re completely natural. I always ask people to just pretend I’m not there! Or we’ll be having a conversation and, as I’m talking to them, I’ll also be snapping away. Occasionally, I’ll say: oh, that might look good if you do that in the mirror, or whatever. But the majority of the time it’s totally candid. You really get to see them as they are in real life. I never want my photos to be too posed.
Some of your photographs are in colour and others are in black and white – is there any significance to that?
It just depends on how vibrant the room is, or the performer’s costume or makeup are. I really like colour in photos, but a lot of dressing rooms are really drab – there’s a lot of magnolia backstage! So the photos look better in black and white. But in a more colourful room or with colourful costumes, it’s nice to bring out those colours and make the images pop.
For you, what makes a ‘perfect’ image?
Anything that looks really raw. Where you can see they’re not posed; something very natural where you can see emotion. Also, a good colour palette. My favourite photo that I’ve taken so far is of Vicky Entwhistle, where she’s putting on her red lipstick in the mirror. It’s really vibrant. For me, it’s all about colour, emotions and naturalistic vibes.
You’re a Theatre Technician and Stage Manager, too. How does your work as a photographer play into your work at the theatre?
It’s definitely easier to take photos of performers when I’m already working with them. Through my stage management work, I build up relationships with them anyway, so I can always ask if they want to be involved in my photographic series. Some of them will say no, but a lot of them say: yeah, let’s go for it. It makes for a more natural photo, because they’re already comfortable with me.
Who have been some of your favourite subjects to shoot?
I really like working with Bonnie and the Bonnettes. I used to be their Stage Manager, so I’d go on tour with them and would take a lot of backstage photos along the way. I love working with them because their style has changed so many times over the years. I took some photos in 2017 and then again in 2020 and they’re just totally different photos with totally different vibes. There’s always glitter everywhere too, which is fun!
How would you describe your experiences as a female creative working within the North East?
Photography-wise, I haven’t noticed anything different about being a woman. But definitely as a Stage Manager and Theatre Technician, I’ve encountered obstacles because I’m a woman. I’ve often worked within an all-male team. There are a lot more female technicians now then there were a few years ago, at least where I’ve worked anyway. But I remember when I first started out, I was the only woman on the team – I was a 19-year-old girl within a team of about 10 men. It was very daunting. I felt like I really had to prove myself: like, yes, I am strong, I can do this.
Which other photographers do you admire?
I really like Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston. Someone else that was a big inspiration to me when I first started the project was Simon Annand, who works in theatre photography too.
What would be your advice to any budding photographers out there – whether hopeful professionals or amateurs?
Just keep taking photos! It doesn’t have to be with fancy equipment or anything, just use your phone or disposable cameras even – that’s what I used when I first started. As long as you’re taking photos and practising, you’ll improve. Be sure to take photos of things you like, too.
Is there a knack to putting your subjects at ease?
Just talking to them first, before diving straight in with your camera. Introducing yourself and asking some questions about them before shooting helps them feel more comfortable, and not like you’re just some stranger suddenly taking their photo! Ease them in with conversation.
Dressing Room No. 1 has now been published. What’s the reaction been like to the book so far?
I’m really pleased with the reaction it’s getting. I didn’t think it would get a big response because I’m not a well-known photographer, but people have been great about it. A lot of people have told me they’ve enjoyed it and have found it interesting, so I’m really happy.
And what’s next for you?
I co-run a media company called Von Fox Promotions in South Shields, so I’m doing a lot with that – mainly photos and videos for theatre companies. We’re hoping to make a short film either this year or early next year, too. We’ve got a director and a writer lined up for that, so that’s really exciting. So, watch this space!
And you can buy your copy of Dressing Room No.1 here.