Strictly Ballroom costume supervisor Terry Herfield: ‘It’s a balancing act between actors’ comfort and a designer’s vision’
After training as a designer, Terry Herfield found her calling as a costume supervisor. She tells Nick Smurthwaite how she manages to keep track of dozens of feathery frocks for Strictly Ballroom as it opens in the West End
There are about 300 costumes in Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, the stage adaptation of the hit 1992 film, many of them encrusted with sequins and beads. Indeed, when it officially opens in London this week, the show will compete with Aladdin and 42nd Street for the accolade of most costume-heavy musical running in the West End.
The person responsible for making sure all those beautifully crafted costumes, designed by Catherine Martin, are comfortable, dazzling and fit for purpose is Bradford-born Terry Herfield, making her West End debut as costume supervisor.
Herfield worked on the show as a costume assistant when the first UK production opened at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016, having originally premiered in Sydney in 2014, and was promoted to costume supervisor when it transferred to Toronto the following Easter.
“By that time, I knew the costumes, the requirements and the show better than anyone so I suppose they thought I was the right person for the job,” says Herfield.
Unlike in Leeds, where neither Luhrmann nor Martin (his wife) were involved, the new London production has the benefit of both lead creatives in attendance, at least some of the time. Herfield says it has been “wonderful” working alongside Martin, making changes, doing fittings and generally “mucking in”.
There is another reason she has enjoyed working on the show: nostalgia. During her childhood, Herfield spent a year in Australia with her family. “We travelled around in a camper van in the early 1990s and I think that’s one of the reasons I love this show, because that’s exactly when and where it is set, so it takes me back to our year in Australia.”
Q&A: Terry Herfield
What was your first non-theatre job?
Lifeguard at a leisure centre run by my mum.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Flint Street Nativity at Hull Truck in 2011.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You don’t have to have a plan. Go with what’s right for you.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Karen Hylton, my drama teacher at secondary school.
If you hadn’t been a costume supervisor, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I’ll probably tell someone off if they’re whistling backstage.
Back in Hornsea, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, the teenage Herfield became involved in school productions and a nationwide competition called Rock Challenge, for which she did make-up and costumes. “I loved the idea of people pretending to be someone else and helping to facilitate that, bringing all those elements of costume and make-up together.”
But it would be another 10 years or so before she embarked on the path to a career in the theatre. In her 20s, Herfield was busy bringing up two children as a single parent and taking odd jobs to help support them.
“By the time I was 30, I needed to do something for me, so I enrolled in a drama degree course at the University of Hull as a mature student, specialising in costume,” she says. “I spent the whole of my third year making and designing costumes. By the end of it, I’d decided that the role I was best suited to was costume supervisor. My strength is making sure the designer’s vision transfers to the stage rather than designing.”
So what exactly does the costume supervisor do, and how is the job different from that of head of wardrobe? Herfield explains the pecking order: “The costume designer is queen bee, then comes his or her associate – in the case of Strictly Ballroom, Nicky Tobolski – who will liaise between the designer and supervisor. My initial job as supervisor is to facilitate the making, so I source the makers, shop the fabric, calculate how they will work in practical terms. Then there are the fittings, the laundry, ensuring the durability of the costumes, all the practical stuff.”
Strictly Ballroom had 30 makers and it was Herfield’s job to oversee that operation, to make sure they all understood the brief and that they had all they needed for the job.
“The head of wardrobe, Corrine Tookey, is more concerned with organising the day-to-day running of the show in terms of the costumes,” she continues. “She is here for every performance, organising the dressers – there are 153 costume changes – and takes responsibility for costume maintenance during the run. Although my real work finishes when the show opens, I pop in every now and then to make sure everything is running as it should, and I get involved with cast changes and swings.”
The wardrobe team for Strictly Ballroom numbers a dozen, including two in-house seamstresses, five dressers and an intern from the London College of Fashion.
Strictly Ballroom costume in numbers
• 745 million feathers
• 1,000 pairs of false eyelashes
• 100,000 crystals
• 250 litres of spray tan
• 100 metres of fabric per ballgown, plus 30 metres of feathers (the length of three double-decker buses)
In addition to having good organisational skills and a sound knowledge of how to source the makers – Herfield says that’s been one of her toughest challenges as this is her first job in London – one of the essential requirements for a would-be costume supervisor is to be a people pleaser.
“Being easy-going and likeable is a huge plus in all the backstage disciplines,” she says. “Occasionally you have to deal with someone difficult, and you must a strike a balance between what an actor feels comfortable wearing and what the designer has specified. But most of the time it is possible to reach a compromise. We all have a shared goal at the end of the day.”
The other must-have in Herfield’s job is stamina, as the working day is frequently 14 hours long when a show is in pre-production. “When there are 300 costumes and 153 changes on a show, the commitment has to be absolute and full on, which can be exhausting,” she says.
Before her involvement with Strictly Ballroom, Herfield worked as a costume assistant and most recently as costume supervisor with Hull Truck for nearly five years.
Her mentor there was head of wardrobe Sian Thomas. One of the shows they worked on together was Richard Bean’s rumbustious farce The Hypocrite, a joint production between Hull Truck and the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Sian taught me a lot,” she says. “With something like costume, learning on the job is everything. We’ve remained good friends.”
Herfield also worked on several shows at West Yorkshire Playhouse before Strictly Ballroom. These included Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a co-production with Opera North; a modern-dress Romeo and Juliet, and Barnbow Canaries, based on the true story of an all-female Leeds munitions factory that was blown up during the First World War.
Much as she loves working in the theatre, Herfield has been able to supplement her stage income with more lucrative work in television. She was taken on by ITV for the second series of Victoria, which was filmed at the Church Fenton Studios in the Selby district near Leeds, and at various locations in Yorkshire, including Castle Howard and Harewood House.
In May, Herfield will reunite with the Victoria team for the third series, this time as costume supervisor. She says: “The working practice is different because in the theatre my job is pretty much done when the show opens, whereas I have to be around all the time for the five-month shoot of Victoria. It is still often a 14-hour day but some days you can be home by tea time.”
Does she ever feel tempted to defect to TV full-time? “If you’re working on one job, especially something as high profile as Victoria, you do tend to be offered other work, so it can be quite tempting to stay with TV,” she says. “But I know how much I would miss the theatre, so at the moment I’m very happy to do both.”
CV: Terry Herfield
Born: Bradford, 1979
Training: University of Hull – drama degree with costume specialism (2009-12)
• Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Middle Child (2013)
• Dancing Through the Shadows, Hull Truck (2015)
• Somme 100 Celebration, Slung Low (2016)
• Strictly Ballroom, West Yorkshire Playhouse (2016)
• The Hypocrite, Hull Truck and Royal Shakespeare Company (2017)
• The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, WYP (2017)
• Victoria, Series 2 and 3, ITV (2017-18)
Strictly Ballroom is running at London’s Piccadilly Theatre