Airing the dirty laundry

TRYING ON FOR SIZE: Wardrobe manager Shirley Adam, right,  measures Mamma Mia! cast member David McMeeking, while Alice McKinlay, left,  and Jacqui Careswell try on their costumes.
TRYING ON FOR SIZE: Wardrobe manager Shirley Adam, right, measures Mamma Mia! cast member David McMeeking, while Alice McKinlay, left, and Jacqui Careswell try on their costumes.

Mamma Mia!, delivering the fabulous music of ABBA, will open at the Civic Theatre in August. Each week we go backstage with Invercargill Musical Theatre to gain a rare insight into what it takes to produce a show of this calibre.

Invercargill Musical Theatre is one of the 10 societies in the consortium that has produced this show of Mamma Mia!

The concept of a consortium makes such good sense - the New Zealand theatre societies have pooled their resources to build the best set and costumes they can, which will then be used by them all.

That's a pretty broad stroke explanation of it but it pretty well sums it up. It's a tidy wee package, right? Well, yes, except there are a couple of elements that can prove to be challenging. They would be "directors" and "rules".

Good directors are creative beings. They live to create, have extremely vivid and dynamic imaginations, visualise in colour and thrive on turning an abundance of ideas into reality. They change their minds often as they grow their concepts, striving to squeeze out every last drop of creativity. Then there are the rules: Do this, don't do that . . . rules are cold and heartless.

It might seem a bit unfair to have this emotive beast bursting at the seams to create and then put some shackles on him, but that is exactly what happens and funnily enough it is done to protect someone else's creative flare.

Lesley Burke-Harding is appointed to design the costumes for this production. Her brief is to work with the first director of the consortium partners, Grant Meese, and come up with a concept that will impress the show owners, Benny and Bjorn from ABBA.

Lesley will stamp her creative mark on the show and it is her vision that is to be carried through by all the consortium partners. She is credited with one of the show's key elements, costume design.

The costumes are made and sourced in Auckland and carefully catalogued and labelled by Emma Bishop, costume manager for Auckland Musical Theatre. Once on tour they then come under the watchful eye of consortium costume manager Derryn Toomey, who will travel with the costumes to each venue.

As the costumes are packed after Dunedin's production, Derryn is there carefully checking every garment back into stock. The costumes will travel dirty to Invercargill, as in unwashed.

"When a society packs out of a venue they have no time to wash garments. In Dunedin, we have to be out of the theatre in five hours, so it is just impossible. The solution is just to send it off dirty and the next consortium washes it."

The costumes arrive in Invercargill in four road cases inside a 20-foot container and Derryn is there once again to carefully check each one into Invercargill.

Out comes the "costumes rule book" and Invercargill Musical Theatre vice-president Bernadette Gourley and IMT costumes manager Shirley Adam are extensively briefed on Lesley Burke- Harding's vision for each scene.

"From Lesley's perspective the colour palette of every scene is critical," Derryn says.

"No costumes are to be mixed and the detail is right down to colour of socks, accessories and jewellery. No additions or deletions from the design are allowed. There is to be no visible sign of bras and underwear for the girls. In the nightmare scene the costumes are a bit skimpy and tend to ride up where they shouldn't. All the girls will need to be fitted with nude G-strings so nothing shows. We also have one set of costumes that cannot we washed. They are far too delicate."

Ah, hold it there. Can't be washed? Then by the time they have completed 10-show seasons plus rehearsals, they will have been worn under the hot lights of theatre 183 times and not been washed once?

"Yes," says Derryn. "What you have to do is turn them inside out and spray them with straight vodka. This will kill any bacteria and remove the odour."

So at the moment, Shirley and her assistants are doing the washing. They will prepare each costume for fitting and then get the cast in, one by one, and spend up to an hour and a half trying everything on.

Any alterations to be made will be passed on to Shirley's sewing team.

This whole process will take Shirley and her team of six four to five weeks, working evenings and weekends.

Once this is completed, director Stephen Robertson will require each cast member to model their costumes for him. This will be an uncomfortable time for all as the creative director meets the cold face of the rule book. May the lord have mercy on us all. Neale Smith is techncial director for the Mamma Mia! show.

Mamma Mia! is presented by Invercargill Musical Theatre at the Civic Theatre, August 6-16. Tickets on sale now at TicketDirect, ICC Booking Office, Esk St, Invercargill.

The Southland Times