From Henry V to Harry Potter to Huntingdon

There is some incredible talent behind the scenes at Huntingdon Drama Club. We spoke to Sarah Stammler, wardrobe supervisor on Five Farces about her incredible career in costume for theatre, TV and film. A journey that has gone from the wooden ‘O’ of Shakespeare’s Globe to Leavesden Studios to dressing Hollywood royalty.

You’re heading up our wardrobe department for Five Farces – that must be quite a challenge with five different plays and almost 20 cast members?! (and no budget!!!)

To be honest, it has been quite an easy one.  We managed to get quite a bit from the Drama Club costume store and miraculously what we picked was suitable and fitted the actors.  Also having a very proactive wardrobe department on the case, making hats and various bits for the show has helped immensely.  Having no budget does make a difference and if the look and Director’s vision is right then we can be more flexible regarding the design side of things.  This is my first production with Huntingdon Drama Club.  I had costumed Oh, What A Lovely War! for the 2018 remembrance show where I met Kerry MacCuaig who became an HDC member and asked me if I would help costume Five Farces. so here I am.

You’ve worked at one of London’s most illustrious theatres – Shakespeare’s Globe. Tell us what that was like – you were involved from the very beginning? 

Yes, my neighbour in the Borough Market, Jenny Tiramani was the Theatre Designer and close friend of Mark Rylance and when I said I was at college studying costume making at London College of Fashion she asked me if I wanted to do some work experience at the Globe Theatre, which was still under construction, we worked in a portakabin on the roof of what is now the museum building.  The first shows we worked on were Henry V and The Winter’s Tale.  The theatre was full of artisan builders creating it around us as we worked. (I still have a piece of oak that was used as a door stop).  Luckily we got to sit and watch the rehearsals whilst sewing the costumes.  It is an amazing space.     

Costume fitting for Mark Rylance at the Globe

At the time the Globe was being run by one of our greatest actors – any special memories of working with Mark Rylance? 

Yes, we all worked very closely together and were like a big family. He is a really gentle and lovely man, and mesmerising when you are in his presence.  He was very committed to the authentic practice for costumes and it was such a learning curve for all of us.  He said he loved the costumes made by hand and in the shape and fabrics of the period as they made him act and move in a different way to modern costumes.   

I understand the Globe at the time was very keen to present everything as close as possible to Shakespeare’s original practises. Was there anything you had to find or create that sticks in the memory? 

It was Jenny and Mark’s vision to recreate everything authentically, and over the 10 years cottage industries developed from this.  Even to a breed of sheep being reared in Wales that had been around in Henry VIII’s time for their wool.  No sewing machine was used, everything sewn by hand.  My fingers were bleeding from handsewing a leather doublet and hose for Charles,the wrestler in As You Like It.  The shoes were all hand-made, stockings hand knitted, braids and buttons hand twisted and made.  Willow branches, we had to soak in a bath, were used to made the hoops in the farthingales.  Only linen, wool, leather and silk fabrics were used. We had a lot of vintage fabrics that we used to make the costumes from and often you would be given the smallest piece and told to make a doublet out of it.  Which is what they would have done in the time, repurposed garments and patched them to make the next one.  It was an amazing place to work.  We even got to visit the V&A clothing archives and to take apart a 16th century robe to see how it was put together, that is how authentic it was.  I worked for 10 seasons there and it was hard work and long hours but the camaraderie, quality of work and costumes produced were amazing. Unfortunately, when it was taken over by the next artistic director, this practice was stopped and costumes were not the same, although we did often wonder how appreciative the audience actually were of our handiwork!  

Sarah at the Globe with the theatre still under construction

Away from the theatre world – what have been some of your most memorable experiences costuming for TV & film? 

I worked on the set at Leavesden Studios with three tiny unknown actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson on the first two Harry Potter movies.  I altered Prada suits for Tom Cruise on Mission Impossible 2, I made Oliver Cromwell costumes for Tim Roth in To Kill a King.  I spent 9 months on the TV series Band of Brothers and met Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks when they came to visit Hatfield Studios where we worked.  but the pinnacle of my career was when I went to Provence to fit Angelina Jolie with a wedding dress I had made for a film called A Mighty Heart and became her personal dresser for the week at the chateau and even got to meet Brad Pitt!

Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart

Is there a particular style or period of costume that you prefer to work with?

I do prefer using a sewing machine if possible.  Pantos are great to costume and make. They are fun and don’t have to last long.  I prefer period costumes rather than modern fashion to make and every type of costume for film, TV and theatre.    

When have you been really blown away by costume design in a show you’ve seen? And is there a show that would be your dream to costume? 

For costume design, recently, I have to say the series Bridgerton.  The designer, who is an American, has designed the most colourful and amazing costumes, which are unlike any of your usual period film designs.  The show I think would be fun to costume is Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert – for the drag queen costumes!

Meet The Author!

We recently caught up with Richard Brown who has adapted the five short plays by Anton Chekhov that we will be presenting in May 2022 as Five Farces.

HDC: Richard – it’s fair to say you’re a bit of a renaissance man! Directing, acting, writing and of course chairman of Shakespeare at The George. How did you first get involved with drama & when did you start acting & directing here in Huntingdon?

