Making a play, in pictures

"The smells and sounds are some of the things I remember the most." A powerful sensory observation coming from a photographer. "The aroma of freshly cut wood, burning metal from recently welded steel. The clanging, the hammering, the carving, the shaving."

In the autumn of last year Fraser McGee was given access all areas to the Birmingham Rep. Two months at our city's sole producing theatre — the only one to create its own shows, sets and costumes, from scratch — and 600 snaps have been whittled into a 100-photo exhibition. It turns out that behind-the-scenes at the Rep is as much about manufacturing as it is theatre.

"This shot was taken inside the paint room. They paint backdrops, stage sets, props, everything in there. Over 800 shows have passed through the room in 50 years. This chair was used over the course of weeks by Alex, a freelancer I got to know. Alex made the sign in the background for a show called The Messiah. I snapped this in the final minutes before the sign was taken onto stage. I’d seen so much life in that chair — Alex busying away hour after hour — and to walk in and find it empty for the first time, it resonated, you know? Like his job was done. A symbol of hard work. I loved those quiet moments — the calm before the final reveal, the deep breath before the the show is breathed into life."

"Backstage, everywhere you look there's random bits and bobs. Props, costumes, roman helmets. There were puppet puppies all over the place from 101 Dalmatians. On the left, here, is a munchkin from The Wizard of Oz. There was a whole row of them, sat eerie. Lifeless. This is just one of maybe 20 of them hung in a line. In contrast to the vast busy spaces of the workshop and the paint room, the costume and props department are an oasis of calm. People work on highly detailed garments and props, hand-crafting beautiful pieces over painstaking hours. Contrastingly, one of my favourite images is the shot of the welder in the workshop. Taken during the construction of the set for Oz, I love how alien it feels to the normal associations people make with the theatre. Sparks flying everywhere."

"This is Chris Tait, head of the paint department. I love this shot because it gives you a sense of the scale of the rooms. This isn't round the back of the Rep — this is inside the paint room. Top to bottom it's over 11 metres high. Aesthetically, behind-the-scenes isn't a beautiful space, it's a functional place, almost industrial. You find the beauty in the craftsmanship and history. This room, for example, is spattered with over 30 years of paint. That carries with it a certain beauty. I like how Chris is framed by the enormous extraction vent. I remember asking him how he copes with the smell in the paint room. "What smell?" he said. 

"I watched these guys rehearse a thirty second dance scene over and over. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Tweak this, change that. And then for a brief moment they took a break. And this chap here, who plays a bouncer at the doors of Oz, just pit-stopped. He stole a moment to himself to refuel. I love finding these moments, moments of a second or two, moments that will vanish as quickly as they arrive and, as a photographer, you've got to be ready for them. Little points of emotion that you need to frame in a split second, half with luck, half with patience."

"I wanted some shots that showed the end of the process. The culmination of all that work. This is a view that most would never get, on the stage looking out at the empty seating, with everything ready to go. What strikes me about this, is that I'm stood right at the halfway line. The line between public facing and behind-the scenes. There are such vast swathes of space behind where this photo is taken. It’s phenomenal really; I'd say more than 50% of the Rep is invisible to the public. Which is apt being as more than half of the work that goes into a production is never seen.

"This project was a process of discovery, not just for me — it taught me a huge amount about what I want to be as a photographer — but also for the Rep. Me, being there, pointing the mirror back at the people that work behind-the-scenes. It reminded them, I hope, that what is an everyday job to them, an ordinary nine-to-five, is utterly extraordinary to the rest of us."

Fraser's exhibition PRODUCTION is on at Medicine Bakery and Gallery, 69 New Street, B2 4DU. Until August 5, entry is free. Follow Fraser on Instagram.