29th July 2021

Oh The Glamour! Life Of A Wardrobe Assistant

Oh, the Glamour!

When non-industry people find out what I do, there are a few standard answers that recur regularly.

“Oh! You’re an actor?!?” Uh… no… which then leads to disappointment and confusion.

“Oh! You’re a scrub nurse?” Theatrical arts are not a big thing on the Malaysian peninsula, at least not amongst my family.

“You’re in theatre? How glamorous!”

This one is my favourite. There is this pervading belief that the glamour and mystique that happens onstage for all to see is carried on backstage as well. This fantasy is furthered by the idea that the work that goes on backstage – and onstage for that matter – is easy. The existence of this societal perception is an indication that we have all successfully done our jobs. We created magic. If only they knew what went into creating their effortless fantasy…

As a lighting technician, in my university days, one of my cues saw me crawling – literally in some spots – through the gantries above the audience to get to a lamp to use as a follow spot.

On a normal day, this involved holding in sneezes while crawling through dust, something I did not always achieve, and not thinking about the little pellets that were scattered around the floor. Clearly, somebody had decided the cramped quarters of a front of house lighting rig was the perfect place for lunch and had inconsiderately spilt their raisins everywhere. Totally plausible. At least it was until the day I came face to face with a possum who had taken up residence in the grid. There I was, frozen mid crawl – cos naturally this tete a tete happened in the crawling section of my journey – thinking “ What do I do?!?!” Thankfully, for the blissfully unaware audience beneath us and the dubious beauty that is my face, old Mr Poss decided I was beneath his notice and wandered away by himself. After breathing a sigh of relief, I barely made my cue.

As a Wardrobe Assistant – my natural habitat – I have been elbowed, kneed and literally thrown across a room due to limbs going astray in quick changes.

The fact that I haven’t had a broken nose yet is somewhat astonishing (knocking on ALL THE WOOD!!!!). As a dresser, I have been on my knees putting on socks and shoes, I have had my hands down more pants than a person has a right to and sniffed enough clothing armpits and various other parts to consider myself a fetishist. I have stitched crotches back together while performers have been in them. Same goes for Bottoms. It’s always awkward when someone walks in on that one! On one occasion, I was on my knees in front of a lovely acrobatic diver with one hand in his pants as I stitched closed a hole he had just popped in his crotch seam (I assure you, there wasn’t time to take off his pants!) when he started giggling. I looked up to see that while I was working on his crotch, the make-up artist had started removing his body make up, which involved her rubbing his chest. He’s just looked at both of us and said “This is crazy!!!” and we all cracked up. Thankfully I had finished the repair by this point and the make-up artist had finished her end of the deal too, so he could run away and do his thing, giggling all the way.

I spent two years on a water show arguing with performers that it was NOT ok to pee in their costumes.

“But we’re in the pool, the water will rinse it out!” – Firstly – ew, you’re swimming in that and so is everyone else. It’s a pool, not a loo. Secondly, the tubs of costumes I was receiving at the end of each day smelling of urine says your logic is flawed.
“But the scuba team pee in their suits!” Sure. They also wash their own suits. Are you going to wash your own costume?
And my favourite…
“Urine is an antiseptic so it is actually good for you.” All I was capable of producing was flabbergasted shock at the utterance of this pearl of wisdom before walking away.
The glamour… she never ends…
On that same show, I spent most my tenure there in the laundry. I was essentially a professional washer woman. For a ninety-minute show, we would average 35 industrial-sized loads of laundry and most of the time we did two shows a day.

At one point, I worked out that over the course of a two-show day, I would oversee 42 loads of laundry.
42 is the meaning of life.

The meaning of my life was laundry. My proudest moment. (Hint: Touch of sarcasm there!)

At the beginning of my career, I worked a little independent show – we all know the type. No money, paid in beer or fast food and you just somehow make something from nothing. This one saw me on the floor of the technician booth, my sewing machine on an upturned milk crate and me sewing costumes with my knee up under my armpit because it was the only way I could work the peddle.

