Featured image: Alan Smith, Head of Costume Props, Footwear and Armoury at The RSC overseeing the last items leaving the pre-development Costume Workshop. Photo by Sam Allard (c) RSC
On Friday 20th August 2021, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new costume workshop was unveiled, renovating the original building dating from 1887. It was a £8.7 million redevelopment enabled by a major fundraising campaign, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Government’s Local Growth Fund, endorsements from celebrities, and the supporters of the RSC. The campaign was headlined by the biggest names connected to the theatre, ranging from charity performances by Ian McKellen, jumble sales of costume items worn by actors including David Tennant and Judi Dench, and even a royal visit by RSC President Prince Charles. But behind the campaign was a community of theatre makers based at the workshop who made the magic that turned actors into their characters, who had seen the workshop evolve and lived through its history. By the time the site reopened, myself and other volunteers were deep in the process of collecting oral histories from past and present Costume Workshop employees and associates to preserve their memories of the original site.
Being the largest in-house theatrical costume-making department in Britain, the workshop’s staff comprised a host of talent ranging from armour-making to men’s and ladies’ costuming to millinery, as well as a wealth of knowledge about evolution in costume-making and the RSC. This project, commissioned by the RSC, funded by The National Lottery Fund, sought to collect as many of these memories as possible, and bring their work to wider attention, by recruiting a group of volunteers to conduct oral history interviews with a range of costume-makers.
Intended to transpire in mid-2020, the pandemic dramatically transformed the means through which the project would be conducted. Training sessions were cancelled, meeting with interviewees was no longer feasible, and the furloughing of staff at the RSC halted progress on the project for much of 2020. A year after signing onto the project, we were able to get going again with 2 days of remote training by Oral History Society Accredited Trainer Rib Davis and practises with the Zencastr video recording technology that would allow us to still convene with our interviewees.
For my part in the project, I conducted remote interviews with current Costume Supervisor and frequent RSC collaborator, Sian Harris; Head of Costume Props, Footwear & Armoury, Alan Smith; and former accountant Trish Young. I encouraged them to each consider their own personal relationships with the RSC: what were their earliest experiences of Shakespeare and the RSC? What drew them to costume? What were their first memories of their roles and the costume workshop? Which projects are they proudest of, and which proved the most challenging?
Such questions weaved a personal history of each person’s emotional relationship with the theatre and illuminated some compelling anecdotes. For Trish, her relationship with the RSC and its costume workshop began before her own career, as both her mother and aunt worked in the costume hire department back in the 1950s, and she gleefully remembers visiting as a child. Alan’s work in the armoury has faced many challenges since the 1980s with the growth of cinematic technological possibilities resulting in a need to balance a growing artistic demand for stunts and weapons to resemble those in film with the realities of live theatre. FYI, no, you can’t fire a gun next to someone’s head without bursting their eardrum! Meanwhile, Sian never expected her job would involve shopping for spandex in Ann Summers for a modern production of Thomas Otway’s Restoration tragedy Venice Preserved.
While remote video technology enabled these interviews to take place under difficult circumstances, conducting oral histories via the internet rather than in person was not without its implications. Our oral history training with Rib Davis had encouraged us to see ourselves as a kind of cross between explorers and therapists – digging through memories, interrogating them, searching for and drawing out the most interesting parts. Yet problems pertaining to remote conferencing technology, such as wavering internet connection and lags in audio, inevitably strained these goals. It is difficult to further explore a comment when you have not heard the entirety of it.
In spite of technological difficulties, the rich history of the RSC and the varying day-to-day lives of its staff provided endless inspiration for entertaining anecdotes that kept the oral histories informative and engaging. Already, these oral histories have served to raise awareness of the department’s work and have informed the content of the Costume Workshop tours which will be opening for the first time this year. As costume development at the RSC enters its next phase in a new home, these oral histories ensure that the lived experiences and memories of the old home are being taken with it.