Spotlight: Dressing Shakespeare

September 25, 2018

We walk into a theatre, see the stage and the performers exquisitely dressed, and immerse ourselves in a story until the final curtain. Thereafter, we leave the theatre and if we liked the show we write a Facebook post about the wonderful performance(s). But, do we ever pause to reflect on the work of those who pre-show, as well as during, play a big part in ensuring that everything runs smoothly from the 'beginners to the stage' call? Two very talented dressers, Nazrine Geyer and Beaura Jacobs are part of a team of talented women who see that everyone in the Fugard Theatre’s Shakespeare in Love cast looks amazing when they step onto the stage. They share some of their behind-the-scenes experiences in this Spotlight.

 

Geyer  tells that she’s been in the theatre business for 21 years. Listening to her speak about her career as a dresser you can’t help but notice her energy and excitement when it comes to this form of art. She didn’t plan a career as a dresser though; it all just happened naturally.  

 

‘For me it was kind of a sudden thing. They were looking for a dresser at Artscape —CAPAB back in the day. Fame was the first show I ever did, and I had no rehearsals or anything. I just started, and after that it was simply show after show after show.’ Since then, Geyer has never looked back.

 

Jacobs is newer to the industry, but equally as passionate. ‘Growing up my mom taught me needle work and everything about sewing. I’ve always had a love for cloths, fashion, and style, but I also wanted to study drama. In the end, my career is a nice combination of the two —my love for theatre and my love for sewing. My first show was Doringrosie in Joburg at Emperors Palace.’

 

Jacobs moved to Cape Town last year August and joined Geyer on the first run of Shakespeare in Love in 2017. Both are clearly very fond of this theatre space, with Geyer having joined the Fugard Theatre team as dresser earlier that year for Funny Girl.

They explain that for dressers, much like performers, every show is different. For instance, most of their work for West Side Story was completed in the time leading up to the show, while on Shakespeare in Love they had lots of work before with their wardrobe preparations, but now also during the run have the added excitement of a whole bunch of quick-changes. 

 

With these quick-changes they have to get the performers in-and-out of vibrant and intricate period inspired costumes without skipping a show-beat or missing a line.

 

Asking them about a typical Shakespeare in Love show day, Geyer explains that they clock in at the theatre three hours before call time to prep everything. This they do to see to ‘the maintenance on the costumes, and repair whatever needs to be fixed’. They function as a very close-knit talented team. ‘Francis [Moerdyk] does the wigs and the hair, and Carmen [Abrahams] as well'. 'We also sort out the washing and see that everyone’s costumes are set before the show for all the quick-changes so that we don’t run into problems. Then we wait for the actors to come in.’

 

Jacobs adds that once the performance starts ‘it’s a bit crazy’. ‘The first time we ran the show there were just costumes all over the place; we looked at each other and went, “What just happened?”. But, as soon as you get use to the show, and the changes, it runs smoothly.’

 

As they run me through the show from their perspective I realise that dressers are in fact theatre’s illusionists. At times they make the magic happen right in front of the audience’s eyes, but no one even realises they are there… on stage! In fact, Geyer has one such very impressive moment in Shakespeare in Love.

 

Just after interval, the story picks up with Will (Daniel Mpilo Richards) and Viola (Roxane Hayward) in her bedroom —more specifically in her bed— as Lord Wessex (Jason K Ralph) storms in to find out what’s taking his betrothed so long to get dressed. Viola’s nurse (Lucy Tops) distracts him while Will helps Viola get dressed and then all by himself changes into Wilhelmina behind the bed… well, all by himself is what we are led to believe.

 

The person behind the quick-change magic in that scene is Geyer. ‘I change Daniel into his Wilhelmina costume behind the bed,’ she reveals, ‘and I help Roxane to finish putting her dress on and fix her hair there at the back of the bed on stage.’

Another interesting fact is that in Shakespeare in Love, although one would think that the actresses in the cast would have the most costumes in relation to costume-changes, it’s the actors that keep the dressers the busiest.

 

Although she needs to be all over the place ‘trying to get everyone ready at the same time’, Jacobs says she mainly assists Kathleen Stephens (Mistress Quickly, Molly and Ensemble) and Rachel Martens (Ensemble and Dance Captain) with their costume changes. They each have about four or five costumes.

 

Geyer is more involved in the costume changes for the guys. Of these, and in fact out of everyone in the cast, Ensemble members Alex Tops and Rendani Mufamadi have the most costumes to jump in-and-out of in but the pause of a line, as they change into different characters all the time, with Tops playing Frees and Robin, and Mufamadi stepping into the shoes of Catling and Adam.

 

Hayward does change a lot too, says Geyer, but that’s more a case of numerous times she's changing in-and-out of the same costumes as ‘she goes from a girl to a guy, and from a girl to a guy, and then a girl again’.

 

Although all the costume changes sound stressful, yet fun, surely things can’t always go down without someone stepping on a hem or a zipper refusing to cooperate. Do things backstage sometimes go wrong?

 

‘All the time!’, they exclaim in unison.

 

'I’ve actually had to sew Rox into her dress’, say Jacobs. 

 

‘And I’ve had to do that for Armand [Aucamp, who plays Kit Marlow] when his zip broke’ adds Geyer. 

 

One would think that being so hands-on with performers can get awkward at times, but that's not the case for these professional dressers. When they're on the job there's simply no time to think about anything except the job. 'We're so use to people just showing boobs and underwear,' says Jacobs, 'it's nothing new or awkward anymore.'

