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A message from the me in another life

September 20, 2011 2 comments

If you’ve read my “About Me” page, you probably noticed that I worked as head wardrobe technician for a performance theater for several years. I’ve worked with a number of high-profile dance and theater companies, but none so renowned as the Royal Shakespeare Company, with whom I did two residencies in 2003 and 2005. I remember those days fondly, but to this day the smell of a theater is reminiscent of exhaustion and adrenaline.  Yep, the job is a piece of work, to use a misapplied idiom.

In my current quest to get my home organized, I came across this letter, which I had written to memorialize the thrill, achievement, and chronic sleep deprivation of my first round of working with the world’s best theater company, performing two shows in rep. I’m sharing it here for as much my own enjoyment as for yours.

 I have the dubious honor of being the only full-time student on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s core crew.  Every morning for several weeks, I arrived at the theater by 9:00am to start work.  Unfortunately, I still had to manage a full class schedule in addition to preparing for midterms.  This meant no breakfast, no lunch, and seldom dinner – I took off an hour for class in the morning, then an hour for class in the afternoon, but the rest of the time, I was stuck in the basement.  I usually finished the wardrobe work by four or five in the afternoon, giving me a few hours off before I had to return for show call at about six.With the show, then cleanup and prep for the next day, my workday usually lasted till about 11. Then, it was school work time! I rarely got to bed before four or five in the morning. Looking back at photos, I’m amazed I was still standing after the gig was over.

Wardrobe maintenance may not be a physically taxing job, but it was quite time-consuming.  My main tasks were laundering, steaming, pressing and repairing all of the costumes for each show.  It may not sound like much, but I knew I was in trouble during the load-in: half of the first semi that we unloaded was wardrobe, makeup and wigs.  The RSC has twenty actors, each of whom changes at least three times per show.  There were two different plays in rep. That adds up to a lot of laundry.  The costumes also undergo a great deal of wear during the quick changes and fight scenes; part of each day’s work was making sure each was in proper repair.

For laundry, I  did five loads every morning.  Not only was I responsible for all of the wardrobe for every show, I also had to ensure that about forty towels were clean, folded and ready for clean-up after the bloody murder scene in Julius Caesar.  The most arduous task, however, was the ironing.  For Two Gentlemen of Verona, I had to iron 18 dress shirts every morning besides the regular laundry.  My hours spent at the ironing board quickly became a joke backstage, and were well documented by digital camera.

Although I was badly in need of sleep by the time the RSC left, I dreaded the end of their stay.  I made wonderful friends with the wardrobe girls, makeup and wig staff, and props managers, who “liberated” and signed a pair of combat pants worn in Julius Caesar for a keepsake in my honor. Kay, Deb, Linda, and Denise were my partners in crime – we shared the work, the flu, and the celebration at the end of each workday.  I must admit a certain degree of separation anxiety after they departed; luckily, we have kept in touch via email and cell phone.  We even have a reunion planned in Europe this fall, as I will be studying in Paris.  Working for the Royal Shakespeare Company was a culturally, educationally and financially enriching experience (I logged an incredible number of overtime hours), and I would not hesitate to undertake this job again.

And I did, a couple of years later, take a second residency with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Working under time-sensitive, high pressure, high stress conditions has prepared me quite well for working in a fast-paced agency environment. Would I rejoin the ranks of theater technicians? That’s a question for another day.

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