Following on from our Richard II Production Diary video about costumes (in week 6), we asked RSC fans on Facebook and Twitter if they had any questions for Alistair McArthur, our Head of Costume. Here are his responses. Let us know what you think.
Working with actors to get the costume right
What is your relationship with the actors in terms of costume?
It's a very close working relationship built on trust. We need to ensure that they feel physically and mentally comfortable and that the costume is practical for stage life at the same time as creating the designer's vision.
What did you use then to create the costume David is going to wear? And how many costumes is he going to wear?
David has about eight different looks. Stephen Brimson Lewis, the designer, chose lightweight silk and jersey fabrics that had a contemporary yet medieval quality to them.
Did you consider Converse for David?
No, the design is based in the medieval period!
How much of a say did the actors have regarding costume ideas. Were there any special requests?
The Costume Designer and Costume Supervisor talk through all the designs with each actor. Some actors have great input into the finished costume whereas some don't. Each case is different. Actors tend to have more input in modern dress productions as it is instantly recognisable.
Is it always the case - the bolder the costume, the bolder the character?
Not at all. Everything depends upon the vision and concept of the costume designer and director.
Do the actors prefer having all the layers and weight of the historical costumes, or the modern mock ups?
Few actors like wearing many layers in the summer, although some find it helps their character. But not all historical costumes are heavy. They will be made in whatever are the appropriate fabrics for the design. For example, it's impossible to dress a Victorian lady without the corset and all the underpinnings – not that this was required for Richard II! Whatever is necessary for the design and shape of the costume will be in place.
How do you use the costumes? As part of the story itself, part of the way you tell the story or as a guide to help the actors realise their characters?
All three can be applicable. As mentioned above, everything is based upon the overall concept as decided by director and designer.
The craft and process of making the costumes
How many costume changes are made throughout Richard II and what one actor has the most?
We think there are about 60 costume changes taking place throughout each performance and this is handled by the Running Wardrobe team of five. Elliott Barnes-Worrell (who plays the Groom) probably has the most with about 10 costumes, not counting his understudy costumes. Jane Lapotaire has the least with only one.
How many hours of work does it typically take to produce a costume from start to finish?
That's a bit like asking 'how long is a piece of string?' A shirt will take 2½ to 3 hours whereas a period over robe may take up to a week. I'm afraid there is no standard answer as construction time depends upon style of design and choices of fabric. A silk velvet jacket will take almost twice as long to make as a cotton velvet one as the fabric behaves very differently and has to be worked much more slowly.
The process may include dyeing the fabric or embellishing the garment when finished. And sometimes we have to make costumes look old – while making sure that they are still going to last for the whole of the run of the play. Sometimes we do this with a cheese grater! It all adds to the length of the process.
What is the greatest obstacle the costume department has had to overcome in a period piece like Richard II?
Stephen, the designer, chose many lightweight and slightly stretchy fabrics which took very careful handling. So, even though the shapes may look simple, it took much longer to make them than we thought. Also, not all actors are used to wearing long robes with trains or different types of footwear so we need to make sure that they can get used to wearing items which can feel very different to jeans and t-shirts.
Do things often go wrong with costumes at the last moment? And if so, how do you manage to fix them in time for the next performance?
At the end of each performance costumes are checked by the Running team. There can be a number of items which need repairing for the next show. This could be shoes which need re-heeling, tears and rips, jewellery clasps; almost anything. Each theatre has a Running Wardrobe team who launder, press and repair costumes between performances.
Any large and serious repairs may come back over to our production workshops here in Stratford for repair. On occasions we have had to have some items remade as the damage may be too much; but that is fairly rare.
I am curious to know how many years the costumes are used for and how old is the oldest costume still being used.
At the end of each run, all the costumes go into our Costume Store where they may be reused by the RSC or hired out to other companies. We still have a few costumes in stock from the early 1970s! If it's right for the design and it's in good condition then it can be reused.
How much do the costumes weigh? Are there efforts to use alternative fabrics (with a similar look) to decrease the weight of the costume?
Stage costumes are just like normal clothes; a multitude of different styles, weights and fabrics.
Weight varies but the most important thing is to get the look right. So if a robe needs to look heavy we would never use a lightweight fabric.
Getting costumes historically accurate
How did you research the costumes? Influenced by Shakespeare's descriptions of the characters or historical fact?
Stephen's designs are based on a fusion of contemporary and medieval styling. Obviously Shakespeare has a few key lines which may inform some detail or requirement.
Do you just get inspiration from original ancient costumes, or do you literally copy original costumes you find in museums, paintings, frescoes?
Everything we make is to the designer's vision. On the occasions when we do make costumes which have a strong need for historical accuracy the cutters will use relevant artwork for inspiration to help them realise the designer's drawing.
How historically accurate do you make the costumes? Do you then sometimes have to sacrifice historical accuracy for ease of wearing?
In terms of construction we have to use modern methods; we're not making historic reproductions. Our costumes have to survive over 100 performances and sometimes more. We also have to bear in mind the fastenings we need to use to support quick changes; although we try not to use Velcro as it's very noisy. In terms of design, it's whatever the designer wants.
Do you spend a lot of time researching patterns and construction methods?
We have many reference books which we use but we normally have to start work quickly so there isn't a lot of time for detailed research. However, our team have a wealth of knowledge and experience which they bring to each design.
Careers in costume
What pathways did most of your costume design and production team take to come to work in their field?
Most people have studied some form of costume construction, design or textiles at university level or have had prior experience in other theatres prior to working at the RSC. However, this is always in Costume as opposed to Fashion which is a very different approach in both construction and design.
Are the designers always separate people to those who make the costumes?
Always; the workroom staff are not designers and that's not our role. We are here to realise what the designer draws.
Top image: David Tennant as Richard II
Middle image: Jane Lapotaire in Richard II
Bottom image: historical costumes as worn by various characters in Richard II