The backstage area can quickly become a veritable tornado of costume chaos with big casts. I’ve been there; the biggest production I’ve directed so far was The Wedding Singer last year, which had 36 high school-aged actors and lots of costume changes! Yet that’s small potatoes for some; I’ve seen school productions which include entire grade levels… 100+ kids!
Unless you are fortunate enough to have individual dressing rooms for each actor, it’s pretty much a given that there will be one common area where all the costumes are kept, and where actors get dressed before and after a show (separate gendered rooms if you’re lucky, but that’s not always the case — keep these items in mind in that case!). As well, most community and school theatre productions are not staffed by a team of costume designers and dressers; more likely it is the responsibility of a group of dedicated volunteers and/or parents, who need quick and easy ways of keeping the chaos to a minimum.
To keep your costume area sane and tidy, here are some quick tips to help you out.
- Start with preventative measures. Make it a rule that actors must help tidy the backstage and keep their costumes neat. Reinforce the idea of teamwork — everyone pitches in. The backstage team are not the actors’ servants. Remind actors that if a costume piece gets dirty, wrinkled, or goes missing, it’s the actor’s responsibility to figure out the situation (and get help, if needed) BEFORE the next performance!
- Keep a written list of each item that each actor has, so the actors and costume team can refer to it. For example:
Kevin – white button down shirt, black pants, piano key necktie, black dress shoes
Sophie – white button down shirt, black skirt, white apron, black character shoes
Kyla – burgundy corset, red leather jacket, white tutu, black booty shorts, black character shoes
This way, if something goes missing, you can refer to the list and see who it might belong to.
- If you store items on a costume or clothing rack, make a divider with the actor’s name, and keep all their costumes hung up behind it to keep them separate from the other actors. Simply cut a slit to the centre of a paper plate and then a small circle in the centre and pop it on the rack, or use a piece of paper or cardstock folded in half with a notch cut into the top, hung over a hanger.
- Label each item. Ideally, this would be a sewn tag on the collar or waistband of each item, but many amateur companies simply don’t have the time/money/resources to do so. Many times, putting a piece of masking or painter’s tape labelled with the actor’s name on each actor’s hanger AND a bit of tape on the collar/waistband of each item with the actor’s name on it will suffice for a shorter production run. Make sure to remove the tape before laundering, to avoid sticky residue wrecking the costume.
- Give each actor a garment bag (labelled with their name, of course) to store their costumes in. Each item gets hung up and stored inside the bag — even shoes can go in the bottom of the bag — and this way items can be kept somewhat condensed and easy to store in between shows. Just be sure that items actually get hung up and don’t end up in a knotted pile at the bottom of the bag!
- If your changing area has hooks on the wall (for example, in the school’s gym changing rooms), assigning each actor a hook to hang their items can be useful.
- During the show, if there is room, each actor could get a laundry basket with their name on it to throw their stuff into during quick changes, and then after each performance, the actor takes their basket and sorts everything and hangs it up.
- If all else fails and items don’t get hung up or properly stored, after each show, collect all the items that are not hung up and put them in a box. Before the next show, the actor has to “buy back” each item, either with actual cash (usually 25 cents to a dollar per item!) or with a task/dare/”punishment” (like singing to the director, push-ups or sit-ups, etc). I’ve found that this tactic works extremely well. 🙂
How do you keep your costumes and backstage areas organized?
Share your tips on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below!
Extra Credit: Theatre Etiquette: Concerning Costumes, A Young Actor’s Toolkit, 9 Items That Should Be In Every Actor’s Hair Kit
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9 thoughts on “8 Quick Tips for Organizing Costumes Backstage, For Community & School Productions”
Having a folding chair for each actor’s pile of costumes can work well, if you have the space. Masking tape label on the chair, shirts over the back, pants on the seat, shoes underneath.
Of course, I’ve also had kids theatre camps where there were just too many little performers for the space, so everyone had to keep their costumes in a labeled garbage bag. My one fear with this approach is that someone will come backstage and try to be “helpful” by taking out the trash…
The folding chair is a great idea! That way people can sit to put on shoes, etc.
Maybe clear garbage bags would work?
I put any accessories (socks, tights, ties, gloves, belts, etc) in clear ziploc bags with a hole in them to slide onto a hanger that then is hung behind the actor’s nametag divider with the rest of their costumes.
Are there good website for organizing a rather large collection ? ive recently taken on the job of costume master and It been 30 years since Ive worked in theater ( I went on to become a chemist for my career ) As part of my retirement Im back to working in theater. and loving every minute of it, but im old and rusty. I costumed a huge show of 70 actors last month which Im in the process of having washed, pressed and stored away. Some of our larger dresses will be professionally cleaned. Im interested in modern, creative storage ideas and creating a database. Thanks for any suggestions or websites.
I recommend Costume Inventory Resources https://www.costumeinventory.com/
As costumer for a school that always has a production in the works and does a quadrennial all school May Day (720+ students & faculty), we have 2 costume collections. This software developer has real world experience. She understands many types of theatrical productions, limitations of volunteers, and needs of costumers. Amazingly responsive, she can do computer ‘help’ you from afar.
Organizing is a major part of costuming, but once you understand the database – handing this ‘job’ to a volunteer was a better use of my time. This year a volunteer angel who really LOVES working with databases has dropped down from heaven & is really tapping into all of the program’s capabilities. Now, I’m just along for the inventory ride & am freer to do the part of costuming I love – design/build.
If you’ve got a large collection/horrendous pile, it’s going to take time & dedicated volunteers. Take a look at this program … it’s deep, multi-faceted & seductive … good luck building your team & have FUN! That’s the reason we’re all costumers – the magical fun of creating characters out of whole cloth & seeing it all come together! Break a Leg!
Excellent ideas in article and in comments. I do costumes for our spring musical at a small, rural school. There is no costume committee, just me. Keeping things organized in our small dressing rooms–one for the females and one for the males–is a daunting task. I have each student bring a box with his/her name on to keep costume pieces that are not hung up. It helps them to keep things together, especially if they are assigned to dress in a nearby classroom.
I also use clothes pins to attach hats, socks, bandanas, things of that nature bc I don’t have garment or accessory bags for each student.
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I would not have the actors store costumes in a plastic bag because the costumes need to be able to dry out between performances. We call the actors bags ditty bags and they have compartments for jewelry, shoes and other stuff. I put the actors name tag in front of their clothes and the ditty bag behind so their spot is designated. Each actor helps write labels on twill tape or other small pieces of cloth and pins them into their costumes back with tiny safety pins. The costumes are laundered and I still know whose is whose piece