The first musical I went to in my life was the Phantom of the Opera in London when I was 16. It was a pretty cool experience, especially seeing my mum falling asleep after the first 30 minutes. Whenever I kicked her foot to wake her up in iconic moments of the musical, she told me: “I am watching, the thing is that I watch with closed eyes.” Hopeless. My next musical was Lion King on Broadway. All these giraffes, elephants and zebras! Just like on a safari in Africa, but in NYC. I was so filled eith energy after the show. So much so that I couldn’t stop myself from roaring at people passing by.
Today for this interview, we will have one of the people responsible for the beautiful costumes that make musicals as magical as they are. Her name is Angela White, an avant garde fashion and costume designer that has taken independent musicals from small theaters in Sydney to the Sydney Opera House. In 2015 she won the Sydney Theater Award for Best Costume Design of an Independent Production for her work in the musical Heathers. She has worked for the musical Aladdin, designed costumes for the the Zen Zen Zo physical Theather, and television shows like Australia’s Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars. Angela has also worked as a costume maker on other television shows, theatre and movies including: Gatsby, The Sapphires, Mary Poppins, Phantom of the Opera and Underbelly – Razor.
The latest show that Angela White was working on was Side Show at Hayes Theater (playing until October 16, 2016). I went to the premiere and let me tell you, it was spectacular! I was easily pulled in to the story and felt I could relate to each of the characters. The costumes showcase the great effort that Angela White and her assistant Catherine Sykes put into this production. The 12 performers transformed into different personalities throughout the show and wore 60 different costumes that Angela and Catherine skillfully created over just three months. Side Show is a must see!
In this interview, which took place before the opening of Side Show, we will touch on topics about the process of preparing for the opening of a musical, the many problems a costume designers needs to solve when making a costume and working under time and budget pressure, and about living a dream job.
Ready to see what’s behind the curtains?
Are you currently working on a show?
I am working on the musical Side Show. It’s a co-op theater show.Co-op theater shows are normally low budget productions that are put together with all professional theatre people. It’s usually a short season, but it’s a great opportunity for artists to get a bit of exposure.Side Show will be performed in the Hayes Theatre in Sydney. Everybody gets paid a fee, either for performing, or designing. If the show sells tickets and gets enough money, the money then gets split up between the people that participated. Everybody (the actors, the designers, the producers) get their own share.
Can you tell us a bit more about this musical?
Side Show is set in the 1930s. It is a true story about the Hilton’s sister who are conjoined twins and are performing in a Freak Show. They were discovered by these Hollywood producers and become big stars. So I have designed lots of really cool Freak Show costumes, a bit circusy. These people have been touring forever, they don´t have much money. So we are making the costumes look old and worn out. But when the girls go to Brookville, it is really a huge transformation. It turns in lots of glamour and glitters. Costumes get very expensive looking and clean.
What’s the budget for the costumes in Side Show?
About 4000 AUD.How many costumes do you have to make and can you really stay on budget?Costume wise it is a really fun show to create. Because I am really fussy and I really want it to look amazing, I had to go a bit over budget.There are so many costume changes for the twins alone! The twins have 8 dresses. We have 12 actors, and each of them have 5 costumes.
You told me before that sometimes you buy ready made garments and then you alter them. Do you also make them from scratch?
Most of the things for the twins, because we need two of everything and I really want the costumes to look of the era, I have designed and made myself. On occasions I have had to purchase things and transform them. Sometimes I add the top to the dress or add the bottom of the dress to something else.An example of alterations are these white lace dresses that I have been dying, so that it graduates the color from light to dark. They will be used during a waltz scene. Another example for alterations is adding Swarowski crystals to dresses to make them look even more glamorous.
How does it work? Does the producer come to you with the ready made designs of the costumes, or they present you the idea of the play and then you make sketches?
It´s different for every show. It depends on the director that you work with. For this show there were a couple of Broadway versions, so we had to use that as reference of what to do or what not to do. The directors did their own research and decided what is their vision. But I do my own research too, because I try not to be cliché with my things or too generic. I like to think how I can craft that character together in a way that it is unique and I guess also couture. I like it all to be done hand made for the character. Often the director loves what I am doing, if not, they might make some suggestions. If they say that they want to go for something else, which happened with one of the costumes of the Freaks, I have to start all over again.I haven´t done so many sketches for this show because it takes a lot of time to make sketches and I don´t have enough time to draw things up. Because it is such a low budget show, I try to find things that are already done and then transform them, so sometimes I let that navigate the design.
