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Backstage: David Stringer, Wardrobe Master

First Published 31 August 2010, Last Updated 20 August 2013

Whether it be dealing with an enthusiastic opera singer, learning the Spanish words for body armour or finding the nearest dry cleaner to any given theatre, the life of a Wardrobe Master is an unusual one. David Stringer, the quick-change king of Legally Blonde The Musical, talks through his job with Caroline Bishop. 

I started from the beginning on Legally Blonde. I came in two weeks into the rehearsal process with two weeks to go until we got into the theatre. At that point I had to get the team together; I had already put my deputy assistants in place but I had to meet and hire all the dressers that we would need for the show, order all the equipment we needed for the department – washing machines, sewing machines, tumble driers, steamers – and also learn the show: work out what all the costumes were, assist fittings, buy underwear and really just get on top of everything.

I’m not specifically involved in the design of the show, my input was minimal. I would only really be involved in how things would work within the running of the show, quick changes and so on. After the show’s set up I’m certainly privy to all the conversations that went on during fittings, that’s very important because I need to make sure the designer’s intent is carried on through with things that we’ve replaced in the show.

Seeing as this show is mainly bought clothing we do have to refresh things quite often and of course what we bought in November last year is not in the shops when you’re looking in February this year. You just have to find something equivalent. I think that’s something that people don’t realise with our job: the shopping that is involved isn’t fun at all. Going up to Oxford Street and trying to find something very specific for an understudy and it’s just not there. It can get very frustrating. Your time is limited as well; I have three days in the week where I could physically go out shopping, which would be a non-matinee day.

The cost involved in making a garment, if we got an outside maker to make it, would be quite high. We could do it within ourselves but it’s sourcing the fabrics, finding the pattern, cutting the pattern, it would take forever and we don’t really have that much time to do that sort of thing, the only time we do have to make things is whilst the show is running. If we’re not working on the show that evening we’ve got a couple of hours spare there. We are making some hats at the moment which is quite interesting for us.

Running the show

I do everything from managing the team of dressers, making sure things are on the right people at the right time, to overseeing the laundry and the maintenance.

Today, a non-matinee day, I’ll come in at 13:30 and work through to the end of the [evening] show, and then on a matinee day we start at 10:30 to get everything ready for the first show. The hours do mount up, and during the production period it’s insane, but that goes for every department really. But it’s the old dog saying of wardrobe, you’re always the first in and the last out.

The dressers have their own pre-sets and they know where everything should be at a certain time. As a wardrobe team we have our main things that we do during the show to make sure that we keep the laundry coming up so we don’t end up with six loads of laundry tonight. Anything that’s worn next to the skin is washed every day: underwear, T shirts, socks. Then we have a rota for shirts and other things that maybe aren’t worn so often, we’ll do them maybe once a week.

Mastering the quick-change

When we started the show we were allocated four dressers – we now have seven – so the whole wardrobe team was on the floor doing quick changes and I myself assisted Sheridan [Smith – who plays Elle Woods]’s dresser with her quick changes. Whenever she’s not on stage she’s changing, and the same goes for a lot of the cast. All her changes involve two people, one on the outfit and one on the boots or shoes, and they also involve a wig person and also the sound person wants to check on her mikes. It becomes tightly choreographed and the panics we have to begin with are now a little more relaxed, you just know where the flow of the change will go. If you see the size of the stage downstairs, there is nowhere… literally everyone is changing in the wings, in corridors, in offices. So we also have to negotiate parts of the set, other crew members that might be around as well as the other actors who are changing.

At the end of the show the cast will get changed in their dressing rooms, so whatever they take off in their dressing room will either need to be set to one side to reset the next day, or washed again. Everything is labelled. I have probably the best team, I am very lucky that practically all my dressers have been wardrobe assistant or higher in the West End or on tour, so I know I can trust them and hand that side of the job over to them.

Treading a line

You need good organisational skills, and good people skills as well, because you need to deal with people when they are at their most vulnerable, when they are getting changed. When people aren’t happy with their costume, or they might be put into something that is not physically comfortable for their body shape, or they might have a hang up with something, you’ve got to work with them to make them comfortable. Sometimes there is no choice, that is the design – if you’re in a line up of showgirls you all have to look the same – so you do need to be quite sensitive in some respects and at the same time be quite tough.

