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Costume designer Catherine Kodicek: Sometimes it takes outsiders to remind us why we work in theatre

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It can be good to see your world through others’ eyes. In these often troubling times – with Brexit uncertainty, austerity squeezes and social tensions – it can be hard to remember why we do what we do. Why do we stick with it and keep coming back for more?

There are problems closer to home in the theatre industry – those low pay and dismal contracts won’t solve themselves – but this week, in the midst of previews, it has been impossible not to feel happy. This week, I am loving my job, glorying in all things costume. My department is full of colour and songs and laughter because we’re doing a bright, joyous show; we have a community chorus in the building and their enthusiasm is contagious.

For some in a theatre building, the thought of a community chorus causes them to roll their eyes. Wrangling the numbers in a professional chorus is work enough, but with amateurs your work is really cut out. Volunteers are not biddable, they can disappear from a project entirely without warning, or simply not turn up one evening and a substitute will have to go on.

They may appear on stage wearing their own earrings or shoes, or dye their hair without asking because their contract with the theatre is not one that can be enforced with sanctions – it is one of goodwill. They are giving up a huge amount of their time for no other reward than the experience itself. The challenge for the costume professional is to bring as much flexibility to the process as possible, to appreciate the community and see them as individuals – which does not often happen with a professional chorus who are thought of as a whole entity.

When interacting with community participants, the costume professional really becomes a theatremaker

And in interactions with community participants, the costume professional really becomes a theatremaker. It is in the intimacy of the costume fitting that doubts and fears are allayed. It is in the creation of costumes that you will hear: “Ooh, I never wear this sort of thing normally but I love it.” It is the delight with which some greet a pair of shoes – “Are they just for me?” – the thanks and appreciation we receive for looking after their costumes nightly and to see people embrace a whole new side of themselves they didn’t know was there. Lives are changed. Lifelong friendships are made. People see the world differently. And we are reminded how glamorous and exotic the costume world is to someone who spends their days in an office in front of a computer.

It helps if the show is a big, glorious feel-good musical. Who can be unhappy when they are singing? In those moments when the community is on stage, the adrenalin rush of performing in front of a packed audience in a professional theatre bringing out broad smiles, we remember why we are working in theatre. We want to communicate with people, to create something that brings us together. If not for this, then what is the point of it? For those of us who have worked in theatre for years and forgotten that feeling, their presence is like a burst of sunshine on a cloudy day.

Costume in theatre is awesome. It is life-affirming and gorgeous. Sometimes it takes outsiders to remind us.

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