Behind the scenes at Chichester Festival Theatre

PUBLISHED: 10:03 23 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:20 20 February 2013

Behind the scenes at Chichester Festival Theatre

Behind the scenes at Chichester Festival Theatre

Props and costumes at the famous theatre

A STUFFED cockatiel, boxes of fake Russian roubles and row upon row of gorgeous costumes. These are just a very few of the items stored at Chichester Festival Theatres costumes and props store.
The store, housed in a former cinema a short walk from the theatre, is a theatrical treasure chest.
It is hard to know where to look first. The store is crammed from floor to ceiling with tens of thousands of historical stage garments and props.
Rail upon rail heaves with costumes ranging from dramatic Victorian gowns to 1950s Marilyn Monroe-style dresses for women, and from military uniforms to butlers outfits for men. An old working gramophone from last seasons hit production of Pygmalion is on the floor waiting to be stored away.
A life-size fibreglass model of a 1930s Hudson car from the Grapes of Wrath two years ago takes up a large area of floor space and is piled high with memorabilia from other shows. Old Victorian street lamps rest at an angle and two giant papier mache elephant heads from Chichester Youth Theatres production of The Firework-Makers Daughter last season hang down one wall.
Katie Hennessy, manager of the props store, says while it may look like chaos to a visitor, everything has a place a department to be stored in. Until a couple of years ago it looked like the worlds biggest jumble sale. Then the scaffolding was put in. Last season two props people categorised everything and put items into departments, and costume did the same. Now there is far more logic to it. I cant take credit for all the boxes with labels on, but everything has a compartment, hopefully!
Departments include furniture, radios, telephones, fake money, luggage, cutlery, crockery and plastic food, to name just a few.
The fake food is one of the most hired-out departments. An oversized turkey from a past production of A Christmas Carol almost takes up a shelf on its own. Plastic fruit is popular too. We had a lot of stuff made up for Cyrano de Bergerac for the patisserie scenes. Following Pygmalion, we now have a lot of oranges, cabbages and violets, says Katie.
Perhaps the oddest departments are body parts and taxidermy or, as the label refers to it dead things. We do hire these out a lot. Two companies recently did Annie Get Your Gun and needed some animals. We were able to help them out. The rabbits are very popular and we also have some pheasants, says Katie.
Taxidermy contains her favourite items in the entire store a black cat and a cockatiel. The cockatiel had never been hired out and then Chichester High School for Boys recently held an open evening for prospective students and the Head of English came in to see us. They turned the entire English department into a giant Cluedo set. The cockatiel made an appearance there.
The theatre leases the building. It was formerly The Olympia Electric Theatre which opened in 1911 and closed in February 1922 after a fire destroyed the auditorium. The building was later used as a bus garage, before becoming a warehouse. It has been the theatres props and costume store for about three years. Before this, costumes and other items were stored on site at the theatre in the Gunters building, before it was rebuilt and named The Steven Pimlott Building. The theatre now uses the building as an education and rehearsal space.
From the outside the store looks disused. The paint is peeling, there are no windows and no sign telling you what it is. Inside the space is basic and there is even a small hole in the roof. It gets very cold in the winter and very hot in summer. I do have to wear gloves and a balaclava in the winter! admits Katie.
The store is essentially one large room, and the theatre has put in scaffolding to maximise use of the space. Large items are shifted into place using an old-fashioned pulley system. You are warned to be careful as you negotiate your way around and you have to be careful not to bang your head when using the stairs.
The number of items they have runs into the tens of thousands, says Katie, but she says staff havent counted. Items are continually being added to the costume store, which rents out garments after they have finished being used in its productions.
The costume wardrobe is home to hundreds of outfits. Festival 2010 productions ranged from Bingo, set in the Jacobean era, to Enron, set in the modern day. Other productions included 42nd Street, Love Story and Yes, Prime Minister. But you wont find all the costumes hanging on the rails.
All of the 42nd Street costumes were made to hire, so they have now gone back to the hire company. Thats very common these days. Its the economics, Im afraid. It would be very expensive if wed had to have had all those costumes made. We do it that way as its a way of getting a bespoke costume but at a fraction of the cost, so weve had to hand them all back, says Catrina Richardson, Head of Wardrobe during the 2010 season.
In the case of Yes, Prime Minister and Love Story, the costumes are still being used as the productions have transferred to West End theatres. However, the gorgeous costumes from Pygmalion, starring Honeysuckle Weeks and Rupert Everett, are at the store. Actors also sometimes ask to buy their costumes.
Sometimes if a suit is made for an actor and they really like it, they will buy it themselves because it is a lovely bespoke suit.
An actress did phone up quite recently and wanted a 1950s style dress that she had worn. We were able to find it for her in here, says Katie.
The largest prop at the store is a life-size model car from the Grapes of Wrath production in 2009. The car, made of fibreglass and fully automated, was made especially for the show, which starred local actor Christopher Timothy, alongside Sorcha Cusack.
The nature of a production means that the store can often end up with dozens of one object when a production has ended. Last season they ended up with dozens of Chinese lanterns following the end of The Firework-Makers Daughter. Weve sold them to a pantomime company because theyve got two productions of Aladdin going on. It is lucky they are going to take them off our hands because weve got far too many, said Katie.
Things get busy at the end of a season as things are returned to the store or new items added, and homes have to be found for them. It is at this time of year that staff try to get a bit of order back into the store, before another season starts.

See for yourself
Any member of the public can make an appointment to hire out outfits from the theatre's costume store. Whether youre looking for a specific item or a whole ensemble, Katie will enthusiastically help you find the perfect outfit for an event.

We hire out items to professional companies, local amateur dramatic companies, schools and charities. But members of the public can come in and book things out. People often come to us if they are having fancy dress parties or themed events. Certainly for Goodwood a lot of people came in for the Revival and had a good rummage through, says Katie.

Things are so tightly packed people might think oh, I dont think Ill find anything but then theyll find things I never knew were there!

Recently a friend of mine was getting married and didnt want a formal gown. She chose a Marilyn Monroe-sort of gown. It fitted her like a glove, she looked stunning in it and so got married in it."

Katie says the best part of her job is being able to find obscure items for people. "I like meeting different people, from the professional companies with their big budgets to the amateur companies. Its lovely when people phone up and say I dont suppose youve got and then being able to say well actually I have!

  • The props and costume store is open from 10am-3pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. For further information on hiring costumes or props or to book an appointment contact
    or call 01243 784437.

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