We all need a friendly push in the right direction every so often to get us back into a groove. Francis Hills, an Englishman who has called America home for two decades, received that push while back in the homeland a few years ago.
I was looking for some new creative mojo back in 2018, and while visiting London — I’m British but have been in the U.S. for 20 years now — I met up with a dear university friend who is also a photographer and complained about my predicament. He dragged me to the famous Foyles Bookshop and sat me down in the photography section feeding me artists’ books for an hour — ‘she’s doing this, they’re doing that, have you seen what he’s doing?’
This friend encouraged Francis — an accomplished portrait photographer — to expand his outlook and try out other types of photography. While the work we’re about to dive into sits within the realm of portraiture, it also represents Francis trying something new.
A quote by William Hurt that I had remembered jumped to mind: Q: “What goes through your mind before you go on stage?” William Hurt: “I go very quiet and wait for that which is unbidden.”
It hit me immediately and that sparked my imagination: taking portraits of actors waiting in the wings, just before they go on stage.
Thus, a personal project entitled “Unbidden” was born. Like most work of this ilk, Francis started by contacting people he already knew. Not only did this allow Francis to start the project in earnest, it let him work out the kinks in a relatively low-pressure setting.
The first person I photographed was Tamara Tunie playing Prospero in an all-female production of “The Tempest” in Pittsburgh. We’re old friends and she was up for it, so I jumped on a plane and we did it!
We didn’t have time for me to view a matinee or have a proper pre-walk through, which I now try to do. However, she knew where her best entrance would be and how much time we’d have for me to capture it (about 30 seconds!).
Initially, I went to actors I knew or with whom I had collaborated before. That personal connection went a long way to starting this project. Alan Cumming is a dear friend and I’ve photographed him for nearly 20 years now, so he was up for it immediately.
The more Francis did this work, the easier it became to pitch the idea to well-known actors whom he didn’t know. Good thing, because this is an incredibly personal project, one where Francis gets intimate imagery and asks the actors to provide a quote about their experiences regarding getting ready to hit the stage. A few days after each performance, Francis sends the actors the shots he took.
Once I had a few shows under my belt and the portfolio got bigger, it’s been easier to ‘sell’ the idea to actors, production companies, and PR agencies because they can see who’s participating and what the images look like, so there are no surprises.
There are, as you can infer, tons of moving parts. Each venue, lighting setup, and crew count is different. No two plays or performances of a given play move at the same pace, meaning Francis has to constantly be on the ball lest he miss a chance at the perfect shot. And, of course, each subject presents its own set of challenges.
It’s certainly not all been plain sailing as every production has its own unique challenges. It never crossed my mind, for example, that quite a few productions don’t even have wings; they’re staged in the round, like Oklahoma! — or that an actor may never leave the stage for the whole production giving me almost no time to catch them preparing and entering.
Other times I can’t be in a certain area because actors need to do quick costume changes, and it would be inappropriate for me to be there. Or the lighting is so low in the wings area that I can’t actually see to focus the camera.
Another interesting challenge is stopping actors from looking at me or playing to the camera, which they so often are used to doing. If an actor has been in a show for a while, there’s a certain confidence they have backstage and they may quietly joke in the wings with their fellow actors and crew — and a camera thrown into the mix can be a catalyst! Also, there is no directing or controlling the action in the wings; it’s more reportage. My life backstage involves keeping very still, barely breathing, and having to cope with a lot of very low blue or red light.
Before COVID stopped the world dead in its tracks, Francis was on a roll and shooting in places like the Old Vic Theatre in London (his favorite venue thus far). Still, with the reaction the initial batch of shots has gotten, it won’t be long before Francis is backstage and capturing an actor right as they enter the arena.
I’m hoping for lots more as I’m loving the project and would love to capture as many private moments in the wings as I can. I’d built up some great momentum earlier this year just before the pandemic kicked in; the images were really starting to resonate and company PR’s were becoming more open to me documenting their shows.
The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Capturing this private moment of preparation shows a very small part of their work life we don’t normally get to see. Actors often don’t get to see it either, and it provides a memory for them that’s different from the traditional show photos.
See more of Francis’ work at francishills.com.
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