As the National Theatre mounts an exhibition to showcase the work of its costume department, its head of costume takes Nick Smurthwaite through the different stages of the production process for a show
With 20 shows a year to dress, the costume department at the National Theatre has its work cut out. It ranges across the fourth and fifth floors of the South Bank complex and employs nearly 50 makers, buyers, textile and costume prop experts, dressers, repairers, as well as the freelance designers and costume supervisors attached to each show.
Overseeing this small army of skilled craftsmen and women is Carol Lingwood, who joined the National two decades ago after 10 years as senior costume supervisor, and then deputy head of costume, at the Royal Opera House.
Trevor Nunn was the artistic director when she first arrived, and she has subsequently worked under Nicholas Hytner and Rufus Norris. She says: “Each director has brought their own focus and that can change how we need to work. With Nick, it was new writing, which meant buying in more clothes, as well as NT Live, where you had to be aware of the close-up detail on screen. With Rufus, it is very much about reaching out and collaborating our work with other theatres and partners across the country.”
From an early age, Lingwood followed in her mother’s footsteps with a love of sewing and an interest in making things. She was interested in the stage and at secondary school organised trips to the local theatre, Leeds Playhouse, to see the monthly rep shows.
After initially considering a career in teaching, she was inspired by an exhibition of costumes from BBC TV productions “and thought I would investigate how you got into a career in costume-making. I wrote to the BBC and they pointed me to gaining experience in theatre. Making contact with the Playhouse, they invited me in for a look around and I met someone who was studying a specialist costume course at Liverpool. For me, that sounded like a perfect fit so I applied – and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Almost four decades later, she says, “here I am and I still keep thinking one day I will revert to teaching. I haven’t lost that desire to teach but feel blessed that I got so much connection with schools and colleges in this role to fulfil both ambitions.”
If the exuberant Lingwood is more than usually animated as she guides me through the department, it is because the National is currently celebrating the costume department’s work with a free exhibition, the first of its kind, in the Wolfson Gallery near the Olivier cloakroom, running until next June. There is also a book, Costume at the National Theatre, being published as an accompaniment.
The NT head of costume says: “I’m so delighted we can celebrate the breadth of their skills and crafts. It gives the public an opportunity to see what we do and how we do it.”
The exhibition features costumes from War Horse, Follies, Antony and Cleopatra, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as well as revealing the painstaking processes that go on behind the scenes.
It also explains the role of the National’s separate hire department at the Oval, managed by Liz Murray, which accommodates some 90,000 items of clothing.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in a flower shop, creating bouquets and arranging the cut flowers.
What was your first paid theatre job?
In the workroom at BBC Television Centre, creating things for Play Away and taking up Bergerac’s trousers.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Early on in my career, I had a boss who was overbearing and critical – teaching me how not to manage staff and teams.
What do you wish you had known when you started out?
My dad was always worried I wasn’t aiming for a ‘proper’ career. I wish he could have seen how inspiring and challenging a career in theatre costume has been.
If not head of costume, what would you have done?
Occupational therapy or property development.
What is your best advice for somebody trying to get into theatre costume-making?
It is not easy to get established but the rewards are worth waiting for.
Do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions?
I don’t personally, but at the NT we have ‘the rumble’ that happens at the five on every first night, where all the actors bang on their dressing-room windows to wish everyone a great opening.
“The hire department is hugely important for a number of reasons,” says Lingwood. “Our costume designers often go down there for inspiration, to see what an actor might look like in a 1920s dress, for instance. We sometimes recycle things for the understudies’ costumes to save money. It’s often really helpful to have clothes or shoes available that are already worn in. We’ve got more than 7,000 pairs of shoes and boots in our shoe store.”
The costume design process begins not with the hiring of the designer, but even earlier with the allocation of funds for a production. Lingwood explains that her role sometimes starts not only before a designer is appointed but sometimes even before the show itself has been confirmed. She says: “The creative team for any show is given a budget for the entire show that has to cover everything, from lighting to sound to sets to costumes.
At the same time, each head of department is starting to gather information so they can work out their own budget. Ninety-nine times out of 100 there isn’t enough money for everything, so that is when you have to start thinking about slimming it down, where the priorities lie. It could be that the designer looks at the set, the props and the costumes, and decides this show is all about the set. A lot of that thinking has to start before we begin rehearsals.”
So after the costume designer is on board – often the same person who is doing the sets – does all the responsibility devolve to them? “I’m very involved in those early stages. Once the designer is sorted out, we get in a costume supervisor, who is like the project manager for the show. I need to be comfortable that they are going to take it in a direction we can afford, that we have the manpower and the time to deliver, and that it is sitting within the ethos of what the creative wants. Then the costume supervisor will work with me on an ad-hoc basis up until the beginning of rehearsals.”
She continues: “Once rehearsals start, I hand over the project to the costume supervisor and he or she remains in-house for the duration of rehearsals – six to eight weeks. They continue to work closely with stage management, arrange fittings, choose fabrics, liaise with other creatives and makers, and oversee alterations. The costume supervisor’s job is all about logistics. I have a weekly meeting with each costume supervisor to make sure they’re on the right track. They attend the technical rehearsals, alongside the designer, reporting back to me on any problems, such as an actor being uncomfortable in a particular costume.”
The technicals also provide an opportunity for the so-called running wardrobe – the troops on the ground who look after the show during its run – to see what the maintenance tasks are going to be. Will that 30-second quick change be achievable? How can the stage blood be washed out of that dress in time for the next performance?
Lingwood says: “It’s the running wardrobe’s job to make sure the actors are happy with their costumes for the length of the run, and that the costumes look the same for each performance. It’s my job to make sure the designer’s vision maintains for the duration of the run.”
Helping Lingwood cope with all these demands on her time is her deputy, Iona Kenrick, whom Lingwood refers to as “the eyes and ears of the department”. It is Kenrick’s job to oversee the day-to-day management of each project, and the running of the in-house work stations. These include the textile studio, run by Lizzie Honeybone, whose jobs include breaking down materials as well as finding affordable ways of creating exotic and elaborate costume accessories on a shoestring budget. There is also the tiny costume props room, a gloriously chaotic space, run by Reuben Hart for the past 14 years, where visitors are equally likely to trip over an elaborate wig from Amadeus as an 18th-century Mughul turban or a fake penis.
There has been talk in the past – both at the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company – about outsourcing costumes and props to save money, but Lingwood passionately believes in the benefits of keeping them in-house. She says: “Obviously you need to give value for money, but we create 20 new shows a year here and there simply isn’t the freelance capacity out there to give it the care and attention, the skill and the craft that we are able to provide within the organisation.”
A highlight of her tenure has been working with her counterparts at the National Theatre of China as technical producer on a touring production of War Horse, the NT’s most successful show of the past decade.
“Over five extended trips, I visited four Chinese cities, working with all the technical teams to put on the best show while getting to understand their different ways of working and overcoming the language barrier,” she says. And she is proud of the result. “We initiated many skills exchange opportunities to meet, work and learn from each other.”
Born: 1962, Mirfield, West Yorkshire
Training: Diploma in Theatre Costume and Design at Mabel Fletcher College, Liverpool
• Head of wardrobe, Royal Theatre Northampton (1986-87)
• Head of wardrobe, Watford Palace Theatre (1987-89)
• Costume supervisor, rising to deputy head of costume, Royal Opera House (1989-99)
• Head of costume, National Theatre (1999-present)
• Technical producer, War Horse China (2015-18)
The Costume at the National Theatre exhibition will run until June 2020 in the Wolfson Gallery. Further details are available at: nationaltheatre.org.uk