In the world of a wardrobe runner, everything “has to happen quietly and in the dark.”
That’s according to Margaret Molokach, head of wardrobe running at the Shaw Festival.
Run is the operative word in her job — and she often does it with scissors, among the other tools in her belt.
She and her team creep silently backstage wearing blue miner’s lights on their heads, helping actors in and out of costumes. They’re responsible for everything to do with performers’ wardrobes throughout a show’s season. From the moment the production department hands off the completed costumes until the end of the run, their job is to keep the costumes as fresh as day one. With everything actors do on stage — the changing of costumes, the dancing, dragging, sweating — one season on stage is “the equivalent of seven years in your closet,” said Molokach.
Wardrobe runners are the first in and last out on show nights, starting at 8 a.m. and finishing at 11:30 p.m.
Working in shifts, they trade off midway, cleaning, mending and maintaining every single piece of the wardrobe.
In fact, according to Actors Equity Association contracts, all of an actor’s undergarments must be washed after every show.
“Here’s a tip — we use Sunlight dish detergent to wash everything, because it cuts grease and it’s gentle,” said Molokach.
Time, she said, is master in the world of wardrobe running.
Every day includes lining up, in precisely the same, logical order, every piece of a character’s wardrobe in the actors’ dressing rooms.
“My dad had a sign in his workshop — a place for everything and everything in its place. This couldn’t be more true in our work.”
Illustrating her sense of the preciousness of time, Molokach arrived five minutes early to meet with the paper.
Molokach has enormous respect for the actors, having done some acting herself in high school productions, though she doesn’t miss it, she said.
“I just think, ‘Good for you, I’m happy to be polishing your shoes, you go out there and do your thing.’”
The respect is mutual, she said, and there’s incredible support between crew members.
“The actors are very appreciative of us … If someone’s necklace breaks during a scene, the actors on stage will improvise ways to collect the beads throughout the play and deliver them to us, so we can repair the costume for the next performance.”
Things don’t always go as smoothly as one would hope in the heat of the play.
Molokach tells a story of one quick change, when an understudy grabbed her own dress and put it on backwards. Another time an actress forgot to put on her slip and spent most of her scene hiding behind a couch asking her fellow performer between lines, “can you see through my dress?”
After studying fashion design at Sheridan College in Toronto, Molokach took a job as a seamstress on the costumes at Canada’s Wonderland.
“One day one of the performers there said, ‘I’m going to this place called the Shaw Festival,’ so a bunch of us went down — and I applied for a job.”
“28 years later,” she joked.
After all that time, she said she still finds the job challenging and exciting.
“It’s new every time.”
Their motto, she said, is “How are we going to make this work?”
“Velcro is too noisy, zippers break, so it’s mostly hooks and eyes, and buttons.”
Having to “make things work” in unconventional ways can make a “quick change” even more nerve-wracking.
A quick change happens usually between three people in a tiny booth just off stage. In a recent production of Guys and Dolls, for example, dressers had 30 seconds to remove an actor’s jacket, skirt, pantyhose, necklace and hat; and replace them with new pantyhose, shoes, a blouse, a wedding gown, and a bouquet. Wardrobe runners time these changes with stopwatches during dress rehearsals. “Anything over 45 seconds is a luxury,” said actress Jenny Wright.
“A full minute for a quick change is like (a coffee break).”
Quick changes are carefully planned and require rehearsals just like any other choreography. The actor must move in such a way that one or two dressers and possibly a wig person can undress and re-dress them in a matter of seconds. But things can — and do — go wrong.
A rather large actor once kicked her in the nose by accident, Molokach said.
“I saw stars but didn’t see any blood, so I just moved on to my next quick change. The actor never even knew it happened — but my nose has never been straight since.”
Like so many of the people in the backstage “show behind the show,” Molokach never gets to see an entire play. But there’s still fun to be had.
“During long dance numbers we have one big dance party in the back. We actually really enjoy ourselves. The work is very collaborative and creative. We’re all dedicated, flexible, learning new skills, using old ones… what you see on stage is as good as it is because of all the people behind the scenes.”
Another tip from backstage — they keep a little spray bottle of vodka nearby; “not to keep a smile on the dressers, but to spritz on actors’ underarms, as alcohol neutralizes the bacteria.”
Molokach is also known for her superior baking skills, when she’s not shining shoes.
“You need an escape from the theatre every once in a while.”