RB: I was first exposed to drama at Cambridge University where I joined the Footlights Club, but not as a performer more as a film maker. My ability at acting was simply dreadful! However, afterwards, Sue Limb, now author & radio broadcaster, took pity on me and offered me a part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and off I went into a world of over-acting from which I probably have yet to emerge. In Cambridge I acted regularly for Combined Actors (for whom I was Chairman on several occasions) and BAWDS. Roz and I then moved to Godmanchester in 2004 and I managed to grab a part in the 2005 production of Much Ado About Nothing at The George. This wonderful company has rather become my theatrical home ever since, as actor, director and Chairman. However Shakespeare is not my be-all and end-all and I have enjoyed being part of the Brampton Park Theatre Club and of course working with the Club on A Bunch of Amateurs in 2018.

Richard (left) in A Bunch Of Amateurs (2018)

HDC: Your adaptation of Chekhov’s Five Farces was originally performed at Brampton Park Theatre Club. What drew you to these plays (one of which I believe the author never finished?) and how did you go about adapting them?

RB: I was introduced to them by my father, who arranged a production of several of the farces for Combined Actors of Cambridge. They were such an enjoyable treat that they stuck in my mind as potential for another airing, achieved ten years ago for the Brampton Park Theatre Club. However, although designed as quick-witted farces, the 19th Century world of Chekhov saw comedy in a very different way to ourselves who have been brought up with the pace and rhythm of television sketches. I therefore wanted to experiment in a much less literal adaptation than the traditional ones, to use the basic themes of the sketches but freely adapt them to tune to a modern ear, brought up on Fawlty Towers, Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies, etc. This allowed some bonuses for me, such as changing the sex of characters to allow a wider variety of female roles, and, yes, cheekily taking on the challenge of completing The Night Before The Trial (which Chekhov abandoned after setting up the characters). My favourite alteration has to be Swan Song, originally a slightly heavy duologue between an elderly actor and his male prompt, into a wistful aged story of unrequited love.

HDC: Do you go and see a lot of professional theatre? Is there anything from that world that you’ve found particularly inspiring for your own work?

RB: I don’t go and see as much as I should! In fact I like “making” theatre more than necessarily going to see it (when I do go, I am always angry at myself for not seeing more). Much of the stuff that should have inspired me I never saw, beginning with Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead I fell head over heels for his great written essay The Empty Stage, and that formed my manual for directing theatre. I think my love is finding ways to tell stories. I have quite a low boredom threshold so I always want things to be exciting and challenging. One of the great turning points for me was when the French Cultural Attaché asked us in Cambridge to celebrate the bi-centenary of the French Revolution by producing a version of a little-known French play called 1789 – a telling of the early days of the Revolution using jugglers, puppets, multiple stages and more adrenaline than you could fit into the warehouse of a theatre they used. Despite the fact that no printed script existed, we were shown a film of the original production and set to re-inventing it and re-writing it. It was a wonderful experience of unadulterated freedom of ideas to entertain which has stuck with me since. This thing about amateur and professional theatre came to a head some years ago when Shakespeare at The George joined an Open Stages experiment provided by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a way of us sharing their professional techniques and they our amateur enthusiasm. It resulted in my being able to play Shylock in a short extract from a production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Jacqueline Spencer (who, I am delighted to say, is organising & directing these Farces) at both the Swan Stage and the main stage at the RSC. The very strong conclusion of the experiment was just how similar the amateur & professional world can be.

Richard (left) as Peter Quince in SaTG’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2019)

HDC: You directed Pericles in 2017 for SaTG – a Shakespeare play that perhaps isn’t so familiar. What prompted you to choose that one?

RB: Well, in the first place, the fact that it wasn’t so familiar. I love reading plays on holiday. Either I read a few pages only or I get transported. I took Pericles to Sicily and fell in love with it. It was a rather magical telling of stories that more appropriately lie in the realm of fairy tales. It was also a play I could fiddle with! I know critics regard it as a lesser play for its language, but the audience loved the magic of it and I loved the invention it required to be produced.

joust scene from Pericles
Richard’s 2017 production of Pericles with SaTG

HDC: If you could direct one play with any group of actors, past or present, what would it be, where would you stage it and who would be in your cast??

RB: I think I might just duck this one! If I had the ideal cast in the ideal play, at the ideal location, my contribution would undoubtedly be to bugger it all up! My greatest happiness in directing has always been to work on what looks to be problematical material with a cast more full of commitment than necessarily top talent. Having said that, if Lin Manuel Miranda was stuck in Huntingdon with nothing to do, I might just try to squeeze him into some modest role… I also once acted alongside Tom Hiddleston and I would happily give it a go again.

HDC: And finally – tell us why we should book tickets for Five Farces??!

RB: Because we all desperately need cheering up! It is a perfect set of plays for just sitting back, relaxing and laughing at absurd characters in impossible situations. With the talent available both in my fellow directors and the actors performing with Huntingdon Drama Club, you really are in safe hands, so forget Omicron or the on-going adventures at Downing Street and instead indulge in this rather naughty delight.

Five Farces – Online Play Reading

An enthusiastic group of Zoomers joined us on Thursday January 20 for a thoroughly enjoyable read-through of Five Farces, our May 2022 production. With all 5 directors in attendance it was a chance for wannabe cast members to familiarise themselves with the 5 plays before auditions in February. The plays (adapted by Richard Brown) are a real hoot and sure provide a great night of entertainment for audiences when the production runs from May 12 to 14. If you’d like to audition or help out backstage or front of house or in any other way then head to the Get Involved page to find out how.

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