Blood splatter and mud: All in a day’s work for Vienna costumiers

Updated 16 May 2013
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Blood splatter and mud: All in a day’s work for Vienna costumiers

In a few bright rooms near the Vienna Opera, an army of workers wield needle and thread, transform black felt almost magically into golden armor, and gleefully create blood splatter on fresh white shirts.
Every season, the Art for Art costume workshop churns out hundreds of garments for Vienna’s leading opera, ballet and theater companies.
And its reputation has stretched farther afield too, with fashion designer Valentino, the New York Metropolitan Opera, and even the football World Cup making use of its services.
From hats to shoes and everything in between, the company creates almost every piece from scratch.
“People always say ‘so what, you just need to sew it.’ But until we get to the sewing, a lot of work needs to be done,” says Art for Art director Annette Beaufays.
Using craftsmanship that is largely disappearing today — including dressmaking, shoemaking and millinery — the workshop prides itself on its eye for detail and the beauty of its creations.
Feather-light tutus, gravity-defying headdresses and baroque gowns worthy of a royal court make up its 250,000-piece collection, alongside glittering jewellery and period shoes.
But creating for the stage is no easy feat.
Given the frequent cast changes, every costume requires a moveable seam so that it can be used for more than one person.
More importantly, singers and dancers need to be able to move freely in their costumes, whether performing an aria or a pirouette.
“Ballet, of course, is a high-performance sport. And singing too. They’re like top tennis players when they get going,” says Beaufays.
Even something as simple as a string of pearls is specially crafted: a high street-bought version may snap with one wrong move and send beads flying across the stage.
While the ideas come from the costume designer, it is up to the workshop to turn them into reality.
“The costume designer will draw something but won’t always know how to translate it. So we read the drawings and try and understand what it’s about.”
With ribbons and fabrics ordered from around the world and sometimes even specially woven, costumes do not come cheap, costing up to one million euros ($ 1.3 million) for a single production.
For the ballet “Don Quixote” in 2011, the workshop spent four and a half months just selecting fabrics before it even got down to cutting, sewing and beading.
And the work goes far beyond assembling pieces of silk, tulle or rubber.
“We help to tell the story in an opera,” says Heike Schulte, the head of the arts and crafts department.
The walls and floors of her workshop are splattered with paint as clothes and shoes stand by, waiting to be muddied and dirtied to make them look more realistic.
“If somebody is shot, in battle for example, and walks on in the next scene covered in blood, that’s us,” says Schulte.
“We dye the ribbons for the seamstresses, we paint the hats, we turn green shoes into black ones and vice-versa.”
They also transform simple black felt into shining golden armor: at once lighter and less noisy than if they were made of metal — another trick that the layman never sees but that the theater could not do without.
Every year, Art for Art works on about 50 productions and demand is such that it has repeatedly turned down assignments from the New York Metropolitan Opera.
The workshop’s client list also includes the Madrid Opera, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris and in 2009, it collaborated with Italian designer Valentino on the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert.
It also created costumes for the opening ceremony of the 2006 World Cup in Germany and for Michael Haneke’s award-winning film “The Piano Teacher.”
“Our motto is ‘everything is possible.’ So we’ll do anything, we’ll go anywhere,” says Beaufays.
“If somebody told us to make costumes in Tibet, we’d do that too. It’s not a problem at all.”
The important thing is to create a high-quality product that audiences will enjoy.
“I think if somebody spends a lot of money on an opera ticket, they’re entitled to see a handsome production on stage,” says Beaufays.


West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

Updated 20 June 2018
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West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

  • The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle.”
  • The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.

LONDON: London theatergoers used to spectating in comfort are in for a rude awakening after the authors of a play swapped the traditional plush velvet seating for wooden benches and covered the floor with soil to simulate the feel of a migrant camp.
The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle,” whose authors hope their play will stoke debate about migration.
“People often hold strong opinions about this subject because it doesn’t seem to have any immediate answer,” said Joe Murphy, 27, who co-wrote the play.
“Discussion is the only think that is going to get us forward ... and hopefully this play can provide some of that space for debate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Co-author Joe Robertson said the pair had “tried to depict both the terrible conditions that existed in the Jungle camp, but also the hope that existed in that place.”
Up to 10,000 people seeking ways to reach Britain used to live in the giant slum before it was cleared by authorities in late 2016.
Immigration remains a major political issue across Europe, as well as in the United States, where the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border has caused an international outcry.
Several European leaders including those of France, Germany, Italy and Austria are to hold talks on Sunday to explore how to stop people from moving around the European Union after claiming asylum in one of the Mediterranean states of arrival.
Murphy and Robertson, 28, based the script on their experience as volunteers in Calais, where they ran a temporary theater within the camp.
The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.
“There were 25 different nationalities of people all forced to live side by side often on top of each other and the phenomenal story about that place was people did make an effort to come together,” said Robertson.
Theatre-goers are invited to seat at the tables of the camp’s makeshift Afghan café, where the action unfolds.
“The closer you are to the audience the better the message is delivered,” said actor Ammar Hajj Ahmad, who plays one of the leading characters.
Ahmad, from Syria, is one of many actors from a refugee background featured in the play. Several asylum-seekers the authors met in Calais are also part of the cast.
“I am proud of this, I love telling stories ... about the many people who lived in Calais,” said cast-member Mohamed Sarrar, a musician from Sudan who arrived in Britain two years ago.
The play, which premiered at another London theater The Young Vic, last year, runs from July 5 to November.