Working in theatre for twenty years, Mikhaila Pye, on tour with Northern Ballet’s production of Madame Butterfly, takes Impact backstage at the Theatre Royal to explore the inner workings of Wardrobe…
“There’s no such thing as a typical day on tour. As the Wardrobe Manager, my team and myself start on the Monday and do a ‘get in’, set everything up from a bare stage, do the washing from the last venue. We might need to do some repairs. We make sure all the cast has the right costume out and during the show we oversee the costume changes. At the end of the week, we pack it all up and it’s on to the next venue. People in offices do photocopying; I do ironing and sew on buttons.”
How did you get involved with the Northern Ballet?
I did Business with Environmental studies so obviously I became a Wardrobe Mistress! That was more of a back up because this is not a steady industry. I started out as an usherette and then started doing some dressing at some theatres. My friend was Wardrobe Assistant with the Northern Ballet and she left to have a baby. They were splitting the wardrobe role between two and I just got the job here and have been here ever since. But I have always sewed and my Grandma was a seamstress.
Is it hard to manage so many cast members?
We have four casts that work on rotation for Madame Butterfly. Principles usually do get their own costumes but this is quite a big sharing show. For the kimonos one size fits all. When we’ve got people with injuries that can be quite challenging. We do try and cover eventualities so we do have back up outfits. We have had to chuck some people out in some random things but that’s only in an emergency.
Can you give away any backstage secrets?
All the girls’ underwear and the boys’ socks have to be washed after every show. We bring our own tumble driers and I know some of the commercial tours travel with their own washing machines. When we do costume transformations we are actually on stage, all dressed in black, on a moving truck or behind a screen. In fact I have a bruise on my leg because for Beauty and the Beast we have a little stool to climb up on and I missed it and hit myself on the leg!
How many shoes does each cast member actually have?
It isn’t true that everyone goes through a pair a night but it is possible for the girls to wear three pairs in one show and the boys wear ‘flatties’. They are handmade and the soles are cut so they bend and then they’re varnished. We buy pointe shoes and even though you can buy them in different colours we tend to paint or dye them to match the exact colour we want. For The Ugly Duckling they were dyed bright orange.
What is the best thing about your job and is there a downside?
You get to see lots of countries. We’ve been to China and Greece so travelling around and doing the shows in different places are highlights. I don’t want to sound clichéd but we are just like a family. It’s a very friendly company. But then on the other hand, the travelling and long hours can be a downside too.
Finally, what advice would you give to anybody interested in pursuing a career like yours?
You need to be adaptable, have some common sense and it is good to have some sewing skills. You don’t necessarily need a fashion degree or to know what Dior was designing this week. Get some experience at your local or student theatre or within a company like the Northern Ballet doing some dressing and costume work. If you want to do this for the glamour or recognition then you’re going to last about three weeks! Nobody’s job is glamorous. Our Tech Manager actually said to us ‘I like the wardrobe department. We don’t even know you’re there’ and that’s the point!