Stitch In Time Update April 2020

Here we share the latest photos from the Costume Workshop site and an interview with RSC Head of Costume Alistair McArthur.

An interview with Alistair McArthur RSC Head of Costume, March 2020 

Please note: This interview took place prior to all theatre closures as all costume-making was proceeding as planned.

What’s the process of creating the stunning costumes on our stages? 

The process of creating the costumes is dependent on the show and on the designer. Sometimes there will be a set of detailed designs; for The Whip, for example, costume designer Nicky Shaw was clear it is a period show and had advised the colour schemes, which makes selecting fabrics a quicker process.  

For The Comedy of Errors there are some structured designs from Max Jones but other costumes will start with a conversation with the actor. So that approach is slightly looser. 

Once fabrics are chosen, we talk to the cutters about the shape of each garment and then we’ll decide if the fabric has to be dyed before it’s made up. All the patterns are drafted bespoke to each actor and the costume is then cut out, tacked together and fitted. At the fitting, the director can make any changes they want artistically, the cutters will look at it technically and the actor will also have an input. The costume is taken apart and those changes are marked on a pattern before it’s put back together again. 

Are there any other things you need to consider? 

The Comedy of Errors is set in the 1980s so we’re looking at whether we should make everything, source vintage items, or use modern reproductions. All this is considered quite early in the process as we are working on multiple shows at once. In addition you need to factor in any blood. Is there rain in the production? Are they physical performances? Do they need to fight and be able to move in a certain way in their costume? Often revisions will come out of rehearsals and we then need to be flexible. We try to be as reactive as we can, within the physical limitations of costume making. 

Have there been any specific challenges on the current or upcoming season? 

We don’t yet know what is involved for the first two Projekt Europa shows in the Swan Theatre. Therefore the biggest challenge at the moment is how to schedule the workrooms to be as productive as possible, whilst keeping time in reserve to respond to what’s coming from rehearsals. 

Have any productions you’re currently working on changed a lot in rehearsals? 

I suppose The Whip has changed quite a bit. Initially the furies were to be dressed in Lycra and have a muscular look, so we booked a specialist maker. That idea was put on hold at the start of rehearsals. Now the furies look is based on a very simple underwear base which we created inhouse. 

The Whip production photos_ 2020_2020_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_304048
The Furies in The Whip
Steve Tanner © RSC Browse and license our images

Are the various Costume Teams reliant on one another? 

They can be. If a fabric needs to be dyed it has to go there first and then into workroom to be made up. If we’re struggling to find appropriate fabric, or it needs to be dyed and this has not been in the plan, then it shifts our schedules. You can only do so much planning before it becomes restrictive. We have to know what we’re aiming for, and decide how nimble we can be. 

Is there an average time to make each part of a costume? 

I take it as positive that I can’t answer that question, because it shows we’re not a factory. A smoking jacket in wool would be quicker than if you were making it in a velvet, and that would be quicker still if you were making it in silk. Everything is always dependant on the fabric used and how much care that needs.  

It’s also very different for each show. It’s rare that one maker will work on one costume from start to finish. Each team could easily be working on three different shows at the same time and, within that, multiple different costumes. And, of course, one costume could go through several hands within the team, that’s the nature of costume making. 

With all this going on, how do you communicate between all the different workrooms? 

We have meeting every Tuesday morning where we discuss everything that’s going on and keep the information flowing. It’s a good opportunity to catch up and ensure we are up to date for each production. It’s also a good opportunity for anyone to say if they could do with an extra set of hands. 

Have you been to visit the Costume Workshop building site recently? 

I’ve been on site recently and it’s the first time since the floors have gone in. The walls are going up and we are starting to fully understand the scale of it. It is really exciting to see it coming together so quickly. 

Is there anything in particular that excites the team? Or is it just the building as the whole? 

I think everyone wants to be close to the theatre again. There’s a lot of lessons we’ve learnt in our temporary home and it has had a positive impact on how we work, but that slight disconnect from the theatre has been hard. We’re excited to be moving back this year! 

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