29th July 2021

Backstage Stories: When It All Goes Wrong.

backstage stories

First a little about myself – I am a theatrical costume assistant or wardrobe wench as I like to affectionately call myself. I have worked in many different areas of performing arts over the span of my career which began in the early 2000s. I would like to say I have seen it all, but that would just be asking for trouble.

Starting small, there was that one time where a zip pull snapped during the five minute call. No biggie. Plenty of time to fix it, so the Deputy Head of Wardrobe quickly removed the broken tab and replaced it with a ring pull. All fine and dandy. My performer goes on in her lovely ballgown and I standby for our quick change out of said gown.

She comes running off to backstage and we have approximately 20 seconds to turn her into a tap dancing nun.

In the first few seconds of the change I realize something has gone direly wrong – in replacing the zip tab, we had inadvertently locked the zip. There was no opening that zip. By now, my dancer had realized something was wrong and we were losing precious time. I calmly say HOLD VERY STILL and pull out my leatherman and slice the zip open. My performer – still frozen – just goes I don’t want to know what you just did back there and we proceeded to finish the change faster than we have ever done it before. She made it on with no time to spare.

Another quick change dilemma sees me stripping a dancer of a dress. I unzip, grab the shoulders and pull the entire dress to the floor, squatting down with it in order to clear it from her feet and proceed with her shoes. This particular time, I made this move and as it happens we both hear this horrendous RIIIIIIIIIIPPPPPP!!!!!!

A course expletive erupts from my throat and my dancer freezes like a deer in the headlights. She looks at me and goes “What just happened?!?” to which I reply “I will need to check, but I am pretty sure my pants are now crotchless!!!” We manage to finish the change amid gales of laughter – hers not mine – and she gets on stage slightly breathless with tears in her eyes.

I proceed to make a classic technician’s repair i.e. I gaff taped my pants back together for the rest of the show.

Then there was The House of Dancing Water. A beast of a show where literally anything that could go wrong did go wrong. To set the scene, THODW is a circus show with a 7m deep pool as its stage. Through the use of multiple automated lifts, this pool could close up to be a flat stage. The stage is circular, 22m in diameter and the backstage area consists of a ring 50m in diameter.

The show also consisted of aerial acts and therefore wardrobe generally operated between B1 (basement level 1) and L4 (Level 4). The cast numbered anywhere between 90 and 110, with performers doing anywhere between three to eight changes per show. In my time there I went from being and Attendant (dresser), to Swing to Lead Attendant. One of my duties as Lead Attendant was running the Laundry track which also meant that anytime something went wrong, yours truly as a floating track got to fix it. This started the period of my life I like to call Running for Nudity.

We communicated via two way radio, so if something was needed, a call would be made to Laundry and we would sort out a solution. 90% of the time, it was all handled calmly and with plenty of time. Then there was that other 10%.

One instance saw me receiving a call from a new stage manager 5 minutes before the show was due to start. Denys had a problem with his costume and he needed his second. So I grab Denys’s costume and start the jog down four levels of stairs to B1. I get down approximately half way when a panicked call comes across the radio – “NOT DENYS! Marcin! Marcin needs his Sailor top!!!!”

Insert run of creative expletives here.

I yell copy and start running back up to L3. I bust out of the stairwell on L3 and, of course, Marcin’s dressing room is on the other end of the floor. I drop Denys’s costume on a chair as I run down the hall and into Marcin’s room where I grab his costume. I then manage to jump in an elevator – sometimes luck does smile at you – and by this point, performers have had to go into the water to start the show and they have moved Marcin’s entrance to give me more time to get to him.

I check with the SM where I need to be – East vom – so the opposite side of the building to where I am. Naturally. I am now standing in this lift, costume in hand.

I can hear the opening music for the show and I am waiting like an Olympic sprinter on the starting line for the lift doors to open.

Bing! Doors open!

I shoot out of the lift like a bullet from a gun, run past the turn off to the west and make it half way across the North Garage to the East before I hear screams out of my radio:


I do a dramatic about face that almost saw me land on my face – bear in mind that it was a water show so everything was constantly damp and slippery – and start bolting back around. As I come around the bend I can hear the music signalling Marcin’s entrance. I see him anxiously standing there with the SM and I toss them the costume which he proceeds to drag on as he is swimming for his life.

At this point I proceed to collapse on the floor. I should probably mention that I don’t like to run. I am a firm believer that one should only run if a bear is chasing you. On the upside, the SM was so incredibly apologetic that she bought me a lovely bottle of wine, which while completely unnecessary, was greatly appreciated.

In an example of watching something unfold and being powerless to fix it, I was working with the Male House Troupe and the Chandelier act was happening. The Chandi costume involved a full body green unitard with a puffy green neoprene outer, gaiters and an ornate crystal skull head piece. This particular day, the physio who had been watching the act came running into the Quick Change Area and grabbed me saying something was wrong with one of the costumes. I run out with her to have a look.

What I see is one of the performers progressively getting more and more indecent as the act went on.

As he moves, the outer of the costume slowly but surely creeps its way up his body. This should have been impossible, so all I can assume is that he has somehow managed to completely split his crotch apart. By the end of the act, his outer body was coiled up around his chest like a boa constrictor holding on for grim death. What made this indecent was the fact that all that this particular performer was known for his dislike of supportive underwear.

Ergo, his lime green leotard was rather clearly defining a whole lot more genitalia than was recommended for a family show. To make matters worse, his final position on the chandelier was hanging from the bottom, legs spread, 10m up in the air. It wasn’t until he returned to the Quick Change area – in fits of hysterical laughter – that I discovered that he had managed to put both of his legs in the one leg hole of his outer body. To this day, I still wonder how that boy manages to stay alive.

I have many more tales of ridiculousness, but those are for another time. If you have a tale of insanity that you would like to share, I would love to hear it. As I said, we all have these moments and it’s important to remember to have a giggle at them. None of us are perfect and the world would be no fun if we were.

Also by Annette Silva:

Kinky Equality: Australians Vote On Gay Marriage

Oh The Glamour: Life Of A Wardrobe Assistant

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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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