How much time do producers give you for a show?
It just depends on how much time I want to dedicate to the show. I put aside 3 months to work for Side Show. I am not been paid for 3 months work but I am really passionate about the project so I want it to be amazing. I see this kind of project as an investment for my future as a designer, because it is all industry professionals who are taking part and who come and see the shows. It is part of my portfolio. It is also a big costume show so I think that it is a great opportunity for me to show what I can do.
You graduated from TAFE (technical schools in Australia) with a diploma in Textiles, Clothing and Footwear specialized in avant garde fashion. How did you start your career from there?
In my last year of studies at TAFE in Brisbane, I started volunteering with Zen Zen Zo Physical Theater. They specialize in something like Japanese dance. It is very abstract, avant garde, underground. It is called Butoh. With them I started working with a designer of the theater performance Dracula. I had a budget of 500 dollars and 26 costumes to create with no staff. TAFE was really supportive and let me use this as a part of my final project. Industry professionals came to see Dracula and people started asking who had made the costumes. And that’s how I started to have paid work. Later a theater designer hired me as his assistant. He mentored me after my diploma.
How old were you?
I was 27. That’s how I started and built up my portfolio in Brisbane. I put money and time aside and I made a collection that I designed while I was at TAFE to use as my portfolio, so when I came to Sydney I had a strong portfolio work. I approached theater companies here and I started working as a costume maker. I was really lucky because the first show that I got here in Sydney was as an assistant of Tim Chappel who designed Priscilla – Queen of the Desert’s. I made a very good impresion on him and I have been working with him ever since.
How does it work in musicals like Aladdin?
The producers came to you and to other studios as well and asked you to join? Aladdin is a big project and there is a couple of very well known people in the industry who were coordinating that project. It is known that you need a lot of workers in a project like that and a good friend of mine who I had worked with in lots of projects was one of those coordinators. She knew that I was available. I was doing work in the office: altering things, as well as making things, art finishings, decorating,… I would do anything.
Did Aladdin have all the sketches and textiles supplied for you?
Aladdin is a stage musical. It has already been created in NYC, London, Tokyo, and in Hamburg. Every show of Aladdin, no matter in what country, is the same. We had a costume bible of the show of Broadway and we had to look into great detail how we could reproduce those costumes, down to the number of stones in each costume, where a pompom was sitting. But yeah, all the fabrics were supplied.
What has been your most exciting play and work that you have done?
I think Heather’s the musical was the most exciting show. I designed that show last year. It was a co-op theater show at the Hayes Theater, and it was a huge success. Heather’s was a movie in the 80s and I was very obsessed with this movie’s costumes, so it was really exciting to be the costume designer of that project. The show sold out the whole season at the Hayse once the first preview happened. It was such a great show, there was such buzz about it, and I was nominated for the the Sydney Theater Award for Best Costume Design of an Independent Production. That was really exciting. It was really exciting to win because I worked so hard on it. Then the show got some funding and we toured it. We went from a 100 seat theater to performing in a 900 seat theater in Brisbane and then at the Melbourne Arts Centre. Later it went on show at the Sydney Opera House. It was really exciting to see a show that I designed at the Opera House. It really paid off. You start with a small budget and you don’t know whether you are going to make much money from it. But this is a real passion for me so making money out of it, its a real bonus. It is really rewarding to get something to pay your bills of what you have worked so hard on and you love. I also worked on Sweet Charity that toured as well and ended up in the Opera House.
What is it like backstage during a musical?
It can be really hectic. In big shows, actors have dressers, people assigned to dress them. That’s how the quick changes happen between scenes. Another person is there to check that they look great and that everything is okey. With the theater show that I work on, there is no one dressing the actors, because there is such a low budget. It’s also a small theater so there is no room backstage for extra people. That’s something that I have to think about when I am designing the costumes. Actors might help each other to get dressed, but still the costumes have to be easy to get on and off quickly.
How often do you meet with the producers and director of the play and with whom do you work with closely?
