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How to source and prepare costumes for Wargrave Theatre Workshop productions

Maureen Fennemore / Judi Rowlands

13 April 2010


The Wargrave Local History Society began their new programme year in April with a very 'local' subject, when Maureen Fennemore and Judi Rowlands gave us an insight into how they research and produce the costumes for the Wargrave Theatre Workshop's productions in the village.Wargrave Theatre Workshop was founded in 1974. It usually puts on 3 or 4 productions a year, including the village pantomime and open air performances as part of the Village Festival, (which began in 1975). Judi and Maureen are the wardrobe mistresses, assisted in the task by a team of 'sewing bees'. Once a choice of play had been agreed by the committee, the producer, set designer, wardrobe mistresses etc would meet to decide on a 'theme' -- maybe a colour, maybe a historical theme etc. The details of the costumes needed might be left very hazy, or may be very 'regimented', with detailed descriptions that could be hard to match. They were currently very busy preparing for 'Under Milk Wood' - which had many characters, with costumes that had to match descriptions within the script, for example.Judi began by outlining their 'job description'. It could be quite demanding physically, as the costume store was up 2 flights of stairs - they didn't think they needed to go to the gym after moving a set of costumes! The costume store was situated in the old library room in the Woodclyffe Hostel, which was equipped with hanging rails and boxes for the smaller items. Although this is their 'base', they are involved virtually on-stage during a play, when there are costume changes to attend to - pulling off one set of clothes and fitting the next set very quickly. That usually runs smoothly - although they did recall an occasion when an actor was almost to underwear in a costume change when he realised he had come off stage at the wrong point in the play! Once the play is decided, and they have read the script, they can start to work out costume ideas, and make sketches of what will be needed - including personal props and wigs as well as the actual costumes. Some items will be used from their stock - although that will probably need adapting, some items they will be able to hire in, whilst others will be made specially. All that has to be done within an agreed budget, identifying if material in stock is suitable, if local hirers can provide requirements, or if an extended search is needed. The costumes for each character have then to be assembled, and recorded using a digital camera, and any alterations made by the 'sewing bees' - in the case of hired costumes this has to be done in a very short space of time. In designing a costume, it is not just necessary to make it look right. Judi and Maureen have to have an understanding of how the character will move. For one pantomime, for example, the 'giant' would normally only stand - but with just two weeks to go they discovered he was to have to sit in a large chair, and so the trousers and boots had quickly to be modified! The actors also have to get used to how to move in costume - especially if they are not used to wearing long skirts or high heel shoes. As the dress rehearsal is usually only the weekend before the performances, the wardrobe team have also to supply something with which the cast can practice as well.After a performance, the costumes have to be cleaned ready for the next one - and even with a double set, if there are 3 performances on one day, this needs a rapid turn-round. Even once the production is over, and the team has had their party, the work of the wardrobe mistresses is not complete, for everything has to be washed or dry cleaned, sorted and returned to the store or the hirer. Years of experience have helped them find places from which items can be hired - 'Fun & Frolic' in Reading or 'Berkshire Wardrobe' amongst others. They also are able to acquire suitable clothing items from shops such as Sue Ryder, and are always on the lookout for fabric bargains. One upholstery firm thought no-one would want some of their curtain fabrics, but they proved ideal for recreating historic dresses. Southall is another good source of materials, as there are many fabric shops, whilst even Primark is a useful source of things like jewellery. When one of the ladies took a large quantity of this to the till, she was greeted with a strange look - until she explained it was not for her, but a pantomime dame!Not only do Maureen and Judi look for suitable fabrics etc, but also books on fashion styles appropriate to different eras, or the technical aspects of things such as corsets. They can also get historical costume patterns, which can be adapted to suit a variety of needs. Although sometimes an actual historic costume might be available, such as a soldier's uniform, they often cannot be used as such, as modern chaps are taller and broader than their forebears.The Theatre Workshop also keep an enormous collection of shoes - as many younger performers only have unsuitable 'clod hopping' shoes! Judi and Maureen's presentation was illustrated with many examples from the Theatre Workshop's wardrobe. One such was a dress for an actress who playing the part of a fairy. She usually played the front - or back - of a cow, so they were determined to make a really pretty dress for her. Many of the outfits are available for hire from the Workshop - the charges helping to cover the cost of the storage.

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