Lights, camera… costume

Over 80 pupils from across Northern Ireland enjoyed a careers day at the Lyric Theatre to find out about the various skills involved in producing a play. The event, that was a collaboration between the Lyric and Creative & Cultural Skills, was facilitated by the Lyric’s Creative Learning Department.

Creative & Cultural Skills is an organisation that works to improve the creative industry by developing its skills. The Lyric Theatre is Northern Ireland’s only full-time producing theatre.

The school-children, aged 14 to 16, took part in a series of five workshops covering Lighting, Sound, Stage Management, Design/Wardrobe and Front of House hospitality. By the end of the day the pupils had a thorough insight into the various skills involved in making theatre.

Costume skills

Erin Charteris, the Lyric’s Wardrobe Assistant, led one of the workshops which got pupils to think about the artistic and practical skills involved in costume for theatre. She began the workshop by asking pupils to think of a famous costume. Most pupils came up with Superman’s costume but one boy replied the red slippers that Dorothy wore in The Wizard of Oz.

“Dorothy’s costume in The Wizard of Oz is an iconic costume and vital to the storyline,” said Erin praising the pupil’s answer. “It highlights how important costume is to a show.”

She then explained the difference between historical and contemporary costumes.

“Anything not from our present era is an historical costume, so even the film The Help which is set in the 1960s requires historical costumes,” she said. “If we are putting on a historical drama we have to do a lot of research to make sure it looks right. We have had a lot of people working at the Lyric who have worked on the Game of Thronesseries which involved historical costumes.”

Erin went on to explain that contemporary drama costumes can also be difficult to get right.

“With contemporary dramas you are trying to convey the character and their mentality through realistic costumes – it is much easier to do a witch where you can exaggerate the costume to make her look evil,” she said.

In general Erin described how costume designers and wardrobe personnel consider the five ‘W’s when choosing costumes – Who, What, When, Where and Why.

“Always ask, why is this person wearing this?” she said.

Four very different costumes were displayed on mannequins during the workshop which were used in historical dramas from vastly different eras. The pupils were given a task to place them in historical order. The oldest was an Elizabethan (1558 – 1603) male costume complete with ruff which could have been worn in a film like Shakespeare in Love. There was an American colonial-style woman’s dress (c. 1662) worn in the Lyric’s first play in the new theatre, The Crucible. Then from the 18th century a very effeminate fop or long coat which Erin explained would have been worn with an ornate wig and powdered face. The most recent costume was from the late 19th century which was worn by the actor Paddy Scully who played Lady Bracknell in last summer’s Oscar Wilde play, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Special effects

One of the highlights of the workshop was when Erin revealed the secrets of special effects and make-up. She produced a small bottle with the label ‘Pure Filth’ – yes, seeing is believing – which she explained is used to dirty up or ‘break down’ a costume. It smelt a bit like crayons and is used on cuffs and collars mainly to make them look more lived in and therefore realistic.

Erin produced a shirt from the Lyric’s recent production of Macbeth which was torn and covered in blood as a more extreme example of a ‘broken down’ costume. Food colouring, flour and syrup are mixed together to create the blood used on stage. She explained that the fake blood is put into capsules that actors can bite on or a pouch made from cling-film which is hidden in clothes and then burst to effect a violent scene on stage.

At the end of the session Erin was asked about qualifications for working in wardrobe. One pupil asked if it was important to have Art GCSE?

“If you can draw it is very useful and much easier for working in Wardrobe,” she said. “You don’t have to do a costume course at university. I did a degree in English Literature because I wanted to understand plays. I then got lots of work experience in costume departments, which is the best way of learning about the job. You have to expect to work for free, at least until you get the experience. The job itself is long hours and six days a week but people do it because they love it.”

Afterwards Holly McAllister (14) from Our Lady’s Grammar School in Newry said: “I really enjoyed the workshop. It was interesting learning about the different techniques used to get the different effects on the costumes.”