Moving away from all this behind stage tucking and sewing, and focussing on their love for design, which character (and obviously their costume(s)) are Geyer and Jacobs most fond of?

 

‘For me, I would say Roxanne’s,’ Geyer responds, ‘because the wedding dress is quite beautiful!’

 

'I like Queenie, Robyn [Scott],’ says Jacobs. ‘The collar and all the detail on the dress is just amazing.’

 

Geyer continues that part of the appeal of the Queen Elizabeth costume is that ‘it’s really old, which makes it even more beautiful’. ‘It comes from Artscape and is more than 75 years and a day —it’s very old.’

 

‘Robyn’s costumes are mostly rented from Artscape,’ Jacobs further explains. ‘For the rest of the costumes Wadaad [Albertus, Head of Wardrobe] and Birrie [le Roux, Costume Sourcing and Styling] bought stuff from State Theatre. Then we worked way in advance —I think we started in May— to change the costumes. We would take parts of one costume and parts of another and then create a whole new look.'

 

The result is truly spectacular. The lovely Shakespeare in Love costumes add to the appeal of an already vibrant show, and you can see that the performers wear these garments with great pride.

 

During the first run in 2017 they were not allowed to add or adjust to the costumes, as ‘these were shipped in from oversees,' says Geyer, 'and had to go back in the same condition they arrived in’.

 

The costume preparation for 'this run was way more fun,’ agrees Jacobs. ‘We could change it up with the costumes and make it easier for the quick-changes too’.

However, their task as dresser aren’t just as simple as quick-changes that for them happen naturally. When performers join a cast without having played characters who require frequent switching between personas and accompanying attire it is their job to guide them through the process and teach them the tricks of the trade.

 

‘We basically just tell them to stand still,’ says Jacobs, ‘because the first thing is they stress and then they try to undress themselves’. This makes things a whole lot more difficult for everyone ‘as then we can’t help then’.

 

‘I’m more rough’, Geyer jokes. ‘I pull and prod and shout at them, “Don’t!”.’ But, she qualifies with a grin, ‘most of them know me, so it’s fine’. ‘But even the new ones understand me somehow’.

 

With a glint in her eyes Geyer shares that this is her very direct approach with Richards when she helps him with his on-stage costume change. 'He still gets anxious sometimes and then he’s all over the place. I just pull his hair and say “just hold your hair there!”, and then it’s all ok’.

 

In a short space of time —especially in quick-change-time— there isn’t really a lot of opportunity to chit-chat and subtle guide anyone. The relationship between dresser and performer truly is one of instinct and trus, which perhaps explains why performers immediately are so in tune with them.

 

The newbies ‘get better as soon as they realise it’s not as quick a change as they thought’, explains Jacobs, ‘and then they just calm down’.

 

‘Even if they know it’s a quicker change,’ Geyer adds, ‘as soon as they feel comfortable with you they relax’. ‘Also, if you’re anxious then their anxious.'

 

That says a lot about the character traits of a good dresser: they need to stay calm under any and all circumstances. Even when they're as stressed out as everyone else, they're not allowed to show it. 

 

Apart from being illusionists, they're  then also the poker-face masters of theatre.

 

Jacob's feels that the heightened sense of calm is important for anyone who aspires to be a dresser in the industry, apart from the fact that they must ‘definitely be hard working too'. 'The hours we work are hectic. With work being at night [during runs] you and your family have to understand the impact of work on your life’.

 

‘You need to be able to balance both [work and personal life],’ Geyer adds her wisdom. It all comes down to the right attitude, you must be ‘very good under pressure’. In the end, being a dresser is ‘mostly about your attitude; if you’re not good under pressure you will never make it'.

Jacobs agrees that you 'must be focussed back stage, then it’s fine.’

 

For Geyer that focus translates into her personal ‘autopilot’ state-of-mind. ‘After rehearsals you think you don’t know [the sequence] or you think you’re going to forget it, but it doesn’t happen ever. It’s all there at the back of your mind —when a [quick] change happens, it all just comes back to you when you need it’.

 

Dresser of the calibre of Geyer and Jacobs keep big productions like Shakespeare in Love running smoothly. They may stand in the wings or hide in plain sight, but their contribution to great theatre is very visible if you know what to look for and must never be undervalued. 

 

In the end, they know the production (que-or-que and word-for-word) as well as the performers who mesmerise audiences. 

 

‘You’re even singing the songs’, says Geyer. 

 

‘And irritating everyone else’, laughs Jacobs.

 

Before leaving Geyer and Jacobs to prep for another evening of theatre, an important question remains: Which character delivers their favourite line?

 

For Geyer that honour goes to Darren Araujo, who as Henslowe tells Will Shakespeare, ‘I will send you back to Startford to your wife… and the twins!’. 

 

‘I don’t actually have a favourite line,’ comments Jacobs, ‘it’s more a favourite moment’. For Jacobs, her stand-out Shakespeare in Love moment is ‘the tavern scene where Robyn [Scott] plays the prostitute’.

 

Which impact is proven as Geyer gleefully responds, ‘Yes, that’s so funny!’.  

 

And funny and fun (and even feisty at times) theatre night out is what Shakespeare in Love at the Fugard Theatre offers. Hopefully when you go see it (again), you’ll now not only enjoy how the talented performers bring the text to life, but also appreciate the details added by those who work tirelessly behind- and off-stage.

 

You only have until 6 October to see Shakespeare in Love at the Fugard Theatre. You can book tickets online at thefugard.com.

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