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The Running Wardrobe is staffed from 9am to 11pm and the day starts with the laundry. Every item of clothing that touches the skin is washed immediately after each show, which often involves up to eight wash-loads every night, and these must be dried, ironed and set into the appropriate dressing room box ready for the dressers to collect in the evening. The 2008 production of The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, involved some 74 shirts for each performance, as well as underwear etc.
In addition, any repairs are noted immediately after each performance and must be completed before the next show goes up. Jewellery may need to be mended, boots resoled, or stage blood cleaned from costumes. Most of these repairs will be carried out within Running Wardrobe, although some more major work may mean a costume has to be returned to other parts of the Costume department. Costumes are then placed on divided rails ready for collection by the dressers.
During the afternoon, the Wardrobe Mistress or her deputy will be hard at work preparing for the next production coming in, or for understudy technical rehearsals and runs (performances, with or without an audience). This involves labelling boxes, organising dressing rooms and typing up dressing notes so that all of the preparatory work is done before the shows arrive. Every item of costuming is labelled with the actor, role and production, and jewellery, daggers etc are placed in labelled boxes for each actor.
The dressers arrive an hour before the show goes up (begins) and pre-set all the costumes for the performance that night. Costumes are collected and set in the dressing rooms or wherever quick changes are needed. This may be backstage, in the auditorium, in a corridor, or even in the foyer – although foyer changes are not usually set until the show has started! Each dresser will have up to eight actors their care and, between them, they carry out up to 45,000 quick changes per year.
Half an hour before the show begins, the dressers go to the dressing rooms to start getting the actors ready, particularly if it is a show using period costumes. During the show they carry out the costume changes that were decided on during the technical rehearsals, and which are not changed after Press Night.
It's essential that our dressers work well as a team because they may find that they are expected to be in two places at once, and colleagues then step in to help out. It's also essential to have great people skills, as the actors rely on them to ensure that the show runs smoothly. They may have to do running repairs, provide tissues, water, or anything else that may be needed.
At the end of the show, the dressers make sure that costumes are back on rails, laundry is in the basket and that the dressing rooms are tidy. The washing machines are then set to work – ready for the process to begin again the following morning.
Training is generally done on the job but dressers are usually expected to have reasonable sewing skills and a feel for working with fabrics. They are all highly skilled and tell us that they get through their long working days with professionalism and a lot of laughter!