Behind the Curtain: “Nicholas Nickleby”
At Orlando Shakespeare Theater we’re embarking on one of our most daring shows ever, a six-hour, 27-person cast, 215-costumed character monolith: The Life and Adventures Nicholas Nickleby. As a Stitcher in the Costume Shop, I find myself as just one of many, many cogs in this endeavor.
No matter the show, a theater doesn’t usually build every costume. Some can be purchased or pulled from stock and altered to fit the actors. It’s no different with a show of this caliber. Building 215 costumes from scratch in two months would be impossible for a shop our size. Fortunately Costume Designer Jack Smith asks of the Costume Shop not that we do the physically impossible, but rather the theatrically spectacular. Jack has also gone to great lengths to eliminate unnecessary work. For example, an actor may play six characters but only use two pairs of pants and one shirt. The character’s half dozen vests, jackets, and accessories create the individual characters.
Jack’s initial research, design renderings, and fabric choices are just the first of many steps necessary to build a costume. Once the Costume Shop gets a hold of Smith’s renderings, the real fun begins. As a stitcher, I create the “mock-up” used in the first fitting. Mock-ups are made with a paper pattern and cut from simple, lightweight cotton. They do not receive finishing of any kind—no lining, no hems, no buttons—and the edges of the fabric are left raw. Mock-ups are simply used to get an idea of how the garment will fit the actor. I take copious notes on how the garment needs to be altered by pinning and even drawing on the mock-ups. The draper then uses the mock-up to alter the initial paper patterns and the pieces of the garment are cut out again, this time from the final fabric. The final garment is constructed out of this fabric, but still remains very basic. We wait to make the finishing touches until after the second fitting. Once that second fitting has occurred, the garment is completed. If time permits, a third fitting will occur so that everything can be double-checked.
Currently the Costume Shop consists around 15 people, including a manager, a designer, full and part-time staff, an intern, and a handful of local volunteers. As a stitcher on this project, I will only work with the costumes for three female and four male actors. At the moment, we’ve just finished up all of our first fittings and have started to turn our mock-ups into the final garments. Pictured are the rendering of one of the dresses my team is building, and the mock up of the corresponding bodice. In this case, the bodice has a canvas base with steel bones sewn into it and the fabric of choice layered over. As the rendering depicts, this character’s sleeves are quite involved. For the mock-up we only made the under-sleeve for her right arm, and the full sleeve for her left. While this results in a curious looking bodice for the moment, it will provide us the information necessary to make the correct final dress Jack wants.
We’re fortune to have so many people in the Shop working on multiple costumes, but that does make it difficult for any of us to see the big picture. I occasionally look up from my own tasks to see my coworkers making costumes I don’t recognize based off of renderings I haven’t seen. The same is true for all the other departments in the Theater. With everyone working on their own pieces in the puzzle, no one gets to see what anyone else is doing until it’s done. So I find myself as excited as any patron, waiting for opening night. It will be a rush to the finish line to get everything done on time, but I can’t wait to get there. So sit back, relax and enjoy the costumes…I mean the show!
Rachel Dombi has been a stitcher at Orlando Shakes for the past two seasons. She has spent the better part of the last decade working professionally in costume shops and wardrobe departments in theaters around the country. She studied costume construction and playwriting at Ohio University and graduated with a BFA in 2010.
Rachel is currently featured as a BroadwayWorld.com Guest Blogger. Click here to see her post!