Stratford Costume and Props Warehouse Tour


by Judi “Scoop” McWilliams

We enjoyed a cup of coffee on the back porch of the Stratford Serenity Bed and Breakfast. Then we were on our way to the Stratford Costume Warehouse and their Costume and Props Warehouse Tour.

With four stages and over sixty years of history the Stratford Festival has accumulated a wealth of over 50,000 costumes, props and scenic art, one of the largest collections in the world, which can be appreciated on a guided costume warehouse and props tour.

The Stratford Festival plans years ahead for their productions.

In 1953 the archives were put into place to help serve the needs of the Artistic Directors and Producers at the Festival. There are selected costumes gathered in the archives since the conception and over 55,000 pieces have been gathered.

There are over 10,000 boots and shoes pairs, and 1,000 pairs added each year. Only 5 people work on the shoes. The name of these talented artists are “Cordwainers”. While a “Cobbler” fixes shoes, a “Cordwainer” creates the shoes.

The Festival shoes are made with metal shanks, especially when looking at tap shoes to ensure the heals do not break during the dancing. A “Galosh” is made with rubber so the actors/actress does not slide and too keep the sound of walking silent. During the Man of La Mancha this was so apparent as the actors/actress appeared from “no-where”, we did not hear them at any rate.

The most important part of the “shoe” maker, is to check each pair after each and every performance, and if need be, repaired immediately. It was fun to see were the boots that actors wore on their knees with straps that attach to their body. This allows taller, mature actors to perform child roles, or dwarf roles.

A funny story, shared today, was about a drycleaner who worked very hard to get a stain out of a costume, only then, to find out it was supposed look “old”.

To compensate for very hot costumes, the actors wear body suites full of ice in freezer pockets to keep them cool. Some costumes were made to look “full” and large, so they are filled with bird seed.

The problem is, they grew sprouts and green plants started to grow in the costume warehouse while they were not in use. They soon learned to build up the costumes with foam!

There is definitely a skill set needed to be a Cordwainer, or costume maker, or “Cutter”, or seamstress. Specific “Cutters” are sought out for the high quality and needs.

There are no patterns to follow, just artistic drawings and renderings, and of course, years of skill.

The “El Salvador Community Project” is in place where in the off seasons Stratford travels to share their costumes, talents, education and share ideas, insights and more. The props are not shipped though due to the expensive shipping costs. We saw Camelot in the first prop area.

The Martha Henry dress has been here for over 40 years and still has not disintegrated. Martha Henry is directing “Mother Courage and Her Children” this year at the Festival

The Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre was founded in 1998 by the Festival’s then Artistic Director, Richard Monette, to prepare talented young actors for the rigors and specific requirements of acting in classical theatre. Martha Henry became the Director of the Birmingham Conservatory in February of 2007.

Selected candidates are usually graduates of an accredited theatre training program with at least two years’ experience in the professional theatre. Participants are paid and offered a contract for the Stratford Festival’s following season upon completion of their Conservatory contract.  There are several costumes under glass and conservation for archival purposes, never to be used again. The displays had a photo and story beside them to show that the actor/actress was and what play or role that was worn in.

Today the Stratford Costume and Props Warehouse rents items for high school productions to Broadway productions. The Warehouse is a “working warehouse”. Today we were told that they never duplicate wardrobes.

Today we saw one of a kind, one only, and no copies, never seen before, never to see again on stage. There are exceptions of duplicates for battle re-enactments and group scenes.

The costumes are made to the actors/actress size specifications, but they do make them with a generous seam allowance. Stand-in or shared roles would make it necessary for the costumes to be adjustable.

There are repertory theatre performances in the mornings and quick afternoon changes. After seeing the Man of La Mancha the night before and how elaborate the set was, we wondered how it was possible to move such heavy and large props. Here we learned that many of the heavy props are placed on custom made casters with locks and an air-compressed system that carries the weight. They make these from a plastic mold machine. The machine also can produce plastic moulds of all kinds of shapes and sizes for the prop displays and even embellishments on the costumes.

With such massive amounts of inventory, it was not a surprise to learn that these items are all on the computer inventory data base. They are laid out throughout the Warehouse by first “function”, then “period of time”, then “colour”. Working in the Warehouse may be a career path someone would love to take part in. All the wigs at the Festival are made of natural hair. Antoni Cimolino, the Artistic Director, has a keen eye for perfection. The costumes are made in the Festival Theatre where natural light allows the work to be completed seasonally. There is much attention paid to the variety of braids, fabrics, lace and delicate intricate components of the garments.

The isles of props and costumes, as I mentioned are all on the computer data base inventory list. However, the designers and artistic directors tag items with colour coded sheets of paper at the actual items, marking the props they wish to book for their performances and productions. There are some items that just can not be rented out, especially once marked by a director.

As Ontario Visited covers many types of activities, I have often written about “authenticity”. Today a visitor was asking about the “authenticity of the costumes and props”. The answer, YES, they do concern themselves with authentic to the correct period of time for the costumes and props. Even the “anatomy” of “dead people props” is in the correct order. Once they had a doctor tour the Warehouse and they immediately corrected the issue of “not quite right”. I still like my rule of thumb, “The ten-foot rule ~ if it looks authentic from ten feet away, it is okay”. We were told the Warehouse has a copy of “Grey’s Anatomy” on their office desk for reference. Other props are made from Styrofoam to keep the weight light. A heavy book being tossed at you could actually hurt you. The books have corduroy to look like pages; the thickness of the corduroy shows the depth for each type of book.   If you look closely at a trophy, it was cleverly made of spoons, the top being a “baby pacifier”. A fire looked so real, with the charcoal made from rubber, sequins and foil. Some large props are scaled to adults so they look child like in size on stage. The elaborate chandeliers are made 100% from plastic.

It was finally time to try on the costumes. Large racks of various styles, types, colours, periods, hats, props were available for all the tour guests to try on. Props made the scene for the costumes we put on. From “Charlie Brown” set scenes, to oversized mirrors, to dragons and more. I thought I would just stand by and watch. It was silly … so I though, moments later, after trying on at least 3 sets of costumes and laughing a lot, we were told the tour time was up and we had to make our leave.

Fortunately, during the time I was trying on costumes, I had the pleasure of speaking with volunteer Gerri who had been with the Warehouse since 1989, over 25 years. I asked her what inspired her to volunteer so many hours and have such passion and dedication. She told me it was a privilege to volunteer here, that she was exposed to a unique education, experiencing the arts and meeting the artistic directors, actors, actress, seamstress, designers and more. She has been able to tag along with the carpenter, to design and learn how to build and create items. She loves the theatre too; it is great fun, so it doesn’t hurt to have such great exposure to it, all the time!  Gerri tells us Stratford Festival has a 4 year waiting list with over 200 volunteers waiting just to “volunteer”. Gerri shares with us that “you get much more out of volunteering in Stratford then you put in”. She goes on to say that youth do volunteer here, but to her it seems that they are just putting in their high school hours. It takes a special person to volunteer, a maturity and the role is a huge responsibility. She says it really isn’t a choice; you “kind of are born into it”. You start volunteering at home, then perhaps a school or church or the community. It is a life long dedication. Gerri gave me a quick hug as she ran off to volunteer for the local Cancer Society that afternoon. Amazing person, amazing tour! Don’t forget your camera to take photos during the costume try-on at the end of the tour. 

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