Paul Clayton: Actors shouldn’t be asked to provide their own costumes without recompense
On the first day of rehearsals, there is always a moment when the company collectively holds its breath. It is the moment the designer reveals the threads each of us will be encased in for the whole of the run.
To this day, I still remember the collective sigh of a Stratford company being shown clown costumes – deflating balloons sounded more enthused. Yet, the decision has been made and the actors have very little, or really any, say. Even though it is us who will be the clothes horses for the designers weird and wonderful creations.
Clothes make the man
It was not a problem, of course, in Shakespeare’s day, when the actors just rocked up to the Globe in whatever pair of hose they happened to be wearing. If the play had a Roman theme, they’d just grab the nearest tavern bedsheet, and… voila: “Et tu, Brute”.
In the nostalgic world of mid-20th century repertory theatre, actors were expected to furnish much of their own wardrobe. There was very little chance of finding a place in a theatre company for any man without a lounge suit, a dinner suit, day shirts, evening shirts, collar studs and cufflinks. The latter two items were still to be found on my list of required equipment for drama school in 1975.
Costume is worn by a character. It is supposed to delineate the person you’re playing from the person you are. I’m not entirely sure what it says about me that most of my television and film work seems to involve wearing a grey suit.
In one feature film, I had four. So remarkably similar were they, that on being sent back to the trailer to do a costume change one morning, nobody noticed.
Wardrobe envy: finding your own costumes
These days it is becoming increasingly likely that the dreaded phrase “Do you have anything suitable yourself?” will ring out.
Actors seem happy to raid their own wardrobes when doing low-paid or unpaid fringe jobs, but should they really be expected to when working for major independent production companies or even the BBC?
Several years ago I was filming a commercial for a major brand, playing the part of a window cleaner. I have nothing against window cleaners, but I rather think our wardrobes are unlikely to overlap. The costume designer had other ideas. “Surely you must have something that you paint the house in?” They clearly hadn’t heard of the concept of ‘getting a man in’.
‘I’m not entirely sure what it says about me that most of my television and film work seems to involve wearing a grey suit’
At the root of all this is cost saving. Even buying a Primark suit and shirt can run to £50, so why do that – some clearly think – when the actor can provide basics for free. But, clothes aren’t allowed as a tax-deductible expense any more unless worn exclusively for work, so why should we provide them without recompense?
There used to be an agreed allowance, but alas no more. It is the actor who subsidises what may already be a low fee. So next time you’re asked if you have anything suitable to wear as a ‘kindly teacher’ in a new TV drama, the answer you’re looking for is “three dressing gowns and a burkha.”
And the more this trend continues of actors subsidising productions with their own gear, maybe a company will be less critical during that tense moment of the designer’s big reveal on the first day of rehearsals… at least the production is footing the bill, even if it is clown costumes all round.
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