Producers usually contact me at the start and I have production meetings once a month and when we start rehearsals, the production meetings happen closer together, perhaps every fortnight or every week. I am working alongside the set designer so that we know that we are designing things that match and look great together. The lighting designers need to know what we are creating as well, so that they know what to light and how to light it. They can also make suggestions for lighting which can influence on how I make the costume and how I decorate it. Those are the visual people that I work the most with. I don’t work really with people in charge with sound, unless the costumes do make noises. I can’t choose costumes and materials that make noise, because it will interfere with the sound. The choreographer is someone I refer to as well, because I need to know the physicality of the show, I need to know if the performers are doing splits or high kicks. Because it is musical, there are dances involved so I need to find how that is going to work and what I need to provide in the costumes for the whole range of movement. I talk to the director quite regularly too. I make sure that I am creating the vision that he or she is after. I do get quite close to the performers because I want to make them close to their needs and comfortable. I try that they expose the bits that they like about themselves. A lot of the performers in this level, they don’t mind exposing, but I want to design outfits that are suitable for every body type, and I want the performers to feel safe, comfortable, feel like as soon as they put that costume on, that they are that character.
How long before a play does the producer normally contact you?
Richard contacted me in February (7 months ago), but I will dedicate to this show 3 months. I am doing another show straight after this one. They gave me really short notice. I got contacted just a few weeks ago and we will have a very short production time. So that will be interesting and fun.
You said before that you toured with the group. Why is that?
When we opened the show (Heather’s) in Brisbane and Melbourne, I went as well, because when we bumped into a theater, it is really important to see how everything looks on a different stage, how it works with the lighting, and see if the costumes still fit. Sometimes there are a few alterations to make on the clothes because there might be coming new cast members if previous cast members can’t continue the tour for any other reason. I might need to do alterations, buy new shows, paint things…
I don’t understand how you do it with the budget! Fabrics and clothes in Australia are really expensive!!!
For this show I was really lucky because a tele movie was filmed which was set in the 1980s just in the warehouse next door to us. They were packing up and they were selling all their wardrobe. There were lots of suits and men shirts. 1980s style is very similar to 1930s. So I bought their suits for ten dollars, including the pants and the jacket. Five dollars a piece!I have been going to Vinnies, to the Salvation Army and to markets to find second hand things. And that’s good. I care about the industry. I watched the documentary The True Cost (a must see) and just the thought of buying all those clothes that is mass produced and what all those people go through in order to make all those clothes is sickening. I am very happy to reuse things wherever I can. It’s difficult, because, the conjoined twins of Side Show need to have the same things, so I haven’t been able to source things for them from second hand shops. Because it’s a low budget show, I have been using one website, buying cheap things and transforming them. We had to do that.
After the play finishes, do you keep the costumes just in case you need them for the future?
They go into storage. This director is going to keep directing shows, so then he has got this stock of costumes to borrow. I will use the same set of suits for the next show, perhaps buy them from this show, because it is with different producers. That will help me because the sourcing is done already. I am in the fashion industry as well and I have got many friends that want to be costume designers.
Do you have any advice that you would give them to get into the industry?
Come intern with me! Work experience, volunteering! That is how I got into it. I put my biggest effort on it, and that’s how I got my career started. You have to work for free to get your portfolio into a standard that people value and want to pay for it. Every bit of work that I have done, I have thought that it is an investment that people will look, like and then I can get paid for it.
Did you work part time while you were volunteering?
I used to be a primary teacher so I have had moments where I went back to teaching for short periods to fund the next part of my collection. I am from Tassie, so there have been stages in my life, where I packed my stuff to move to Sydney, then went back to Tassie to do 5 months of teaching, saved money and made the collection that I wanted to make. I once went to USA , made a photoshoot with my collection, then I went back to Hobart. I went to teaching again, saved up and then moved to Sydney. Ever since I moved to Sydney, I have been designing in order to fund my lifestyle. I have also created a program that I run in High schools called Revamped Fashion. I go into textiles classes and teach kids in a full day workshop how to reinvent their old clothes and create new things. I think it is very important to talk to the kids about dream jobs too. Costume design was my dream job, what I always wanted to do since I was a child. I have many friends that also do their dream jobs. I have friends that are musicians, magicians, artists. Growing up in Tassie I didn’t know that it was possible to actually achieve all of these. I want to talk to high school kids and enlighten their imagination and say: what is what you are doing where things are very easy and fun? Is that what you would like to be doing with your time?