MY FIRST JOB AS A COSTUME SUPERVISOR
DATE: July 2012 [one year out of drama school]
SHOW: A Musical [unspecified]
WHERE: One of the more established venues on the London Fringe
JOB ROLE: Costume Supervisor
I studied set and costume design at drama school. I had one or two lessons in wardrobe skills so this wasn’t my area of expertise at the time. But I was organised and keen. If I were to do it all again now there’s no doubt I would be 100x better. But if the opportunity arose now I would turn it down straight away, as I no longer work for £300 buyouts. I don’t think what I produced met the standard the director/producer was expecting. But considering my lack of experience, and the lack of physical time available, I actually did a bloody good job.
I had met the designer on a previous show on the fringe – and this was the second job I’d assisted them with. They called me 10 days before press night. Seven days before the show opened. They sent me about five costume sketches but otherwise I had no references. It was a large musical with a ‘show in a show’ element. Cast of twenty. Only a couple of the characters had one single costume, the rest had multiple. There was an ensemble of ten who had about five costumes each. I was given a budget of £2000. I spent £1893.
I remember turning up to the first meeting and everyone being shocked at the paperwork I brought along; that I had gone through the script and had a list of every character and every costume mentioned. I remember then feeling confident I could do the job.
I remember going through the company’s stock of costume and the designer and director asking me questions about whether this particular item was the correct length/colour/ fabric for the era. I had researched images and flicked through a few books, but felt massively out of my depth because “no I didn’t know if that neckline was typical of the era”. It felt like a test.
I remember one of the elder female cast members was difficult. Overbearing, unnecessarily rude and intimidating. She upset a lot of people and we butted heads a few times over her costumes. The girls in the ensemble checked I was okay after one particular disagreement. She ended up wearing a lot of her own stuff.
I remember the designer being massively behind with the set so I stayed one night to help paint it. And on opening night everything costume-wise was as ready as it could be, so I asked if anyone needed any help. The FOH manager asked me if I could hoover and then watched me do it. Keen, foolish, underpaid and exploited.
I remember one of the characters got cast only a couple of days before we opened. Luckily he just had one suit and it was a miraculous charity shop find. I remember feeling guilty because he asked to borrow a needle and thread so he could take up his trousers. I remember thinking I should have been doing the alteration but he was so relaxed about it, and I did have a million other things to do.
I remember being in a meeting with the director, designer and a few other people. I hadn’t created the “white tie Fred and Ginger look” they wanted. So the designer said they’d come with me to a hire store to pick out new dresses. During this conversation a friend of the director, who had a costume store, offered to sort out the waistcoats for the boys. I asked the designer why, with a week until we open, hadn’t we hired it from them to start off with (and saved me the hassle of finding the wrong thing). They replied saying they’d charge.
I remember thinking it was my job to find costumes cheaper than a hire company to save the theatre money.. so it could not pay me properly.
I remember the costume hire person helping me and giving me some great advice. I was sewing on some poppers and they told me they were too small and that that size popper was essentially useless in the theatre world. They were right. They also said that this industry only survives because of supportive parents. That they still needed to rely on their parents occasionally. They were right about that too.
After the show was open, I emailed the producer (also the director) my invoice and final receipt breakdown. I hadn’t been given all the petty cash so I was owed nearly £150 on top of my fee. I didn’t get a response. They never replied to a single one of my emails.
Later the designer calls me asking to meet for a coffee. At the meeting they ask to see the receipts. The director doesn’t believe from what they can see on stage that that much money has been spent. The designer scans them and sees that I haven’t made anything up. They then say the director had also got the fee wrong. It was £250 not £300 but that they would pay the remaining £50.
I asked several times but was always ignored. I never received the extra £50.