BWW Interview: Carol Lingwood Talks Costume at the National Theatre
If you find yourself at the National Theatre with some spare time, head to the Wolfson Gallery for an impressive, colourful trip. Costume at the National Theatre is a free exhibition that invites audiences to learn about the people and processes at work behind the stage to provide the stunning costumes seen in the National's three theatres spaces.
BroadwayWorld spoke with Carol Lingwood, Head of Costume at the National Theatre, about the impetus behind the exhibition, and the challenges and joys of making costumes that last.
Could you begin by detailing your history into costume?
As a child, I always enjoyed sewing and enjoyed theatre, and at a magical moment the two came together. When I went to college, I learnt to make and sew costumes. I did that for many years in rep theatres and at the BBC and then moved to costume supervision, which involves being the co-ordinator and instigator of the projects.
You work alongside the designer and you are the person who turns those designs into reality. You're in charge of the budget, logistics and getting the right staff in place: every project requires certain individual skills. When we did wonder.land, it was all about technology and living in an online world, and the costumes had to reflect that. We hope a costume will look as good on the last performance as it did on the first.
Looking at the exhibition, it's the range of types of costumes on show that impresses - do you enjoy the variety?
Absolutely, every project is different. We have over 20 productions a year, and on each occasion we don't know exactly what we're going to get until we meet with the designer. We do a lot of new writing, which often means shopping on the high street, and we're focusing more and more on charity shops and reusing costumes. For the workroom team, the interesting things are always when we're making and creating costumes - the team are part of the design process. A designer has the vision and we have the skill to make it a reality.
It was important with both the book and the exhibition to demonstrate the skill and the craft of the teams who make and look after the costumes, and there are some lovely quotes that convey people's thoughts and motivation for their role.
Do you envisage your job changing, especially with sustainability becoming a major facet?
I've had the pleasure of being here for 20 years. I'm on my third artistic director, and they always bring their own vision. For Rufus [Norris], it's about reaching out and working together with a wide pool of creative collaborators up and down the country. In having all our costumes available at the Hire department and often reusing them, we are already somewhat sustainable.
But we are looking about where our fabrics come from, or where the high street goods come from. Recently, we did a project with the aim of buying as little as possible new. It's not easy; things from eBay can take longer to arrive and you can't return them. But we are trying.
Looking at the exhibition, I can see a slice of pizza from Mr Gum at the Dancing Bear next to a Follies headdress - though these look wildly different, how are they similar?
That's an interesting question. Both were made by the Costume prop team - they always consider the visual impact, such as the story the costume tells. But an actor also has to wear it not only daily during the show but throughout the entirety of the run. It has to be practical: in Follies, they all had to dance and move on stage. We always want to consider how it will feel for the actor. Hopefully, if it fits well, they will wear it well on stage.
The drama of both pieces is evident. The exuberance of the Follies costumes made them such pleasures to make: you knew audiences would enjoy and appreciate them. We're honoured that the V&A have approached us to take some of the dresses and headdresses to include in their permanent collection.
You said earlier about the context of the show having to be represented by the costumes. With Follies, given the costumes were so beautiful, what were the challenges of presenting the period accurately?
Money and time are our challenges most of the time. We have the skill. It sounds a boring answer, but that's the job of the costume supervisor to work out the logistics. Joking aside, we had to work out if Sarah-Marie Maxwell would be able to manoeuvre backstage wearing her headdress. In the end, it was put on in the wings just before she went on stage.
You talked about making 'nice' costumes, but how does that work for costumes that are ugly or dirty deliberately?
Beautiful or muddy - they just need to be right for the character and fulfil the design brief. The uniforms for War Horse had to look real. One of the things I love telling about the show is the characters are seen in Devon, France and Germany - and in each country, the earth is a different colour and needed to be represented accordingly with the mud. The research that goes into making them look appropriate means that when you see them on stage, they shouldn't strictly look like costumes - they should just look right for the character.
Taking that distinction between costumes and clothing, do you have a preference when making either for a show at the National?
It sounds like a cop-out, but what's great about the National is that you get to produce both. Most of the shows I worked on when I worked at the Royal Opera House over 20 years ago had headdresses and ornate costumes, but rarely did we produce contemporary work. The variety of work is what keeps people here a long time. You're always redefining what 'modern' is; the 80s are considered 'period' now.
Of the pieces you've made, which one would you like to take home?
For the Costume Department, Follies was one of the highlights of the past few years, because of the visual impact on stage and the comments we received. I'm proud of shows like War Horse because of its impact. Antony and Cleopatra was a stunning piece and it's great to see those pieces on display in the exhibition. It comes back to producing the shows and how the costumes fit together: it is as satisfying to have a down-and-out wearing charity shop clothing as it is to get something like Follies right for its opulence, as long as they have the right aesthetic for the piece.
When people read the book, what do you want them to take away from it?
There is very little reading in there: it's mainly visuals. I want people to see the breadth of what we do in costumes. There is a whole team of people doing things that aren't as well-known: quick changes, dressing, putting mud on the uniform, embroidery. That's what we're trying to capture. It's not a book of finished production pictures. It's trying to demonstrate the process, the skill, craft and care of the people involved. It was my aim to show that, for every costume on stage, there's a team of people who have created it and made it look as good as it does.
Photograph credit: James Bellorini