The normal task of designing a musical is a lengthy process, with months researching and creating concepts, buying fabrics, sourcing items, and fitting the actors, and often requires a lavish budget. But imagine you have a cast of 115 individuals with multiple costumes changes, 48 hours to fit every single one of them and a minimal budget because the whole thing is for charity… Some might quake in their boots at the mere thought.
I have been involved with Showtime Challenge since it began in Oxford in 2004. Back then we had the crazy idea that we could rehearse and stage a fully costumed production of Into The Woods in only 48 hours, incorporating a choir of 100 children. The evening, hosted by Mel Smith, was such a success and raised so much money for the children’s hospital in Oxford that we dragged the concept to London, upping the ante with bigger casts, enormous and complicated dance numbers and some of the grandest, most sizeable auditoriums in the city. Showtime now has many supporters, both actors who want to be part of the unusual and thoroughly rewarding process, and devoted fans, who have been audience members at all our productions along the way.
And 2016 seemed like the perfect time to bring our newest instalment to London – Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Adelphi Theatre, hosted by Warwick Davis, in aid of the mental health charity, Mind.
From a costume point of view, and having designed six of these productions to date, I approach the design of a Showtime show in a very different manner to most other projects. In order to make the 48 hours themselves run as smoothly as possible, it is so important to plan well in advance, have a very clear vision in mind for every scene, and liaise often with the director, choreographer and cast so that everyone is on the same page. I create mood boards and costume designs for every character and every ensemble and then ensure that the whole team understands what I am trying to create, because, with limited time and limited money, I have to rely on help from anyone who is willing to give it and am so thankful for the many individuals, whether from drama schools, past projects or members of the actual cast, who are able to provide items of costume to help bring my designs to life.
Our choice of show, Thoroughly Modern Millie, brought many challenges for my department. Set in 1922, it takes you back to the height of the Jazz Age in New York City, when “moderns” were bobbing their hair, raising their skirts, entering the workforce, and rewriting the rules of love, and for each location featured in the script I needed to create a new world and one immediately recognisable for the audience. From the fast-paced, blue/grey world of the hustling, bustling New York Streets, to Trevor Graydon’s geometric-inspired office full of stenographers and clerks, to the candy box Priscilla girls, the vibrant jewel tones of the Speakeasy club and the glittering, expensive party life lead by Muzzy, every detail needed to be cleverly thought through in order to create a sense of the 1920s, luring the audience into Millie’s trials and tribulations with colourful choreography and belting tunes, all enhanced by the costumes.
Showtime would not happen without my amazing team supporting me every step of the way. Not only did they need to immediately step into my mind-set and understand what I was trying to achieve, but I don’t think they could have stitched any faster over the 48 hours! Fittings with the cast were fast and furious, always keeping in mind that if I didn’t keep to my allotted time slot it would eat into their limited rehearsal schedule and some characters had three or four costume changes to boot. The creativity and flare that my team added to the process was exactly what I needed, transforming the most basic of items into fabulous stage-worthy creations with the most limited of resources.
The photographic evidence and the never-ending applause on the night speak for themselves. I am astounded by what was achieved by our talented cast, orchestra and crew in such a short space of time. That feeling of shared elation and camaraderie amongst new found friends when the curtain goes down on the Sunday night is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Exhausted but running on adrenalin, everyone is overcome with relief and yet the most incredible joy.
Sometimes I wonder why I put myself through it, why I would want to design a show that by its nature creates additional stresses and strains, that doesn’t run the same way as any other West End show and that you have no idea what it is going to look like until hours before the audience arrive. Things never quite go to plan – there just isn’t enough time – and ideally I’d rather not be perfecting people’s costumes while they’re standing in the wings about to go on stage, but it wouldn’t be Showtime without a lot of quick thinking and the odd mishap here and there. That buzz as the final bow is taken makes all the hard work worthwhile and a finer bunch of people I challenge you to find on any other production. Everyone is in it together. Everyone wants to produce the best show they possible can.
I think I’m still recovering from the madness of it all and perhaps currently in my “never again” phase, but that never lasts very long. So who’s for Showtime 7 then? Somehow I don’t think you’ll keep me away…
Production stills and behind the scene shots by Darren Bell and Cameron Slater.
Queens, Urchins and Zombies: The Real World of Costume Design
Queen Victoria’s coronation. A rodeo in Texas. The barricade of the Paris Uprising of 1832. A post-apocalyptic street in Cardiff. I’ve really seen quite a lot over my career so far…
But what exactly does a costume designer do and what is involved in making a film come to life? And is the film industry quite as glamorous as one might think?
In my first talk at The Step, I will be giving an insight into the industry with unique behind-the-scenes stories and answers to everyone’s burning questions!
Wednesday 13th March, 7.30pm
101 Myddleton Road
London N22 8NE
Spaces are limited so book early to avoid disappointment! £5 per ticket.
Book online at this link http://costumedesign.eventbrite.co.uk/# or give The Step a call on 020 3302 2412.
The talk will last an hour with the opportunity to ask questions after the talk.