Culture Chat with Yvonne Arnaud Costume Department

This month's Culture Chat takes us to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. We peek inside the Costume Department as they prepare for this year's pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk.

We meet:

  • Nancy Surman – Costume Designer
  • Chrissy Maddison – Costume Supervisor
  • Kirsty Rowe – Costume Maker

He's behind you

For many children, the first time they visit a theatre is to watch a Christmas pantomime, which often becomes part of an annual tradition. People of all ages take their seats and escape into a world of storytelling, glitter, and silliness. Where a united audience bellows 'He's behind you' as the plot twists and unfolds into a happy ending, with uplifting songs, satirical jokes, and a song sheet for everyone to join in with on the way. The costumes are very much part of the story, reflecting the pantomime characters and the tales that they share.

The starting point

Nancy's costume drawings for all the characters adorn the wall of her room backstage at the theatre. But what was the starting point? Nancy says, 'Once I know what the pantomime is and the scenes involved, I'll discuss the director's vision for the production and look at the set design to see what colours will work well in front of them. For instance, Jack and the Beanstalk includes a floral garden, so I've taken that and used complementary colours and floral fabrics. Audiences also expect to see the Dame in a series of extravagant and ridiculous gowns doing silly things on stage, so we don't want to disappoint them!'


Nancy has a close working relationship with Chrissy, who, as Costume Supervisor, is responsible for realising the costume designs. Together they decide which costumes to buy and which ones to have made, upcycling where they can. Chrissy is the queen of spreadsheets, managing the costume budget and keeping track of what needs buying or making.

All actors and dancers are measured before they come to the theatre. Kirsty, one of the costume makers, says, 'this year, I met and measured most of the company in August. Chrissy then ordered the fabrics and sent them to me and the other makers; a specialist tailor and someone making half of the Dame's costumes; the other half we have hired.'

Costume makers are highly skilled and use many techniques to bring costume designs to life. They will use Nancy's original designs and the actors' measurements to create a pattern for each costume, cut out the fabric and stitch it together.

A career in costume

Nancy, Chrissy, and Kirsty have a wealth of experience they have gained through training courses and learning on the job. Kirsty's advice is 'take up work experience opportunities, and, once you complete a college or university course, learn from those who have worked in the industry for many years; there is so much expertise for you to tap into.' Only some people take the traditional training route; Chrissy says, 'I studied sciences before I got involved in theatre. I started working as a dresser, supporting the actors to get in and out of their costumes, especially during quick scene changes. I got to experience what other roles there were before I become a costume supervisor.' Like the other two, Chrissy is freelance and has a varied work life; she's recently been on tour in America and the UK with Diana Ross. Nancy says 'I love how varied my role is, and I get to work in many different places. It's an exciting profession to be involved in, but it's definitely not a 9 to 5 job!'

If you are interested in working in the costume industry, why not take a look at the Surrey Culture Map and explore the local organisations that might provide work experience or volunteering opportunities. Did you know Surrey has lots of theatres, amateur dramatics groups and even the Surrey Arts Wardrobe?

The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre's Jack and the Beanstalk Pantomime runs from 3 December 2022 to 8 January 2023

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