One Small Voice: Theresa Chan

Published on 28 April 2015

Wardrobe mistress Theresa Chan shares the wear-and-tear drama that’s part and parcel of her job.

‘If we were to cast you, who’s going to take care of the actors’ costumes for the show?’ That’s what one production manager told me, when I asked to audition for upcoming productions.

I graduated as a theatre student from LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts more than 11 years ago, but there were not a lot of acting jobs going around at the time. There were backstage jobs available though; my classmate got me one at a Dream Academy production where I helped to dress actors with quick costume changes. I’ve never looked back since.

Now I’m one of the few wardrobe mistresses (WMs) for theatre. WMs head the costume department (CD) which serves as the middleman between the designer and the director/actors. We attend rehearsals and make sure costume designs make sense for what the actors are doing, ensure the actual costumes come in on time, and make changes or additions where needed. Then we maintain the costumes throughout the run of a show, making sure the garments are fresh, in good condition and fit well — these actors are always gaining and losing weight! We also archive the costumes.

I still act a little on the side, but also enjoy CD work. The job has helped me to understand what actors need from costumes. For instance, if a character does big movements, the costume must be looser. It also helps that I know the actors personally and can predict what they need.

Some things about being a WM are common sense, like not stationing male dressers where actresses change. Other aspects require the right personality. You can’t have an ego working in the CD, you must be prepared to get on your hands and knees to help actors change shoes. Sometimes, stressed-out actors shout at you if they think they’re late for cues.

Some skills you build up with experience. The CD is all about quick thinking. Once, a shoe broke and we had 90 seconds to fix it — we ended up using glue guns. When zippers broke, we hand-stitched these into costumes, then cut them out of the costumes later. Experience also helps you spot potential problems and fix them before the run starts. For 881 the Musical, the dancers had complicated skirts that they could transform into peacocks’ tails by operating internally-attached poles. However, the vigorous choreography kept hampering the operation. I made a decision to extract all the internal bits, reshape the poles and re-insert them. It took a week, during which CD was a sweatshop.

Generally, CD hours can be crazy. I’ve had to stay overnight backstage to get costumes ready in time. But sometimes, people don’t appreciate how much we do. It doesn’t help that the turnover for dressers is high, most don’t see this as a sustainable career and end up not growing into WMs. Moreover, there aren’t always enough jobs.

Now I’ve got my own company, I want to change some things like getting companies to understand that there is a maximum number of hours we can work, and other simple, reasonable work benefits. I’d like to let young dressers know they are not alone and train them into WMs. Then maybe, I’ll finally go back to acting.

THERESA CHAN graduated from LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts in 2004 with a Diploma in Theatre Arts. While she is also an actor and drama educator, her chief role is that of wardrobe mistress. Over the past 11 years, Chan has helmed the wardrobe departments of countless theatre shows and has recently expanded into costume departments of film and TV productions, such as Asia’s Got Talent and the upcoming Cathay Organisation movie, Our Sister Mambo. She runs her self-named wardrobe management company.

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