Theatre Textiles Part 1

Theatre Textiles Part 1

After I had retired from full time work in 2006 I was finally able to join SNADS – our local amateur dramatic society. I live in a small market town in Dorset and SNADS was the main source of entertainment for our area at that time (as it had been since 1930, although newspaper archives indicate that it was around at least as early as 1883). I had seen most of the productions which they had put on since we moved there in 1999 and longed to join in, not only on stage, but behind the scenes. During any one year there are at least 4 productions – Pantomime in February, Spring Play in May, a Variety Show/Revue in the summer and the Autumn play in early October, and as soon as that was over, the round started again with preparations for the following year’s Panto.

We had a fantastic wardrobe mistress, but she needed help with costumes, especially at Panto time as there was so much to do.

My first foray into costume was to make a full head cat mask for the summer review. Two of our members were to sing Rossini’s Cat Duet and the director decided that it would be fun to have a disreputable tom cat watching them from the side-lines. I had recently learned to wet felt 3D items using a resist, so I made the mask from wet felted pieces and needle felted details. I didn’t want the actor’s eyes to show through and anyway, I needed to give the cat it’s proper “slit” irises. So I stitched into the eye holes a piece of doubled yellow organza and just painted the vertical slit. (It is quite possible to see what’s going on through organza if it is held close to your face.) How to give him a proper nose? I needled the correct shaped nose on the mask, then I painted on some artist’s gesso, let it dry and added some more. Gesso is textured so it was necessary to file the nose to make it a bit smoother, also the gesso is white, so I painted the nose with black enamel paint which I nicked from my husband’s paint store (he’s a model maker). After a couple of coats of that, Tom had a shiny(ish) black nose. Add some “bitten” ears and “wonky” whiskers and he was nearly done. The cat’s mouth was open – it allowed the actor to breathe and gave Tom naughty grin. Finally I gave him a pink tongue and white tips to his ears.

Disreputable Tom Cat

The next production that I was involved in was the pantomime Cinderella, written and directed by one of our members. I was asked by the wardrobe mistress if I would dress both the Fairy (“Fairy Nuff”) and Buttons’ dog, Beau. The director wasn’t quite clear about what kind of dog Beau should be, except that he was to be comic. So I did a sort of 3D needle felt sketch of the dog’s head as I saw it – black and white with one ear cocked.

“Sketch” for Buttons’ Dog

However I’d got it wrong – Beau was to be a black poodle. 

After some discussion with the wardrobe mistress, we decided that the actor would wear a black polo necked top, thick black tights and black gloves. I managed to find a piece of curly black faux fur to make a short jacket, with enough left over to make pompon for the top of the head and the end of the tail, the long dangly ears and wrist and ankle rings to simulate the correct style poodle cut. I was to make a full head mask. For this I made a wet felt hood using a resist and a further piece of flat felt incorporating some of the curly faux fur trimmed from the bought fabric. A lot of that moulted out though because it was nylon or polyester and very slippery. Enough was fixed in however to give the right effect.

I made a needle felted muzzle – again with the mouth open to reveal the red tongue and white teeth, and to allow the actor to breathe.  The nose I made in the same way as for the tom cat – shaped with the felting needle, gessoed and painted.  The muzzle was attached to the hood/face with stitching and felting needles.  Some of the flat felt was cut to represent the dog’s lips and attached by stitching and needle felting to the muzzle.  The “Disney-esque” eyes were again painted organza and were stitched on the inside of the mask. 

The ears and head pompon were also stitched on.  I added a piece of brown fabric and a belt buckle around the dog’s throat to simulate a collar and allow the mask to be firmly secured over the actor’s polo necked top.  I have worn this costume myself a couple of times in subsequent Carnival processions – great fun.

Beau

Since the actress cast for the part of Fairy Nuff had a figure which could easily cope with a glamourous costume, for the base I was given a basque that fitted her. She was to appear out of a compost heap at the edge of the stage, so I set to and made lots of autumn coloured leaf shapes – mainly oak – out of different brown bronze and gold metallic organzas. I sandwiched sparkly bits between layers of organza. I machined stitched around the edges and along the veins of each leaf and then cut out the shapes with a soldering iron. This sealed the edges and prevented fraying. Then, with the basque on a dressmaker’s dummy I attached large pieces of bronze organza for the tail, and then added the strategically placed leaves.

The wings were made from two lengths of flat wire (originally from a pop-up fabric laundry container) covered with more organza, this time creamy white but with sparkles and sequins added. These were attached to the back of the costume by stitching the wire to the shoulder straps of the basque and covering the join with some dark bronze/gold chiffon.

The crown was made from bronze Christmas decorations (that year bronze was in fashion over here – UK). I used bronze plastic icicles, some foil stars and some more organza leaves attached to a head band. I can’t remember what the wand tip was made from – possibly a bunch of tinsel.