You do need to feel your way and not overstep the mark. Now they are quite used to me and I can walk into any of the dressing rooms and it would be fine, but you just need to earn that trust. If someone requires a bit of privacy for any reason then you give them a bit of privacy.

I’ve worked all over Europe and it’s the same job here, there and everywhere, just done a bit differently. I think the difference is in the different types of performer. An actor will be completely different to a dancer or an opera singer and it’s knowing those levels. Whereas in musical theatre you are always having a laugh and a joke, when you work on a play sometimes you’ve got an actress who has come off stage in tears and hysterics and you’ve still got to get them changed and on stage again, but something’s gone on that you don’t know about and it’s affected their emotions.

I remember an opera at Glyndebourne, a very successful production, and she [the lead] got an ovation at the end of a number and she was on a high and she was running around and we were like ‘no, get in the dress! You lap it up girl but we’ve got to get you in this and get your wig on and get your jewellery on.’

Starting out

I studied drama, academic drama, and there was supposed to be a design module in my course but I didn’t think it was very good. So I started to design fringe plays and was asked at university to do wardrobe on a panto in Catford. I did that and then got some work experience with a company and I worked here at the Savoy with D’oyly Cart whilst at university.

It’s not easy to find work sometimes, it is about networking and you do get jobs from people you’ve worked with before or people hear about you. In some ways I think that’s always the best way to get jobs because they are very rarely advertised. I find that quite tough. It’s not like every show puts an ad in The Stage and everyone applies and the best person gets it.

Touring challenges

I took The Producers on tour and that was just mammoth, getting through some of the sections of that show by the skin of your teeth, and in a different venue every few weeks, that was just huge. The whole Springtime For Hitler sequence was just incredibly quick-change. You’ve got 12 dressers new to the show and you’ve got to teach that team in one session: ‘we’ve got to do it now and if it goes well this afternoon then we can do it tonight, if it doesn’t go well then we’ve still got to do it.’ The dressers are new to each venue, you don’t tour dressers, so that’s 12 people to get right.

You take the washing machines, the tumble driers, your hot boxes, and you plumb them in and unplumb them at the end of the run. Some places you go to there’ll be one or two [already there], or sometimes you’ll walk in and there’s an empty room. You get used to it. You have your methods.

I did a tour [of Troilus And Cressida] with Cheek By Jowl, we toured Europe, and the different ranges of venues we performed in was just immense. Sometimes we’d be on the stage of a normal proscenium arch theatre, sometimes we’d be in an old abbatoir or an old factory. We performed in a place called Reims in a tiny, tiny old factory where the place I did my sewing was next to the lighting desk, and the laundry was in another theatre 10 minutes away. And the next week we were in a place the size of Wembley Arena in Lyon and the stage was so far away from the dressing rooms that I had to have a scooter for the whole week so I could get around the venue.

We were in a place called Almagro in Spain doing a festival there and the show didn’t go up until 23:00 and we were there for a week, so your days were mainly your own. I had to get up for 09:00 to take the laundry to the local dry cleaners and that was it for the rest of the day. But it was hard running the show there, because the local dressers were just women who thought they were coming in to do a bit of ironing basically. I needed three dressers and a wig person – it was quite a complicated show for a play – so I ended up doing a lot of running around because their grasp of English was very minimal and my minimal Spanish was just about enough to get by. They [the local dressers] were girls who had never left their town, in really the remotest part of Spain, and they were scared they’d see a naked man. At the time it was very frustrating, in retrospect it was very funny.

I had help at the beginning because I sat down with one of the translators and we wrote the notes together, as I’d done in France. So that was good for me because I knew the names of everything, just basic theatre-speak. I know names for anything military… it was all body armour.

Looking ahead

Our contracts are ongoing, as long as the show lasts. But it’s when it doesn’t become a challenge any more that you need to think, right. I always like to go from one job to something very different. I took a year off from musical theatre a few years ago and I found that very rewarding, and now I’ve just put two big musicals on and I’m like, what’s next?


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