Sophie Teasdale's New Book Shares a Decade's Worth of Intimate Photographs of the Stars
We go behind the scenes with South Shields photographer Sophie Teasdale
The glitz and glamour of the theatre attracts crowds to the UK’s arts scene, but proud Northerner Sophie sees first hand what goes on behind the curtain. As a photographer, the 27-year-old sees the highs and lows as actors prepare to take to the stage, and afterwards celebrate their performances – and her photos capture these moments in a raw and revealing light. As she releases her first photographic book, Dressing Room No.1, she celebrates 10 years of dedication to the arts.
Sophie studied photography at A Level in Bishop Auckland, having enjoyed being behind a camera since she was a girl. ‘I had a little disposable camera that I’d take around everywhere with me – it cost my parents a fortune getting the photos developed every weekend,’ she laughs. It was in sixth form that she was introduced to backstage photography. ‘I was reading an Eve Arnold photography book in my lesson and was admiring beautiful photos of Joan Crawford in her dressing room – they were grainy, close up and really raw – and that caught my attention as something I’d like to do,’ she explains. ‘It wasn’t like the polished portraits you’d usually see. I spoke to my teacher at the time and she said I should try and get into backstage photography at a theatre.’ After sending emails out to all her local theatres, research led Sophie to Darlington Hippodrome. Wandering backstage, feeling nervous, she dived into glitter-drenched dressing rooms, and began capturing black and white photographs of show girls wearing bratwursts as headpieces (actresses in The Producers, a show put on by local group Darlington Operatic Society).
‘I had no idea what I was doing,’ Sophie confesses. ‘I didn’t really know what happens in a theatre and was so in awe of the whole atmosphere and the environment so I stuck with it.’ Aged just 17 at the time, Sophie had no idea her work would be published as a hardback book – just like the one she had been reading in school. ‘It was just something that I loved doing,’ she says.
After her studies came to an end, she had such a strong enthusiasm for the project (and the fascinating characters she was meeting along the way) that she decided to continue her series – and set up her own business. Determined to keep pushing further, Sophie hit London’s West End and began photographing behind the scenes of Abigail’s Party at Wyndham’s Theatre and What The Butler Saw at The Vaudeville Theatre. ‘[What The Butler Saw] was my first big show so I remember being really nervous, but it was a turning point for me,’ Sophie recalls. ‘It showed me a different side to these people than what you see on TV.’
Sophie describes her images as ‘natural and candid’. ‘I try to take a back seat and capture moments as they play out. I won’t have the flash on. I like using different angles but I don’t worry too much about the technicalities. It’s more about capturing the moment, however that may look. It’s really about capturing people’s emotions. I think my favourites are the really busy dressing rooms where there might be a whole company crammed into one small space… hairspray flying everywhere, glitter and everyone interacting with each other. I really loved photographing Bonnie and the Bonnettes, a drag trio, and I’ve photographed them at a few different shows.’
In 2013 Sophie began working as a theatre technician and stage manager, running her photography business alongside. Any time Sophie strikes up a good relationship with performers, she asks them to be involved in her project. She’s photographed a variety of household names including Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston, The Good Wife’s Alan Cumming, Downton Abbey’s Samantha Bond and Blackadder’s (or, more recently, Game of Thrones’) Tim McInnerny, and these stars all feature in Sophie’s book.
However, forever proud of her home, she most enjoys capturing North East performers (including Emmerdale’s Charlie Hardwick), and hopes by doing so, she’ll shine a light on a part of the arts she feels is underrepresented and overlooked within the industry. While there are plenty of photo books out there of performers preparing for the stage, most of these only showcase the most well-known and London-centric actors, and she hopes her book will put the North East back on the theatre map. ‘There’s a lot going on here, and maybe that’ll encourage people to get into regional theatre more, rather than just heading to London for shows,’ says Sophie. ‘It might make people more aware of the amazing talent we have up here, and help in giving lesser known stars a platform.’
While photographing performers in the North East, Sophie has noticed how diverse our creative arts scene really is. ‘It’s not just one little community of actors or directors, there are so many little bubbles – the serious plays, drag, music, dance – there’s so much going on in so many different corners of the North East,’ she says. ‘Each theatre has a totally different atmosphere. There are the big vibrant venues and smaller ones like Newcastle’s Alphabetti Theatre which a lot of people don’t know about. Finding all these different corners has been amazing.’
After years dedicated to the project, Sophie decided she should do something with the collection of photographs she had saved – but didn’t know exactly what. ‘When it got to around seven years, I realised I could really make something out of this. I looked into self-publishing and created a prototype but I never really took it any further. It was in lockdown that I realised I should really do something with all of these images. A lot of people had been asking me what my plans were as they’d seen my project progress over the years so I decided to give it a go. I got the first proof of the book and it was so amazing to finally have something physical in my hands to show for the last 10 years. It’s even nice to look back on how my style has changed in terms of photography. There’s definitely a difference between my work at the start, and now.’ The book has already been pre-ordered by many… and Sophie waits nervously for their reaction.
Sophie co-runs South Tyneside-based film and photography company Von Fox Promotions, specialising in producing theatre promotional material. Dressing Room No.1 is published as a hardback coffee table book and available to buy at sophieteasdale.co.uk. See more of Sophie’s work on Instagram @sphrstsdl.
Your favourite thing about the North East?
‘How it’s so small and compact but there’s so much going on all the time!’
Your happy place in the North East?
‘South Shields. I live there now but I’ve always loved going to the beach there.’
A photographer that inspires you.
‘Eve Arnold is my favourite.’
An actor who inspires you?
‘Alan Cumming. I’ve always admired him as an actor and after meeting him and photographing him, I discovered he was such a nice guy and he knew exactly what I wanted from the photos and ran with it.’
Your favourite quote?
‘A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it,’ – Edward Steichen.
The strangest thing you’ve seen in a dressing room?
‘At Northern Stage they have an old leftover prop from a 1996 show called The Wasp Factory. It’s an almost adult-size baby doll with a few missing limbs and a super creepy looking face. It’s attached to a wall by the loading dock and a couple of times I’ve walked past it in the dark and got the fright of my life!’
The best camera for portrait photography?
‘It doesn’t matter too much what camera you use – it’s all about the lens and the lighting. I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV which I think works for everything. I really like either a 50mm or a 70–200mm for portraits.’
Advice for budding photographers?
‘Go for it. Get stuck in. Email people. Ask around. Teach yourself and see who can help you along the way.’
(Images by Sophie Teasdale unless otherwise stated)