RSC completes £8m project to update theatre’s costume department

"This is the first time I’ve had natural light in 32 años,” said Alan Smith as he contemplated the job in hand: cutting some thick brass to make a jewel-encrusted knuckle duster for The Comedy of Errors.

Elsewhere in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s redeveloped costume workshop, people were busy making rainproof chefs’ hats, dusting trainers to look as if they’d been worn in Dubai and lamenting the lack of polyester in men’s suits.

No day is a normal day for the 30 people who make the RSC’s costumes, weapons and props, dicho head of costume Alistair McArthur, but at least they are now working in spaces that are airy, open and full of light.

On Thursday the RSC formally announced the completion of a two-year project to update the largest in-house costume-making workshop in British theatre.

The facilities in Stratford-upon-Avon were now as good as anywhere in the world, said McArthur, and a long way from the “Dickensian” and cramped workshops of old, where everyone was dotted all over the place.

The light in the old women’s costume department came from skylights that used to leak, said McArthur. “If we knew there was rain coming we’d have to clear everything off the table the night before.”

The Guardian was given an early preview of the workshops and the teams this week busy making props, costumes, hats and weapons for The Comedy of Errors, which had been in rehearsal when everything closed down so suddenly in March 2020.

The show will now open next month in the RSC’s new and temporary outdoor performance space on the banks of the River Avon.

What was clear from the tour was the dizzying range of what was done. The head of the men’s costumes department, Emma Harrup, was working on suits meant to have an 80s feel, a photograph of Richard Gere in American Gigolo providing visual help.

That meant a shinier fabric than would be used today. “It’s also complicated by the production being outside so we want something with polyester in it to give it longevity,” said Harrup.

A member of the team was scouring suppliers in Birmingham, sending Harrup regular updates and asking what she thought. “It is proving very difficult to find.”

In props and armoury, the head of department, Alan Smith – making the knuckle dusters – recalled the old workshops. “Everything was a bit creaky, a bit crumbly … all the machines had started to go wrong. I’m not that tall but if I stood my head could touch the ceiling.”

In total, £8.7m was raised for the project. That meant teams relocating for two years and the packing and moving of materials including 1,714 reels of thread, 7,885 metres of stock fabric, 1,131 magnets, 3,500 pairs of shoes, 115kg of salt, 36 mannequins and 45 sewing machines.

The actor Harriet Walter said she could remember nearly every costume she had worn at the RSC. “Much as I loved visiting the rabbit warren where costumes and armour and everything else was made in the old days, I realise it was pretty much a Dickensian sweatshop and it was more fun to visit rarely than to work in permanently.”

Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC, thanked everyone who had supported the restoration and redevelopment of the costume workshop.

“The team create amazing costumes every year but were doing so in conditions that were not fit for purpose. Costumes are integral to an actor’s performance and to them becoming the character they are to play.

“As Judi Dench said: ‘No matter how much rehearsal time you have, you cannot get fully into the part until you are in costume.’”

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