The backstage area on community or school productions can quickly become a veritable tornado of costume chaos with big casts. I’ve been there; the biggest production I’ve directed so far was The Wedding Singer which had 36 high school-aged actors and lots of costume changes! Yet that’s small potatoes for some; I’ve seen school productions which include entire grade levels… 100+ kids!
Unless you are fortunate enough to have individual dressing rooms for each actor, it’s pretty much a given that there will be one common area where all the costumes are kept, and where actors get dressed before and after a show. As well, most community and school theatre productions are not staffed by a team of costume designers and dressers; more likely it is the responsibility of a group of dedicated volunteers and/or parents, who need quick and easy ways of keeping the chaos to a minimum.
To keep your costume area sane and tidy, here are some quick tips to help you out.
- Start with preventative measures. Make it a rule that actors must help tidy the backstage and keep their costumes neat. Reinforce the idea of teamwork — everyone pitches in. The backstage team are not the actors’ servants. Remind actors that if a costume piece gets dirty, wrinkled, or goes missing, it’s the actor’s responsibility to figure out the situation (and get help, if needed) BEFORE the next performance!
- Keep a written list of each item that each actor has, so the actors and costume team can refer to it. This way, if something goes missing, you can refer to the list and see who it might belong to. Post it up in the dressing rooms and near the costume racks for easy reference.
- Kevin – white button-down shirt, black pants, piano key necktie, black dress shoes
- Sophie – white button-down shirt, black skirt, white apron, black character shoes
- Kyla – burgundy corset, red leather jacket, white tutu, black booty shorts, black character shoes
- If you store items on a costume or clothing rack, make a divider with the actor’s name, and keep all their costumes hung up behind it to keep them separate from the other actors.
Simply cut a slit to the centre of a paper plate and then a small circle in the centre and pop it on the rack, or use a piece of paper or cardstock folded in half with a notch cut into the top, hung over a hanger.
- Label each item. Ideally, this would be a sewn tag on the collar or waistband of each item, but many amateur companies simply don’t have the time/money/resources to do so. Many times, putting a piece of masking or painter’s tape labelled with the actor’s name on each actor’s hanger AND a bit of tape on the collar/waistband of each item with the actor’s name on it will suffice for a shorter production run. Make sure to remove the tape before laundering, to avoid sticky residue wrecking the costume.
- Give each actor a garment bag (labelled with their name, of course) to store their costumes in. Each item gets hung up and stored inside the bag — even shoes can go in the bottom of the bag — and this way items can be kept somewhat condensed and easy to store in between shows. Just be sure that items actually get hung up and don’t end up in a knotted pile at the bottom of the bag! Ziplock bags can be used for the smaller items, headbands, ribbons, earrings, makeup etc. and can also be placed in the garment bag or in a small basket underneath the clothes rack. (Labelled with the actor’s name with masking tape in case the basket gets separated from the rack).
- If your changing area has hooks on the wall (for example, in the school’s gym changing rooms), assigning each actor a hook to hang their items can be useful.
- During the show, if there is room, each actor could get a laundry basket with their name on it to throw their stuff into during quick changes, and then after each performance, the actor takes their basket and sorts everything and hangs it up.
If you have time to, get your actors to rehearse quick changes so there is less chaos backstage.
- Set up a small area backstage or in the dressing rooms for repairs. Sewing needles, thread, spare buttons, masking tape, hair tyes, hair brushes, black markers, spare hangers, ziplock bags. Keep it in a space that can be manned by a volunteer or locked so it doesn’t become a free for all.
- If all else fails and items don’t get hung up or properly stored, after each show, collect all the items that are not hung up and put them in a box. Before the next show, the actor has to “buy back” each item, either with actual cash (usually 25 cents to a dollar per item!) or with a task/dare/”punishment” (like singing to the director, push-ups or sit-ups, etc). I’ve found that this tactic works extremely well.
Have you worked on a school or community production and developed some other backstage hacks? We would love to know about them!