Friday, 27 May 2016

The Minster as Theatrical Venue: a Reassessment

Now that we've finished all the tech rehearsals, the one dress rehearsal, and had the opening night (only 40 shows to go...), I'm going to give an entirely biased opinion on the pros and cons of staging a production, and specifically this production, in a very large space such as a massive medieval church building.

On the plus side: it's simply spectacular. Take a look at the (at this point not quite finished) stage:

It shows the catwalk or jetty in front, the "Hell's Mouth" in the middle (which also functions as the door to Noah's Ark), the stage with three flights of stairs. The orchestra sits under the stage, you can see the openings which permit the music to project. The stage is eminently flexible: counting characters who enter through the audience onto the jetty, those who emerge from the Hell's Mouth, and those who appear over the very top, there are a total of seven entry point for actors. It is, indeed, very grand.

Another plus: the music, some of it sung by choir students at the Minster Choir School, sounds ethereally beautiful, haunting in a way it would not in a smaller venue.

However - I'm learning there are downsides. And one of the main downsides lies precisely in its size. Our only dress rehearsal ran 1.5 hours overtime, from 7:30 until midnight. It required exceptional stamina from actors and crew, and audience alike. Why might that dress rehearsal have run so much longer than anticipated?

The director's response was to instruct actors to speak faster, to come in on cue more quickly, to enter and exit more rapidly. Personally, I think "actor speed" is only one factor.

In my view, an important factor is the very nature of the spectacle required by such a spectacular stage. Take Noah's Ark as just one example: it wouldn't look good to have just a few animals, or small animals, or small versions of large animals. So there are many animals, pairs of them, some - like the heads of virtually life-size elephants - huge and hence carried by two people each who must coordinate. These animals have to march on stage from designated entries and down into the Ark (Hell's Mouth) - and at the end, when Noah finds dry land, they (or at least most of them) have to march out again. All well and good, and spectacular and beautiful - but chalk up around 15-20 minutes of the overtime run to that scene.

The staired stage is gorgeous and imposing. Quite a number of the actors, however, are not as young as they used to be, and stair climbing simply takes a little longer. Some of the characters wear massively flowing robes (spectacle again) in which they must navigate those stairs, up or down.  The two-actor elephants have to navigate stairs, not necessarily with the best sightlines. Every entry requires stair climbing in one form or another, some of them substantial. Fifteen treads take a lot longer to walk than five treads, or no treads at all. Chalk up another 15 minutes just to stairs.

A spectacular stage requires it to be peopled - even the lonely Christ is impressive only when juxtaposed with the crowd scenes that hailed him (entry into Jerusalem) or condemned him ("Give us Barabas!"). Crowd scenes take time: like getting traffic moving at a stoplight, not everyone can move at once, and getting 100 people on stage (I think there's actually more, but 100 will do) takes longer than getting only five people there. So chalk up another 15 minutes to crowd scenes.

I'm a bit of a time tyrant, so it's entirely possible that I'm out of step with everyone else involved in the production, and all actors and audiences are willing to spend the time it takes to put on, and to witness, such a grand spectacle. Still, as an actor with a sense of humor said at the half time interval during that long dress rehearsal: "Well, we're 45 minutes behind already. We're cutting out the crucifixion!"

Thursday, 26 May 2016


For nine of the last ten days I have been functioning as "dresser" - providing assistance in getting the actors in and out of their costumes as quickly and expeditiously as possible. This, too, is an entirely new experience - and a bit to my surprise, I find that I enjoy it and am good at it.

Doing a good job "dressing" involves anticipating needs, assessing quickly how much and what kind of assistance is needed, keeping a clear record of necessary alterations and repair, working with the "quick change" team to ensure costumes are where they should be, doing as much trouble-shooting on the spot as possible (I've never used so many safety pins in such a short time in my life!). I find I use my teaching background - understanding problems and questions as well as personalities; my sewing and costuming background - fixing things, knowing what needs to be fixed elsewhere; my social skills - working as a team, providing a ready smile and a competent hand. I like the fact that it's "a project," an activity with a definite beginning and a foreseeable end.

"Dressing" does involve long hours. Ten days ago, on a Monday, we started technical rehearsals - these included costumes so were also dress rehearsals of a sort. Dressers should be in the change area before the actors, checking on the state of things, picking up and organizing as needed. Then they remain on hand until the rehearsal is finished, until the very last actor has changed. For the Mystery Plays that has meant from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., with a full day (12:00 noon until 11:00 p.m.) on Saturday. I'm not a night owl by nature, but it seems I have made the switch to long evenings fairly well.

