A Theater Student's Pilgrimage: Sites In and Around London
Emily Gibson lists the best places for a student of theater to visit while in London.
The last time I came to England, I was here on a ten day trip with my high school theater department. While we did hit up the Roman Baths and Stonehenge on that trip, a larger part of our time was spent seeking out theatrical sites and productions. This time, however, I'm in London for a longer duration and have had the opportunity to explore some of the top locations for theater people to go in and around the city.
Stratford-upon-Avon This one almost goes without saying, but especially if you are a theater student or Shakespeare fan, you've got to pay your respects to the Bard. Visit the town of Shakespeare's birth and find his grave (to save you some search time, look in the church and not the graveyard). Once you arrive at his childhood home, you will likely be entertained by actors performing scenes on the home's property. Stratford is also, appropriately enough, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company. From London, it's easy to catch a bus or train (for the approximately two-hour trip) to Stratford.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre Another Shakespeare-centric site (this one's in London proper), and an easy walk (or tube ride) from the city's main tourist attractions is the Globe Theatre. Though the original Globe, where the playwright's work was first staged, burned down in 1613, this recreation was instigated by American actor/director/producer Sam Wanamaker. Take note that there is a fee for the tour (£11 with a student ID), but if you're visiting during the theater seasons, £5 gets you a spot as a groundling (standing room)!
The West End On the UK's equivalent of America's Broadway, you'll find shows ranging from stunning to fine to abysmal. I've seen a bit of each of those. What I recommend is choosing a show that you can't see in the United States – don't go to Wicked on the West End when you could see a brilliant production of a new Caryl Churchill play that might not make it across the Atlantic. Remember that while tickets might be cheaper than New York prices, you have to pay if you want a program. I also suggest branching out from the traditional West End shows and checking out other theaters and theatrical performance venues.
Museums A lot of people shrink away from the idea of museums, but there is a lot of great stuff out there, and many museums are in London are free (it's still a good idea to confirm this before you go). The British Museum is a must and, while you're there, be sure to investigate their current exhibition as, when I visited, it was a about the world of William Shakespeare (can you tell the British love their Shakespeare?) You have to pay for most of the current exhibitions, but they are beautifully constructed and full of artifacts, videos, and audio. As theater history has a place in many aspects of British history, be sure to search the museum for paintings and relics from theater long ago. The British Museum has scrolls of illustrated Kabuki performance and masks and items from Ancient Greece and Rome, many of which depict theatrical scenes. The Victoria & Albert Museum is a major museum that boasts a dedicated Theatre and Performance Collection. Dotted across London are many other museums with theater-centric collections and exhibitions.
The British Library Often overlooked, The British Library has a treasure-trove of historical theater papers and collections. Their free exhibit, "Treasures," includes a number of Shakespearean plays and manuscripts; antique copies of Marlowe, Kyd, and Johnson; and pages handwritten by Oscar Wilde.
These are handful small sampling of ways you can experience theater in England. Be sure to bring a valid student ID with you everywhere you go (it doesn't have to be a UK University) because most places have concessions (discounts) for students.