Interview - West End Masterclass

West End Masterclass: Interview with costume supervisor Jackie Orton

In our Masterclass series of interviews we take a look at the business of West End theatre, from the creatives behind the curtain to the people responsible for putting on a show.

Jackie Orton, Costume Supervisor

Jackie Orton is a London based costume supervisor having worked at the Royal Court Theatre for 14 years before launching a freelance career. Following early West End work on Mack and Mabel and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Orton’s long run at the Royal Court included break-out hits such as Posh, Jumpy and Clybourne Park. Her recent work has included The Crucible at the Old Vic Theatre starring Richard Armitage and East is East at the Trafalgar Studios starring Jane Horrocks. Forthcoming projects include Di and Viv and Rose at the Vaudeville Theatre starring Tamzin Outhwaite, and High Society directed by Maria Friedman at the Old Vic. 

When did you first want to work with costumes for theatre?

Jackie Orton
Jackie Orton

Actually, I wanted to be a prop maker. I did Theatre Design at college and was more interested in that side of things,but because I’d had a history of sewing and textiles at school, I kind of drifted into costume. It seemed the easier option at the time!

Where did you learn your trade?

I think it was my grandma who taught me how to sew and got me interested in making things. I can’t remember why and when I wanted to go into theatre, I don’t come from a ‘theatrical’ background, I come from a farming family! I went to art college to study Theatre Design and then worked my way through the wardrobe ranks. It wasn’t until I started work at the Royal Court that I realised I had an eye for Costume Supervising, so I would say it was there that I honed my skills in this particular area of wardrobe and costume.

What was your breakthrough show?

I started out as a casual wardrobe assistant many years ago at the Leicester Haymarket doing everything from dressing to wardrobe maintenance to making. I was dressing on ‘Mack and Mabel’ which transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre in 1995 so I came to London to carry on working on that. I suppose that would be the show that put me on the London theatre map. (Well, the show that got me to London, anyway.)

Did you have a mentor when you were starting out?

Certainly during my years at the Royal Court I learnt an awful lot from Iona Kenrick who was Head of Costume (and is now at the National Theatre). I started there as a casual assistant and wardrobe manager but she saw my potential as a supervisor so before long I was supervising shows in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs and progressed to the main house, with shows such as Posh, Sucker Punch and Chicken Soup with Barley to name but a few.

What’s your favourite West End theatre and why?

I love the Duke of York’s on St Martin’s Lane. Maybe it’s because that’s where I started my Royal Court career looking after ‘The Weir’ but also it’s where ‘Posh’ and ‘Jumpy’ transferred to from the Court so it became a second home for a while. It’s quite a small theatre but it’s got a great feel to it.

What’s been your most challenging production?

Nearly every show I work on throws up its own challenges but I recently supervised ‘The Crucible’ at the Old Vic. I’d left the Royal Court after many years to go freelance and this was my first production as a freelancer. So, although I’d done big, challenging shows at the Court, I’d always had support from my longstanding colleagues. Doing a show of this scale was a bit nerve wracking and I wanted it be a good start to my freelancing career. Luckily, working with designer Soutra Gilmour and director Yael Farber proved a great experience; the show turned out really well and is one of the shows I’m most proud of.

Which part of the job do you love the most?

I love meeting new people and catching up with old faces from the past so when I start a new project, I’m keen to see the cast and contact lists to see if there’s anyone I know. The first day of rehearsal is great as it quite often feels like a reunion. I also love it in a fitting when we get a costume just right and the actor leaves feeling positive and happy. They quite often rely on the costume to help them develop their character so it’s great if we can go any way to help with that process. Costume is very personal and fittings can be quite tense especially if the actor is having a hard time in rehearsal. A big part of my job is to help the actor feel confident in what they are wearing.

What would most surprise a non-theatre person about your job?

That it’s nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds! When I tell people I work in costume, they immediately conjure up images of big frocks and corsets and me surrounded by luxurious fabrics and sequins when in fact, most of what I do is contemporary so it involves an awful lot of shopping. Some people think that sounds great… getting paid to go shopping, how fab! However, I can walk for miles trudging the length and breadth of Oxford Street looking for the perfect item, so it’s not always so glamorous in reality.

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get into what you do?

Be prepared to work your way up. Start as a dresser or assistant but be interested and aware of the other aspects of costume and wardrobe. Ask questions and make yourself useful. You have to be a jack of all trades to a certain extent so hone your skills and learn new ones. You have to turn your hand to anything at a moment’s notice especially during busy times or working for a small theatre. Any skills you pick up in the early days will serve you well as your career progresses. You don’t necessarily need a qualification although a lot of theatres are doing apprenticeship schemes which are a great way for a young person to learn the trade from the inside and are an incredibly important way of getting a foot in the door. A lot of the work happens through word of mouth and recommendation so as long as you make a good impression and work hard, you will progress. Personality goes a long way. It’s a small world out there so if people like working with you, they will recommend you.

Actors or designers? Who do you love more?

You can’t ask me that! I probably spend more time with actors. If I need to pop in to rehearsals for anything, I will make sure I chat to the cast in case anything has come up since I last saw them. I think it’s very important to build up a relationship with actors as they need to put 100% of their trust in you. They are more likely to go to the supervisor with a costume issue rather than the designer so you have to be friendly and approachable. On the other hand, you are working closely with the designer to realise their creative vision for the show so having a good and productive relationship with the designer is fundamental and I get a huge amount of inspiration from working with designers.

Who do you most admire in theatre?

That’s a tricky question. I loved working on shows directed by Dominic Cooke, former Artistic Director of the Royal Court. He was incredibly knowledgeable and would always talk about the play in depth on the first day of rehearsal. He’d explain any historical or political content very clearly like a really inspirational schoolteacher. He was incredibly calm and patient and I think I learned a lot from the shows I did with him. He also had great trust in the team around him which I think was a real compliment.

What ambitions do you still have?

To continue to push myself and find new projects to challenge me. My main ambition is always for the show I’m currently working on, as I want each show to be the best it can be and I strive to achieve that on every project.

Tell us about your current projects

I’m currently working on Di and Viv and Rose at the Vaudeville Theatre, which starts this month designed by Paul Wills and directed by Anna Mackmin. It’s a great show about female friendships and I’m very proud to be part of it. Following that I am working on The Harvest for the Theatre Royal Bath and Maria Friedman’s High Society at the Old Vic.

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Jackie Orton – more news and shows


Book tickets to Di and Viv and Rose at the Vaudeville Theatre

Book tickets to High Society at the Old Vic

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