The tech rehearsals took longer than anticipated, and so last night we had our first and only actual "dress rehearsal", i.e. a rehearsal in which the whole production is gone through without stopping, as if it were a performance. Well - no surprise - the performance took almost 90 minutes longer than it should have, ending at just before midnight. Obviously something will have to give. The performers will be putting this on 41 more times before the end of the run, and there is no way they can last through that extra time. And it will be a rare audience who will happily sit through a 4.5 hour performance.

Opening night is tonight! Stay tuned...

Friday, 20 May 2016

"Breaking Down"

No, not what you might think!

I'd never considered this before, but it stands to reason: in crowd scenes there is a range of social levels, with the majority being "middle-to-poor," "poor," or "very poor." Costumes, of course, are made of primarily new materials. So it would look rather strange on stage if the entire crowd - think 100 or so people - were to be dressed in fabric that was just off the bolt.

Enter "the break-down room." It's a ground-floor room that was originally a kitchen, so it conveniently has sinks, cement floor and brick walls, and stainless steel counters. "Convenient," I say, because "breaking down" involves water, "applied stuff," and fire. Ruling the directed chaos is Janet, here pictured explaining to us newbies what's involved:

Quite a few of the shiny new fabrics had to be dyed, giving just that subtler "read" that older clothing often has. In the process I learned that most things can be dyed, even the most synthetic of synthetics, using the widely available Dylon dyes. In the picture below, an example of a shiny white-read fabric (left) dyed to a much subtler and more interesting range (right):

For the poorer classes we assumed that clothing will be a) worn and torn, and b) dirty. So we wore and tore - stitch-ripped, tore, mended badly, attacked the cloth with sandpaper. Two examples of wear-and-tear:

Adding "dirt" is really the fun part. We took costumes out into the courtyard and literally rolled them through whatever grime was out there. We made them wet and THEN rolled them in the grime. For very resistant synthetic fabrics (some could indeed, to paraphrase Dave Barry, "withstand a direct nuclear attack without change in composition or function"), one person might pull the fabric through grime while another would stand on it. We dried costumes while they were wrung as tightly as possible, to create wrinkles.

And when all else failed, we used....

Samples are always a good idea when you're going for true mud on lycra:

Which of course is important when you're making Adam and Eve, being created out of mud if indeed the director decides not to stylize the Creation story too much:

Some of the costume makers were not enthusiastic "breakers down" - and I have to say, I counted myself among them. I did go participate for a day, and turned some pristine costumes into credibly poor outfits. It's not my favorite work, however. At the same time, I'm glad I learned this new skill.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Where do the Costumes Come From?

The Mystery Plays are an interesting genre of theatre: "community production" is the name, which means that the participants are mostly volunteer augmented with a few key professionals. For the actors, that professional is Jesus - a demanding role if there ever was one. For the entire production, there's a main director (Philip Breen) and then a bevy of assistant directors and a number of others overseeing various aspects of what makes a play like this actually happen.

The costume supervisors are Fran Brammer, Fiona Parker, and Lorraine Ebdon. I haven't yet met Lorraine, but Fiona has been the one overseeing the growing collection of (partially) finished costumes as they materialize, while Fran oversees the translation of written directions into actual costumes. Fiona says: "add rough braid", Fran says: "looks good!" when you show her what you're contemplating and what you've done. There's an excellent description of the costume work and some of my fellow costumers at this link: Behind the Scenes: Creating the Fabric.

Like the "volunteer" and "professional" people working on the play, the costumes can also be classified into two groups: "made-on-site" (volunteer) and "hired" (professional).  A number of the grander outfits are "hired" - the robes of some of the Roman royalty involved, for example. But most of the others, from angels to devils to crowd scenes, are "made-on-site." An excellent pattern which gives the basic shape for the dress of the time is McCalls 2060:

From what I have seen of the costumes, though, there were other patterns - more underarm gussets, cross-over fronts, various styles of sleeves. All of these were finished before I got there, by the great team of volunteer women I'm just getting to know. We've been doing various things to them, of which "rough braid" is only one.