Nowadays I am in the world of big-budget musicals. It doesn’t get any more glamorous. On Les Miserables, I was given a beautiful gown made with glorious fabrics. I then proceeded to spend the next three days attacking it with belt sanders and what felt like a thousand shades of brown paint.

I moved on to the land of Kinky Boots – glitter and sparkle, must be sassier than poor old Mis – hmmm… does sewing fake buttocks into things classify as glamorous?

Just yesterday saw Kinky Boots off on an excursion – full cast on a bus to do some publicity at a nearby festival. Due to logistics and limitations of the costumes i.e. very high heels coupled with a heavy wool that was enough to induce heatstroke on very warm summer afternoon in Melbourne and a skirt that we preferred not be sat in for an extended period of time, I got the exotic privilege of dressing a 6’ plus man into a wool dress with a corseted bodice and kilt style attached skirt (she was our Ghillie girl Angel) and high heel platform boots on a moving bus. To be fair, the bus wasn’t moving when we started but it did take us by surprise at one point which almost ended up with myself landing on top of the poor lad. Thankfully, no drag queens or wardrobe wenches were harmed in the making of this production and he looked fabulous at the end of the drive.

Then there are ins and outs. Another part of our industry that the average punter is generally oblivious too. The effort it takes to transfer and build a show is phenomenal. If a show is residential, the effort required to upkeep a show is equally phenomenal. It is also very decidedly unglamorous. Ins and outs involve lifting and carrying, unloading/loading trucks, cleaning, sorting, basically establishing order out of controlled chaos. By the time you are done, you must deal with the layer of dust that has progressively coated you. It’s the ever-classy Technician’s Tan. Getting home at the end of the night and jumping in the shower and watching the grime swirl down the drain? Oddly satisfying!

Then there is the mundane. Occupational Health and Safety reports and guidelines, Material Safety Data Sheets, timesheets and rosters, budget reports, petty cash reports, purchase orders, all the paperwork that most of us would rather not deal with, but know are inherently necessary.

Again, less than exciting, but still a part of the glamourous life.

Then there are the performers. How hard could it be to perform? All you do is get up onstage or onscreen and prance about a bit? What an easy way to make money! My response to that? Stuff and nonsense. If it were so easy to do, everyone would be doing it. The skill and talent involved in being a performer – be it as an actor, dancer, singer or musician – is already a thing that involves hours of commitment to their trade, most often unpaid, to maintain. Then you add the level of exposure and courage it takes to put yourself out there in front of hundreds, thousands, millions of strangers, many of whom are just waiting to tear you down? That’s if you make it past the humiliating experience that is the audition process, where most performers will be rejected over and over again. It’s not something I could ever do and I admire them their skill and bravery.

The entertainment industry is filled with amazing people, none of whom are unfamiliar with getting their hands dirty or pulling an all-nighter in order to get the job done. We work crazy hours, carry out a range of activities ranging from insanity to banal and I, for one, wouldn’t change a thing.

Also on TheatreArtLife:

How Do I Get Your Job?

Let’s Talk: What’s Harder, Stage Or Screen?

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Annette Silva is a Wardrobe Assistant and has been working professionally in the performing arts for approximately 15 years. Annette fell into the backstage world of theatre largely due to her lack of interest in traditional sports – apparently, gymnastics and ballet weren’t “real” sports. Annette's music teacher asked her to join the school’s light and sound team in lieu of doing the compulsory weekly school sporting torture and she hasn’t looked back since. Annette went on to study Technical Production at university and there she found her niche in the land of costume. Since then, Annette has had the privilege of working across many different disciplines – opera, ballet, drama, circus and musicals to name a few – and across many different cities and countries. Annette fell in love with the industry and the people within it and thrives on the challenges each day brings.

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