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Posted 13.03.20

Costume Production student runs wardrobe in prestigious Manchester theatre

By Naomi Girdler

Industry placements provide essential knowledge and skills in order to further the career of any student, and for Tabitha Carter, third-year student on BA (Hons) Costume Production & Associated Crafts, this is exactly what it provided.

Tabitha got the opportunity to work in Manchester’s prestigious Royal Exchange Theatre on their showing of the Broadway production, Gypsy; a musical telling of the grime, graft and glamour of show business through the power of a mother-daughter bond.

Tabitha said: “Subject Leader Marie Dunaway told me about the opportunity at the Royal Exchange. My main interest is design but I thought the experience would be a good one as it would be a technical role. I ended up assisting the main costume assistants, doing tasks including finishing garments and adding buttons, pockets and trimmings, as well as finishing costumes and tailoring them for the actors. As the week progressed, I was given more responsibility and ended up making some shorts and garters for the show.”

“I’d never worked on a show of that scale before; it was so busy behind the scenes. It was an intense workload but I enjoyed it because you could see the results of everything you’d achieved, almost instantly. The professionals who work there can turn a flat piece of material into a dress within a day.”

Gypsy, featuring Melissa James (playing Louise) and Ria Jones (playing Rose) at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Graduating later this year, Tabitha ultimately plans to pursue a role as a designer, having experimented with set design and costume production during her course, but the experience at the Royal Exchange Theatre has opened her to numerous other roles within the theatre industry.

Tabitha said: “My plan is to be a designer eventually, but I definitely wouldn’t say no to a job in assisting with wardrobe. I would love to work in a theatre at that pace again. It was all sewing techniques I was familiar with, but applying them in a different way. I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of altering and repairing costumes. It was also encouraging to know that I already have the skills to work in such a challenging environment.”

One of Tabitha's set designs

Provoked by the avant-garde, pop art, the Victorian era and the resurgence of 1980s trends, Tabitha cites historical pieces as her main source of inspiration when designing sets and costume pieces.

Tabitha said: “I’m painfully conscious of copying things, so I try very hard to make my work unique. I don’t ever want to make anything boring!

“I’ve really enjoyed the Costume Production course, it’s very in depth. You’re allowed to pursue your own interests, so despite my focus on design, I’m able to explore that alongside the production. I didn’t do art at school, so all the processes I’ve learnt here, such as screen printing, are completely new to me. I wasn’t expecting to learn things like Adobe Photoshop or dying fabric, but it’s so amazing to see how all of these skills can be applied to my practice.”

Tabitha's costume design, a sword fighter

With her sister a professional dancer and her grandmother teaching sewing skills in schools, Tabitha is no stranger to the realities of costume production and what it’s like to be behind the scenes in the theatrical industry.

Tabitha said: “I spent a lot of time in theatres growing up and I’m very lucky to have the background that I have. Theatre work could be intimidating without it.

“I’d say to students in this industry, really try and get as much work experience as you can. At the end of the day, you’re going to be surrounded by people with the same qualifications as you, so the more experience you have will establish you over them. Also, make sure you show the skills you want to pursue into your career within your portfolio. If you want to go into mask making, you need to show you can make masks!”

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