"Hired" costumes are a different kettle of fish: they often need adapting, but must be adapted in such a way that the adaptation can be reversed when the costume goes back to where it came from. An example we worked on was this already well-worn item:

It was once a sumptuous coat and from a distance still is, but it was too short for the purpose and so a band of red velvet had to be added (by hand - it had to be reversible, plus there were lead weights in the hem which couldn't go under the machine - you get the picture). It all looked rather chunky and slapped-on until we added braid to highlight the new line between the jade and the red. Another lesson recalled: if something doesn't look quite right, emphasize it.

Friday, 13 May 2016

"Rough Braid"

During my first week in York I learned a new technique: "rough braid." "Braid" as such is familiar, of course - you buy it, often at greater expense than you'd like, from a store.

When you have a hundred costumes needing braid, however, as well as a limited budget, AND those hundred costumes are for mostly poor-ish people in a crowd scene, you turn to "rough braid." It's shorthand for braid you make yourself, from fabric scraps. The goal is to provide visual stage interest without going to great expense.

First: select a garment you want to trim - or, in our case, take one of the garments with a "tasks sheet" which says, for example, "rough braid around hem and neckline."

Give the outfit a quick visual to see what kinds of colours might work for it as a whole, then take the item to be "rough braided" to the scrap fabric bin to select material:

Cut fabric into strips, then look at the samples to get an idea of what kind of "braid" might work for the type of fabric (heavy, light, ravelly, rough, smooth) you've selected:

Here's the rough braid I made, on the garment in the first picture:

I realize that I've probably been making a version of "rough braid" for quite a while - almost anything that is not specifically made and purchased as "braid" could be called "rough braid." What I learned in this process, though, is that anything goes, and rough edges are actually desirable since they add texture and visual interest generally. Hmmm.... all that ravelly dupioni silk I have at home... could rip it into strips and braid it... hmmm...

Monday, 9 May 2016

York Mystery Plays Costume Adventure

I've just finished the first of my five weeks in York, where I am one of a team of volunteers making costumes for the 2016 version of the York Mystery Plays. They're (late-)medieval, originally staged by York's various guilds, now resurrected as a major tourist attraction every four years. This blog post focusses on the plays and the places, subsequent posts will introduce people and the actual costuming work.

The Mystery Plays (see: are a cycle of 48 episodes telling the Christian story from Creation through the Last Judgement. "God" is a character, as are devils and angels, and of course human beings and that most famous god/man, Jesus. As you can imagine, it's a huge cast. Typically Jesus is played by a professional actor, while all the others are volunteer amateurs from York itself. Many of the supporting roles - such as we costume makers - are volunteer as well.

In the past the plays have been staged in various venues around the city, including outdoors. This year, though, they will be performed in The Minster, a most impressive facility for such a production:

The building where we're working on costumes is right next door, a fifteenth-century structure originally built as a college for clerics who needed some remediation (according to gossip):

My way in goes through that central door with its heavy cast iron latch, through a corridor and another door, then up this grand creaking staircase:

Which staircase looks all the better for having yards of fabric draped over the railing...

One of the grand halls on the second floor is filled with racks and racks of costumes:

There are a few sets of angel wings lying around (chicken feathers, is my guess) - maybe for Gabriel?:

And this is our sewing room - two sergers, six Janomes, a "haberdashery" (gotta love that word) cupboard. The ironing station is around the corner, a large cutting table in another room. That's Fran in the middle, she directs what we do on a daily basis.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Making Madeleine Vionnet

Friday I got in the mail my very own copy of Betty Kirke's fabulous book on Madeleine Vionnet. Delight - better than ice cream! (or whatever your treat of choice...).

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The 30 patterns in the book are mystifying, to say the least. Yes, there are lines labelled "D" and "F", and instructions to "join D to F", but there is no scale, there are no measurements. The best a person can do is measure the actual little drawings and scale up - which, as I know from other pattern scaling during the course, can lead to disastrous magnifications.

So I turned to Dr Google, and indeed, there are great discussions of how to recreate Vionnet there. One of them is a most informative blog post comparing Kirke's Vionnet, and the Japanese book based on it, in Fashion-Incubator hosted and edited by Kathleen Fasanella. Even if you don't read Japanese, this is apparently THE book to get if you want to actually make a Vionnet, since the patterns have been tested and retested by a research team, and recreated. Bonanza!!

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For a sample discussion on recreating one of the patterns, see Recreating Pattern 14. This sewist, too, used both Bunka (the Japanese book) and Kirke's. I guess I'll be ordering one more book!