I actually got a speaking part in this Panto – only a couple of lines but a step up from what I’d had before.
I don’t have a proper photo, this was before my husband had a digital camera, however I’ve managed to extract a clip from the video we had made of the show. It’s a bit fuzzy if enlarged but I think you can get the gist. I’m in the gold dress with my exclusive “Toilet Duck” perfume, and my punchline? “It drives the men Quackers!”

Guests at the Ball with “perfume”!

After this show, we had one final “adult” Revue and then we moved to where we are now based. Try this link it should show you the hall we left, Sturminster Hall, and eventually the Community and Arts building, The Exchange, which is now our home. https://stur-exchange.co.uk/about/
Unfortunately it seems that a second link, on the above page, may not yet be working – this is a new website in the process of being fully set up so here’s the brochure which was produced the year after it opened.

The Exchange Brochure 2008

The staircase balustrade is wrought iron made by a local craftsman and represents the river Stour which runs through our town. All the Rooms in The Exchange are named after rivers and streams running close by, and it is just beginning to open again to live theatre as well as community groups.

We at SNADS started off our return with an Adult Cabaret a couple of weeks ago, for once without a male Balloon Dance or a ladies Fan Dance, but there was a Pole Dance!

More about my exploits with SNADS (including an explanation of the picture of the wicked queen) later. Watch this space.

17 thoughts on “Theatre Textiles Part 1

    1. Thanks Ruth. Now that SNADS have started up again – the adult cabaret was a success thankfully – I’ll be adding to the “stable” of character costumes. I hope to do another bulletin in due course. I must remember to take photos as I go along.
      Ann

  1. What a lot of fun you are having. It sounds like a great retirement occupation, backstage and performing. The costumes were fabulous. I am looking forward to the next instalment about the wicked queen.

  2. Thanks Ann.
    The wicked queen was in Snow White and we actually did it in February last year, just before the first lockdown. There will be quite a few costumes to tell you about before that one, but as I wasn’t taking progress pictures, I might get them all in one post.
    Ann

  3. Your costumes are wonderful! Cleverly designed and made – using organza for the eyes is a fab idea. Am Dram gives a lot of pleasure to its audiences and your new home (Sturminster Hall) looks great.

    1. Thanks Lyn. In fact Sturminster Hall is the old 1960s building. We’ve moved to The Exchange, which is humungous compared with Stur Hall. In fact the footprint of the old hall would fit (just, admittedly) on the stage and wings at The Exchange. Now we have our work cut out to fill it sometimes. It’s fun though – usually.
      Ann

    2. My memory is not what it was! When I re-read your post I realised that I hadn’t taken in the info correctly – sorry. I saw the photos of your new ‘home’ but had Sturminster Hall stuck in my head!

    1. Thanks Marilyn. Certainly lots of fun to wear – at least most of them. My favourite is Polly the Parrot, which I’ll tell about somewhen.
      Ann

  4. Ann, for some reason your email went to spam so only seeing it now. Your costumes are ingenious. I simply love that poodle too – he/she should be worn for any parade for the foreseeable future. The fairy costume is divine. As for your new theatrical home – it must be heaven to perform in such beautiful surrounds. Now to the Adult Cabaret ….. hope no actors were injured during the pole dance lol!

    1. Thanks Helen. The pole dancer was male! He is semi professional and doesn’t look strong enough to achieve some of the moves he did.
      No actors were injured, but it’s as well I couldn’t hear what a particular, very drunk, member of the audience was saying while I was on stage or he might have been. I was told about it afterwards and was not very pleased!
      Apart from that it all went well and very light hearted. Now I can concentrate on the Panto costumes I’ve been asked to do.
      Ann

    2. Love your response Ann – by the sounds of it he was lucky to leave the theatre unscathed.

      Which reminds me of a story I want to share with you. Years ago when we lived in London, hubby and I went to see Arthur Millar’s play ‘A view from the Bridge’ . It’s kind of deep and dark and it had reached the part where the lawyer – played by our very own Michael Gambon – was about to accuse one of the characters of some heinous action – I remember that he had his back to the audience and his arm up in the air and the whole atmosphere was tense and waiting on the edge of our seats. That is all except for one guy in the row in front of me who took that moment to let off a loud snore. I could see Gambon’s shoulders shaking with laughter. He took 30 seconds out to compose himself and then got back into character. The audience member was nearly massacred at the intermission. All I could hear from him was ‘what did I do, what did I do’ lol

    1. Thanks Karen, yes it is – though it’s even more fun to be in them. I love making a fool of myself on stage! Unfortunately I’m unlikely to do much more of it – getting too old. At least I’m finally beginning to accept that I can’t do as much as I used to.
      Ann

    2. I’m guessing you’ve still got a lot to offer the Am Dram group Ann! Even when you eventually do give up the acting I’m sure your costume skills will be in demand for as long as you’re prepared to make them.

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