As a designer for the theatre I’ve had to come up with some pretty wild creations over the years. My naked Queen Victoria with the British Empire outlined on her transparent crinoline skirt for a Socialist Workers’ Party rally at Alexandra Palace comes to mind. Not to mention a whole series of spectacular dame costumes for the famous Greenwich Theatre pantomimes, including one shaped like a knickerbocker glory and another with a rose garden theme complete with picket fence, panels of lawn and a wig featuring a watering can and garden gate.
However, my latest commission has been quite a challenge. I am creating a measles virus outfit for an international immunisation campaign. Plus a companion piece in the form of an Immunisator. The latter, armed with a hat in the shape of a giant syringe, will chase the former around the streets and market places of up to fifty countries, in a piece of outdoor theatre designed to increase awareness of the serious nature of this illness, especially amongst vulnerable and impoverished children.
The virus and his adversary are based on Commedia Del Arte characters, with a touch of the Mummers’ St George and the Dragon thrown in, and once we have made the costume we’ll be using Natural Theatre actors to try them out on the streets of Bath in September, so prepare to be immunisated!
Despite the seriousness of the message, the characters have to be entertaining and very eye-catching. They also have to be extremely well made to withstand the rigours of so many outings. So, just as we do when creating the panto outfits that have to look top-notch through endless sweaty matinees, we’ll be trawling the fabric shops of Soho for suitable materials. These emporia cater for the big West End shows and their offerings are fabulously expensive. However, it is their remnant bins that we’ll be investigating, seeking just the right bit of stretchy fabric to represent that nasty red rash, and the perfect silvery fringes for the friendly Immunisator.
When I proudly showed them the virus design, with its one-piece body stocking covered from head to toe in red bobbles, which had previously been declared ‘the perfect expression of our campaign’ by the organisers, the first comment from the actors was ‘But how do we go for a wee?’
Artistic expression must be tempered with practicality!