Coming Out of the Closet

Having trained as an actor, Theresa Chan never expected to go into the business of wardrobe management. She talks to us about embracing her unexpected career switch and working with costume designer Ivan Heng on The House Of Bernarda Alba.
Theresa and Ivan sourcing fabrics for Bernarda's kebaya

What are your responsibilities on each production?

The wardrobe manager has to manage her team to get the costumes ready for the show, and to maintain them for the entire run. That includes chasing designers, hiring seamstresses, doing alterations, fabric sourcing, and coordinating shoes with clothes. When it comes closer to show-time, the costume designer won’t be at rehearsals all the time, so the wardrobe manager is the middle-man going between the designer and the director. If pockets or a necklace are required, for example, we’ll pass the feedback to the designer. Then we’ll figure out if the wardrobe manager will look for that item, or if the designer will handle it.

As the wardrobe manager, how do you approach each new show you work on?

You definitely have to read the script. After that, you need to understand the back-story of each character. The designer, in this case Ivan, will share with us the design and concept of the costumes. We’ll have an intial discussion about how to make each costume. Then we go scene by scene and work out the complete look of the show. From there, we’ll have more meetings with Ivan, and his assistant Sam, who will be doing more research and going through the more detailed aspects of the costume design. I’ll be sourcing the fabric swatches, trimmings, accessories and the shoes. Then we’ll come together again to talk about the actual fabrication of the costumes.

How did you get started in this line?

When I graduated from LASALLE, where I majored in acting, Angie – my mentor, classmate and a very good friend of mine – asked me to help out with a show. I think maybe Angie thought I could do wardrobe. It was a Dream Academy show; my first major production was for the second Dim Sum Dollies at the Esplanade, which Ivan directed. Ever since then, I’ve always been in wardrobe.

Why the switch?

It had been a hobby of mine: making things, a little handicraft, here and there. But never proper costumes. It was only after the Dream Academy show that I realised I could actually do it! More jobs came along, and Angie trained me more and more. After that, she went overseas to study, and I got more offers to take on the wardrobe-managing role. That’s when I slowly started to branch out and get my own team.

I never thought I would wind up in this line but I enjoy being in it. This is my full-time job now, and I have been very, very blessed to be given the opportunity to grow in this industry. From assistant wardrobe manager to wardrobe manager, and to have had the chance to go into film. I’m starting to style the wardrobe for shows, too. I was very lucky to be involved in last year’s production of Hi-5 House Party; that was a milestone for me.

Do you still act?

I do act sometimes, just to scratch that itch! Because of time constraints, I do assembly school shows. It helps that I do costumes because I’ll be all changed, and the other actors will say, “Theresa, please slow down! We haven’t changed yet!”. I’ve found that working in wardrobe actually helps you as an actor as well; there’s more back-story to it when you understand the concepts that go into creating costumes.

How did you pick up the skills you needed for this job?

When I first started out, it was very simple, straightforward stuff: just hand-stitching, or machine-sewing front and back, straight and zig-zag. For sewing, it’s just practice, practice, practice.

Along the way, as you take more projects on, you realise what you need to do. You also pick up pointers when you meet different designers and see how they style various actors. And you do your own research on costume history. It helps because I’m a theatre student and I studied theatre history. So I know what looks to go for. Then we go online – Google Images is my best friend! It’s a lot of research and self-study.

I imagine that fixing things on the fly must be particularly stressful in live theatre…

Yes! It’s interesting, because you never encounter the same situation twice. I had one show in which a dancer came off the stage during her number to tell us that her zip had completely ripped and there was a gaping hole in her costume. We had to fix it in less than a minute because she was going out again in thirty seconds. It’s interesting, it’s fun, and you need to be focused for the entire show!

Theresa and her team sewing through the night for Jack & The Bean-Sprout!

Does that mean you’re literally waiting in the wings the whole time?

For quick changes, we are always nearby. Although it depends on the show, too – if it’s more relaxed, and the quick changes aren’t that quick, we won’t all be waiting in the wings. We might have one or two people stationed just outside, or inside the wings, just in case. In any case, if any show had a big dance number that everyone likes, we’d be in the wings watching and listening with the rest of the crew anyway! So we’re constantly around.

What do you like best about the job?

I like the quick change. The satisfaction you get when you make it for the quick change: that feeling is shiok! It’s addictive! I did one show once – I think it was Dim Sum Dollies – with a Bollywood scene. We had six guys, and the three girls, and two boards opening and closing. Every time those boards open, the actors are in different costumes. It was so exhilarating, because the dancers had to move with the boards – wardrobe, hair, all of us were following along and we had to make sure they were on time!

How do you plan these quick changes?

There are some that are really crazy – like Darius Tan’s in Jack & The Bean-Sprout!, when he changed five times in the space of one song. The director, the designer and my team had to sit down with Darius to talk about how to do the change onstage and make it magical. It doesn’t make sense for him to go offstage, change and come back in: it’s more interesting to have it happening right before your eyes.

I love watching quick changes and seeing if I can figure out how they’re done! It’s more interesting in Western shows because they tend to mask where the costume change-point is, so it keeps the audience wondering. Did they put the flower there to mask the velcro? That’s one thing I feel I have to keep learning.

What happens when an actor changes in size from when you measure him or her to show-time?

There are a lot of cheats that you can do when you’re working with costumes. For instance, you can sew some elastic into the waistband of a skirt. On site, we always have a sewing costume so we can do alterations on the fly as well.

Do you have ambitions to design yourself?

Of course! I’ve started already – for little things that I feel I can’t buy, or that I feel the look should be different. Then I’ll do the research, and the design, and have it sent off to be fabricated.

What advice would you give to people who want to work with costumes in the theatre?

I have girls who come in and are interested to learn, but have zero knowledge. I just teach them from scratch. The main thing I keep telling them is that they have to come in with an open heart and an open mind. When I teach you something, you learn, and if you have any questions, ask. And just constantly practise. Because you can only get better with the machine if you practise as much as possible.

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