Thursday, 26 June 2014

Annie Get Your Gun - Frocking Up!

One of the great pleasures about being an actor is that, essentially, you get to dress up for a living. Or dress down. Or, sometimes even undress! But fundamentally the fact is that we play a childhood game of pretend and, when fortunate and with the wind behind us, we can even be paid to do so.

Paul Farnsworth's designs for Annie Get Your Gun are not necessarily the typical buckskin and fringing that you might expect for this classic Wild West musical. On the very first day of rehearsals, he laid out his costume designs on the table and explained that his vision had something of a
Wild West meets Steampunk vibe to it. Now I love Steampunk. It's that darker, edgier, mechanical side of Victoriana with rich colours, a wide range of sumptuous fabrics and a delicious array of detailing in materials of all varieties. Somehow the Steampunk style makes femininity seem stronger and grittier, yet utterly sexy and womanly at the same time.

We began the process of costuming several weeks before rehearsals started, individually assembling to be measured up. Karen Large, costume supervisor, took the most astonishing array of measurements just to make sure all bases were covered. This includes the regular bust/waist/hips/inside leg, but also the more unusual measurements such as 'round a bent elbow', 'bottom of neck to shoulder' and my personal favourite the ever-embarrassing 'nipple to nipple'. Effectively this selection of over 30 different measurements will mean that whichever Maker the costume is sent to, should be able to assemble a fairly accurate approximation of your size and shape. It's very important as often the costume will be partially made before it gets to the actor for the first time and mistakes can be very costly to repair or replace, especially at short notice.

Seriously, 'nipple to nipple' aka 'point to point'!

About a week into rehearsals the fittings began. A multitude of Makers arrived in dribs and drabs to the rehearsal venue and one by one we were called away from the main rehearsals and into smaller rooms to have our costumes pushed, pulled and pinned into submission upon our rehearsal-sweaty bodies. At my first costume call my underwear corset had not yet arrived from the manufacturers, so all my costumes had to be fitted over my elaborate trapeze corset. Underwear is particularly important during a costume fitting, as it can alter the shape of your body dramatically, narrowing waists and hips and lifting and reshaping the bust especially in a corset. I'm personally a fan of a nice corset and liken them to a good hug with great uplift, however they can sometimes be deeply uncomfortable. I've done 5 or 6 jobs in corsetry now but the feeling of restriction the first time you put one on is always surprising, especially when it comes to singing and dancing in one.

At this stage of fittings we begin to get a rough idea of how Paul's designs are translating to reality. The tactile nature and comforting weight of fabrics give a sense of the look and feel of each outfit and the individual characters begin to take on a much more 3D presence when you discover how they dress for the first time. The more structured materials and designs (in comparison to the relaxed and fluid modern clothing we generally wear these days) feel rather restrictive until you work your body into them.

The first fitting for my final Annie costume. Note the costume drawing on the table!

Fittings are an oddly tiring process despite the fact you're merely standing still for an hour or two. Pieces of costume are pinned together on our bodies and then adjusted, nipped, tucked, tightened and loosened until the desired effect is achieved. Various choices of fabrics are draped and gathered to pick the most suitable option for a complementary lining, or dramatic highlight and once all the decisions are settled, the Makers very carefully unpin you, marking the places on the fabric where they have to make adjustments with a combination of pins, threads and chalks. the costumes are then whisked away to be adjusted accordingly before the next fitting.

Corset detailing of various company costumes

Generally we don't get to work in the costumes until the tech, as they're still being finished. The exception to this rule is normally footwear as they need to be broken in well for comfort. As soon as our shoes arrive from the various manufacturers we are able to begin wearing them for rehearsals. Shoes are often fundamental when it comes to characterisation as they can significantly change the way that you walk and hold yourself. Annie begins the show in flat, boyish boots and gradually becomes more feminine as the show goes on. My shoes required some serious stretching when they arrived as my feet are pretty broken and an odd shape. Katy, our wardrobe mistress, employed various articles of torture and even a weird foam that you spray into the shoe before putting it on to help stretch out the leather. It makes for very damp and cold feet initially, but my goodness it works!

From scruffy-toed to sexy-heeled!

By the final week of rehearsals the entire company are strutting around in a variety of cowboy and beautiful heeled calf-length boots, newly rubbered to give the soles grip. Each pair is unique. Kara has a stunning pair of red lace up boots to compliment her character's fiery nature, Jason has a very sexy pair of metal tipped point-toed cowboys and Lorna is rocking a gorgeous pair of blue and maroon heels with cute little bows on them. I'm personally coveting my gold lace dance boots which I wear for the trapeze trick and 'Sun in the Morning'. They're fortunately very comfortable, although not the fastest to get on, as they lace up rather than having a side zip and fake laces like my flat boots. These zips are known as quick-change zips and they help with speedy changes whilst retaining the era appropriate look of the costume.

Quick change zips and similar fastening are not merely reserved for footwear. Most of the girls' corsets, each of which is also unique, feature a similar sort of fastening to the side or front. There are also sneaky fastenings internally in the costumes to make the fit and heavier weights work better. I have numerous metal hooks and elasticated buttons to make sure my skirts and tops stay snuggly together and don't expose my underwear corset inappropriately. There are even secret poppers in one shirt to allow me to rip it off for a super-quick change, with the second shirt pre-dressed underneath already. These little tricks of costuming are what ensure that the costumes not only look great but also work as effectively as possible for the production requirements.

We only get to see the finished look of our own costumes (and each other's) once we're into the tech, and often that's when we discover the potential issues with costumes too. Final fittings take place whenever there is opportunity. The sewing machine is perpetually on stand-by making adjustments or emergency repairs - it seems our boys have a tendency to rip their trousers with their overly-enthusiastic legs - and this is also pretty much how it remains for the entire run. The show is incredibly physical and many of us are now having to have our costumes taken in due to losing weight or toning up!

Finding the time to make alterations on the busy schedule of this show is incredibly hard on the wardrobe team, but they do so always with a smile. Maintaining the running repairs is also pretty difficult when you're moving around the country so much. Not for us the places that take a week to make repairs to specialist boots - we won't be there when they're done! On top of that costumes constantly need to be washed and ironed, and this is one VERY sweaty show. We are touring with a washing machine or two already, in their own wooden crates, and they're constantly in use to keep up with the demands of the production. This is a a demanding show all round, and with tons of unsung heroes behind the scenes working their socks off to make everything seem utterly effortless, it only goes to show that the onstage actors really are just the tip of the theatrical iceberg.

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