South Pacific wardrobe buyer on the challenges of working Down Under
When English Wardrobe Coordinator Rebecca Elson was employed to buy and coordinate OA’s new South Pacific production, she thought she’d comfortably get the job done in the four months of her employment contract. But she soon discovered that in Australia, as opposed to her native UK, four months were a tight fit.
Lesson number one was that Australian shops offer a more limited variety of wardrobe materials than those in the UK and Europe. “You often have to get things online, and if they’re from overseas outlets, they can take three weeks to arrive,” Elson says. “I’m used to orders arriving the same day; I now understand why Wardrobe Buyer Miranda Brock starts buying so long in advance.”
Lesson number two was that as a result of the time difference, communication takes much longer. “You lose an entire day when you email an outlet to ask about availability, or a member of the creative team to ask for advice. I hadn’t given that a thought when I accepted the job.” She laughs. “Now I know better.”
To add to the challenge, where at OA the wardrobe buyer and the wardrobe coordinator are two different people, Elson was asked to wear both hats. “South Pacific is an extra show on top of Wardrobe’s already busy work load, and buying for it would just be too much for [Wardrobe Buyer] Miranda Brock. So [Wardrobe Director] Lyn Heal asked me to buy as well as coordinate.”
As few international designers’ schedules allow for them to be in Australia during the entire buying period, when we speak for this interview, Costume Designer Catherine Zuber had not yet arrived in Australia. This had an influence on the way in which the buying process proceeded. Elson says: “I’ve been sending five to six daily emails and I’ve had many SKYPE conversations with the associate director. I’d run everything down to the last button past him and send packets of samples over for approval.”
When Allerta! meets with Elson in Wardrobe, she hauls out the bulky South Pacific ‘Bible’ to show how samples for the original Lincoln Center production evolved into sometimes completely different fabrics for the show’s subsequent London run. Elson explains: “Catherine Zuber was around when they were mounting the show in London and she could say, ‘I like that fabric better, let’s rather use that this time around’.” The constraints caused by distance made that impossible for the Australian production.”
South Pacific is not an update, and yet its 1940s costumes – cute shorts and cropped tops; feminine dresses with governess collars; halter-neck evening gowns – look fresh and modern.
“The style is very now,” Elson says. “The bathing suits are so cute, everyone here in Wardrobe wants one!”
Besides the tyranny of distance, Elson has had to deal with the high level of attention to detail that goes into all OA productions. “Buying US military stuff in Australia has been very, very difficult,” she says. And when dealing with uniforms, getting every detail right is crucial, because somebody will always notice. “You have to be precise about buttons and pocket shapes, which are different for marine and navy uniforms, and you have to know things like that in the tropics, ties were worn tucked into shirts.”
With four wigs for each principal, South Pacific is a big wig show. “To get that really lovely 1940s’ look, principals’ hair has to be styled every night, eight nights a week, which is too much for a person’s own hair – we have to rely on wigs.”
Elson, whose first job was working on the Wicked costumes in London, enjoys organising and prioritising; in fact she describes herself as “a spreadsheet fiend”. “I never thought I’d sing the praises of spreadsheets,” she laughs, “but having learned to use them to keep track of details while working on Wicked, it’s now the only way I can work.” In South Pacific, every item required for every costume is itemised and added to the sheet. Elson adds where she got each item from, who’s making the costume, what the other components are, if anything needs to be dyed, if there’s a bra, lining, who the supplier is. “It allows me to check any detail about a costume instantly.”
She anticipates that much will come out of the first fitting. “An artist’s body shape may not be suited to a particular design, or there might be issues with jewellery or shoes or gloves. My job is not over until opening night. I’m used to pressure and I was surprised to discover that you get thrown out of the building at 6pm here! I worked much longer hours in London.”
Elson, who holds a degree in costume design and who in the UK has been freelancing for, among other companies, the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe and Saddler’s Wells, was on holiday in Australia last September when, on a whim, she decided to send her CV to Lyn Heal.
She’s not at all sorry that she did. “Coming from London to do a New York show in Sydney, with the costume designer not being around for much of the buying period, has been a challenge,” she grins. “But I love it.”