Behind-the-scenes look at a Shakespeare drama troupe's fascinating costume and prop warehouse.
For an unusual window into how a theatre company really works, tour a costume and prop warehouse. The Stratford Festival, in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, is one that welcomes the public - doing several tours a day during the season.
The warehouse is about an acre, and contains over 25,000 items - all tagged and catalogued, and stored according to type of object or garment, historical era, and (for clothing, at least) size. A designer may use an object as-is, recycle it into something else, or start afresh.
Though Stratford is particularly known for its Shakespeare performances - and thus needs a lot of Roman and Elizabethan garb - the company also does many 20th-century works. Thus, the prop room is filled with stoves, televisions, old radios, telephones, and furniture - all in many styles. There are also several shelves of sculpted stage food: fruits, meats, and breads of plastic, papier mache, or other materials.
The company's set and costume designers strive for at least the appearance of historical accuracy; thus, if a play takes place before sewing machines were invented, all the outside stitches are hand-sewn.
Materials, on the other hand, are not at all true to history. While most of the clothes are done in natural materials - in some cases supplemented by a layer of some kind of plastic - items like armor and weaponry, statues, even furniture are a different matter. Lightweight modern creations such as Styrofoam and fiberglass figure heavily in prop-making: creating objects that can be carried easily, taken down quickly for set changes, and worn comfortably. Chain mail at Stratford is usually done by knitting and painting ordinary string!
Of course, if the play calls for a scene that requires more authenticity, the props are done accordingly. If there's a hand-to-hand swordfight, for instance, those weapons will be metal; you cannot replace the clang of steel with the dull thud of plastic.
Stratford makes extensive use of a "vacuform," a machine that creates complex shapes out of plastic. An actor might make a face cast, for example, and then a custom-tailored mask is created by using the vacuform over the plaster cast. The machine is also used for making certain jewelry, monster features, and a wide assortment of other items.
Stratford has three stages: the Tom Patterson, using an extended thrust stage (it comes right down the middle of the theatre, with the audience on three sides), the Avon, with a traditional proscenium, and the Festival Theatre, with a smaller, multilevel, octagonal thrust stage and the audience in the round on all but one side. A Stratford set designer needs to know which stage to design for; it would be a disaster to build for the flat stage of the Patterson if the play is actually produced at the Avon, where the stage floor slopes upward from the front to the rear.
A number of departments assist in creating the props, scenery, and costumes. In addition to the sewing and tailoring staff, Stratford has its own carpentry shop, as well as departments for:
* wigs (usually made of human hair)
* bijou (jewelry)
* boots and shoes/leather goods (when possible, shoes are customized from store-bought footwear - sometimes unrecognizably so; this department also does belts, purses, and other leather goods)
* soft props such as pillows and wal hangings
Stratford has a large collection of fake books, too. These are mostly ancient-looking tomes with leather exteriors - but hollow inside, with strips of corduroy sewn on the sides to successfully create the illusion of paper.
When an actor has to change outfits in a hurry, the crew will use Velcro fasteners; the costumes can literally be yanked off, and a dresser will be waiting to help the actor throw on the next outfit.
Body padding will change an actor's shape to fit a role, and of course, makeup can age or youthen a character as needed.
In most cases, the crew will only prepare one copy of an outfit, custom-tailored for the particular actor (full details of the entire company's measurements are kept on file). But if the play calls for an actor to ruin some clothes along the way, the staff will make an extra at the same time. Kate's late-in-the-play skirt from "Taming of the Shrew" was on display, painted to appear mud-spattered and bedraggled. Making torn clothes is a particular art, because they have to be done to look convincing but also not deteriorate too badly: they still have to last out the season.
The warehouse is a fascinating place visually: not only are the rows of costumes intriguing, but scattered among them are such oddities as an enormous dragon, perhaps fifteen feet high, wearing a vest (Lewis Carroll's Jabberwork, it turned out), Bottom's oversize head from "Midsummer Night's Dream", assorted Greek and Roman temple columns, and much much more.
At the end of the tour, participants have a few minutes to try out a couple of racks of costumes and hats - to step, ever so briefly, into someone else's aura and experience the magic of transformation that theatre is really about.
Tickets to the costume warehouse tour are $3.50 Canadian, and can be arranged by calling (800) 567-1600 or (519) 273-1600.
Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.
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