Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the Stratford Festival holds theatrical secrets from hundreds of productions. The theater festival in Stratford, Ontario, invites theater-goers in for a privileged glimpse of backstage magic during Costume and Props Warehouse Tours.
Volunteer guides from Friends of the Festival lead the tours in the massive warehouse, the expanded headquarters of the Stratford Festival costumes, props and archives since 2005. With a dozen plays each year, the Stratford Festival retains elements from hundreds of productions, from 1953's "All's Well that Ends Well" to 2013's "Fiddler on the Roof."
Ann Cook, a Stratford native, leads a group through the racks of costumes and shelves of props. Visitors can photograph all they like, but not touch—“the oils from our hands,” Cook said, “show up under theater lighting.”
Costumes may be used again in Festival productions, and may be rented by other companies. But no, theater-goers can’t rent them for Halloween.
Some of the highlights of more than 55,000 costumes:
* The fastest costume change in Stratford Festival history is nine seconds. Most costumes have hooks and eyes as closures; zippers can jam and Velcro makes that tearing noise.
* An actor wears a light cotton garment under his costume, which is washed after each performance. The costumes are dry cleaned, when possible. When not, the wardrobe department spritzes them with vodka to remove odors and refresh the costumes. “They've even lain costumes in cat litter to pull odors out,” Cook says.
* The Juliet gown from the 2008 production of “Romeo and Juliet” is made of drapery material, with the same number of layers that a young woman in Renaissance Italy would have worn. “The more they feel the part,” Cook said, “the more they act the part.”
Wigs, hats and pounds of padding
* Some roles call for lots more flesh than the actors carry. Padding can add dozens of pounds of extra weight to a costume.
* Most actors wear wigs, so the hats are measured after the caps and wigs are in place. "Men’s facial hair is made from the underhair of a yak," Cook said. "For women’s wigs, the designers prefer hair from Italian women, who wash their hair with Sunlight dishwashing detergent.”
* Antoni Cimolino, now artistic director of the Stratford Festival, began as an actor. The warehouse displays his costume as Claudio from “Measure for Measure” in 1992.
* Visitors are invited to try on costumes at the end of the Costume and Props Warehouse Tour. One girl picks up a sword against her older sister: For every second of a fight scene on stage, there is an hour of rehearsal. In 2013, there are seven minutes of fighting in “The Three Musketeers.”
When you go
Tours of the Costume and Props Warehouse, 350 Douro St., Stratford, are $8 per person, $6 for students and seniors. The one-hour tours are by reservation, online or 800-567-1600. Cameras are welcome.