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Backstage: Irene Bohan

Published November 16, 2009

Irene Bohan, whose recent shows include Inherit The Wind and Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical, gives OLT the low-down on costume supervision.

Irene Bohan, 55, Costume Supervisor

Sometimes I work as a costume supervisor and sometimes I work as a designer. The costume supervisor’s role is the one that people probably know less about. I work with the costume designer and my job is to source all the fabrics, find all the costume makers and basically make sure that everything that needs to go on a body happens, and realise their designs and the director’s wishes and take the actors into consideration as well.
It does mean you work very closely with designers. You need an encyclopaedic knowledge of fabrics and the right sort of makers to make different kinds of costumes. They all have their specialities.

Then we have to organise the fittings, make sure the stuff is delivered on time. Basically I see a show through to its opening night and then the maintenance of the costumes is taken over by an in-house wardrobe department. So what we do as a costume department is very different from the wardrobe department and that’s something that a lot of people don’t realise, that it’s two different areas. Our job is getting the show on, their job is keeping it looking like it did on that opening night.

On a big show like Priscilla, the wardrobe mistress will start with me when rehearsals start and they will deal with a lot of the basics for me; they will order shoes, they will sort out all the underwear. People don’t realise that you have to actually provide everything. In a musical the demands of the costume might mean that you have to have a certain sort of underwear. If you’ve got anything where underwear might show, either because of the colour or the shape is wrong, it’s much easier, across the board, to provide them with everything, head to toe, and then you know that that’s always in the building and that’s always going to be right.

Perfect fit

On Love Never Dies, which is what I’m working on next, as people are cast we just phone them up and they come in to be measured and we take a full set of measurements – feet, everything. A lot of the shoes, especially for a musical, have to be made so that they can dance in them. A wig supervisor will come in and do a head-wrap for wigs and headgear. Then we decide which makers are going to make which costumes, the fabric’s bought, it goes out to them. They have an input as well. It’s a very collaborative job, it’s great actually because you rely on the maker’s expertise as much as anything. Although I know a lot about how things are made, some people are such specialists that they will be able to look at the design and say, ‘no you don’t want to do it that way, you should do it this way’.

A lot of people think a fitting is just trying something on to see if it fits, but actually that’s when we do our work, that’s the main part of what we do. Sometimes you can look at something in the fitting and think, it isn’t working; change the colour or the fit or the cut. It’s the first time you get the actor into it, so they obviously have an input. Especially for a musical I always encourage them to move around, to do what they think they might be doing in the show.

For plays it’s a different thing because very often the costumes are much more character-led, so for a play I would always have what we call costume chats with the designer, sometimes with the director as well, and just talk about what everybody thinks that character would wear. In musicals that’s less the case because it tends to be a set of things for one number. But even the principal characters in this [Priscilla], we would take into account the physicality of that actor and in another production of Priscilla someone playing that role might wear a slightly different version of those costumes.

Working together

If I think there’s a problem I will say so, and designers rely very much on their supervisors to do that, they expect that. It’s very collaborative. We’ll bounce ideas off each other. But my other hat in that situation is, if a designer absolutely loves something but I know that it’s not going to survive eight shows a week or I know that it’s not going to work in a quick change, I have to say so at that stage. You don’t like saying it because you don’t want to stifle someone’s idea or creativity, but it’s a fact and you have to take it into consideration. So there’s two sides to that, there’s the creative side and the very, very practical side, because I don’t want the head of Wardrobe coming to me two weeks after opening saying ‘this costume is trashed because we can’t get it on in time’. Supervisors get teased by designers because you pick up a piece of fabric up and go, ‘well that’s not going to last eight shows a week’. You do feel a bit like a party pooper sometimes.

I’m freelance. The year before last I did a lot of smaller shows, some of which overlapped. I think the worst – or best – year I had was I did two big musicals and an opera, and that was really tough actually. It’s quite nice to vary it. I love doing big shows, I love the organisational thing and it’s a real challenge, but on the other hand it’s really lovely, after you’ve done that, to do a little three-hander or something at the Almeida theatre, just to get the different scale of things.

In the beginning

I went to art school and I did fashion and textiles. As part of that I did a two-week block of pattern cutting and I just took to it like a duck to water, so when I left art school I went and worked in a small producing theatre and we did a new show every three weeks and we used to make costumes, hire costumes; you had to do everything, and it was a brilliant training because by the time I’d been there four years I’d done everything from studio theatre to pantomime to Shakespeare. Then I worked freelance as a costume maker for a while and then gradually people would call me in during tech weeks because they knew I was good at trouble shooting. From that I worked on the original Phantom Of The Opera as a gopher and then when that started going global, they were all happening so fast that they needed more costume supervisors so I ended up doing Phantom in Germany and Canada.

Mordor and back

The Lord Of The Rings was an amazing experience because apart from anything else we knew about it for so long in advance and we were given amazing research and development opportunities that you don’t always get. A lot of big shows you do, but it was an extraordinary level of that on Lord Of The Rings because it was such an extraordinary production and you couldn’t just presume that three-metre high stilts were going to work, you had to workshop it.

The Galadriel costume for The Lord Of The Rings was a special moment, and that was such a challenge because we didn’t know until the very last minute, in the London version, what she would be doing. A design already existed that we’d used in Toronto, but she was flown in London, on silks, and Rob [Howell, the designer] and I went and sat in the rehearsal room – this was 10 days before we were on stage – watched her doing what she was going to do and walked out and said, ‘what the hell do we do?’ She was wearing leggings and we thought, you can only do that in leggings. So that was a real challenge and a real process of, let’s try this and try this, and eventually we got there and I think the end result was fabulous.

Meeting a challenge

There’s never enough time. That’s one of the biggest challenges, knowing that for that first day of technical rehearsal it’s all got to be there, and working. And budget of course, you have to be very aware of that, even more and more these days. But what I love about it is that you do work with the cast and the director and everybody to just make it work. It’s like storytelling through clothes. And that is the thing that I find most satisfying. You sit there and you think, nobody’s going to mention that costume, but that’s because it’s right. People only notice it when it’s wrong.

On a big show like this I will come in and watch it every now and again, check it’s alright. After the initial opening period you will find that things start to wear out or people leave, or you need to replace stuff, so there’s always something that needs doing. The maintenance wardrobe [department] are great. If shoes wear out, they just deal with all of that. One of our cast [in Priscilla] is pregnant at the moment so we’ve had to make alterations to her costumes but also for her finale costume we’ve had to make a maternity koala costume, which looks really cute, but it’s the sort of thing you don’t expect!

Learning process

The other side to it is when you’ve got to hire stuff and find the right things for the characters. Inherit The Wind was mostly hired, because that was a finite run and economically that makes more sense. And somewhere like the Old Vic, they don’t have anywhere to store it, so it raises the question what do you do with it all afterwards. So that was all hired with the exception of Kevin [Spacey] and David [Troughton]. But that means you end up going to lots of different hire places to try and combine things to get the right look. So that’s a different aspect of it.

Every show you do you learn something else, you learn another discipline, another supplier, another way of doing something and I think that is what has really kept me doing it, because I think if I felt that I wasn’t learning something new every time I wouldn’t want to do it anymore. And you meet so many different people which is fantastic and you learn stuff from them.

I don’t think people realise that we do provide everything that goes on the body and that most of it is made. There’s not a Priscilla Queen Of The Desert shop, or there’s not a Sunset Boulevard shop, and why should they know? But when I say things like ‘they’re wearing wigs and the shoes have to be made’ people are surprised by that. But in a way that’s a good thing, they shouldn’t be thinking where’s that come from, they should just be enjoying it for what it looks like.