Behind the scenes of York's Blood + Chocolate with the production's costume volunteers (From York Press)
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Behind the scenes of York's Blood + Chocolate with the production's costume volunteers
Blood + Chocolate is York’s theatrical sensation of the autumn. MAXINE GORDON goes behind the scenes to find out how an army of volunteers have helped get the hit show on the road.
ANNE Jones is ploughing through a pile of ironing while her friend Ulricke is checking a shirt for missing buttons.
We’re in York’s medieval Guildhall, once the seat of local democracy and now the heart of a community venture that has become the theatrical talking point of the moment.
Welcome to the HQ of Blood + Chocolate, the ambitious promenade play from the writer of the Mystery Plays which is taking to the streets of York every night until October 20.
Sold out before it even opened and garnering glittering reviews from local and national press, the play is an undisputed hit.
Staged outdoors at locations through York centre, it tells the stories of the city’s chocolate workers and soldiers during the First World War.
Unarguably the real heroes, however, are the scores of volunteers who have brought writer Mike Kenny’s story to life.
Not only do they make up the bulk of the cast, but have been responsible for making – and looking after – the costumes for the production.
Around 50 willing helpers have been working round the clock since April to make, stitch and mend, outfits for the 180-strong cast.
Their base has been the Guildhall, where former meeting rooms have been filled with sewing machines and clothes rails and turned into fitting and changing rooms.
The costume team has been lead by four professionals – designer Anna Gooch; wardrobe supervisor Sian Thomas; wardrobe mistress Jo Keogh and head cutter Paula Grosvenor.
Together, they have made more than 50 nurses uniforms, outfits for 40 chocolate workers and clothes for at least 40 female wardens, whose job it was to patrol York while men went off to fight in France.
Such was Anna Gooch’s attention to detail she even had replicas of a badge worn by wardens copied for the show. Over an image of a handshake it reads: “to fight, to struggle, to right the wrong”.
Outfits for the soldiers were hired, again purely on grounds of authenticity, explains Jo Keogh.
“We hired all of them because First World War outfits are very specific in colour and style and people are interested in them and we wanted to get it right.”
Anna spent weeks researching the fashions of the time in order to strike the right note.
She says: “It was a time in history when the silhouette was changing from Edwardian to the Twenties.” A big challenge was to “identify what made that time unique and replicate it”.
Another dilemma was that in 1914 many women would have still worn corsets. To save time and money, Anna wanted to avoid having to make corsets for the cast, so had to come up with a design for the nurses’ uniforms that suggested they were wearing them.
Ulricke Casterton was one of the costume volunteers. Like many in the crew, she had previously helped out on last year’s Mystery Plays and was happy to lend a hand again. “What people don’t realise is what goes on behind the scenes.”
By day, Sandra Rowan works in occupational therapy, but after dark – for the next week at least – she will be acting the part of a nurse in a First World War field hospital. Like Ulricke, Sandra was a volunteer in the Mystery Plays, loved it, and came back for more. Not satisfied with just performing, Sandra has been busy sewing costumes in her spare time.
The experience, she says, has fulfilled a life-long ambition. “From being a child, I wanted to be on the stage, acting, singing, dancing and I was always interested in costume.”
Looking after the costumes is a huge responsibility. Any damaged or made dirty during performance need to be made good in less than 24 hours. Three days a week, many are washed, dried and ironed. And each night, Jo and five volunteers take to the streets of York with shopping trolleys of costumes which the cast need en route (changing at landmark spots such as the War Memorial and the Disney Store).
Jo is the mastermind behind the logistics of it all. She earned her stripes as a volunteer on the Mystery Plays. She did such a good job that the Theatre Royal took her on.
Blood + Chocolate has meant long hours, sometimes working until three in the morning, but none of it would have been possible without the assistance of ordinary people in York.
“I can’t be in five places at the same time,” says Jo. “So we’ve had to have the volunteers come in to help. It would not have happened without all their good will, commitment and dedication; they came in week after week regardless of what was going on in their lives.”
She’s talking about people like Anne, putting off her own ironing at home, to come in on her day off to straighten out a stack of starched soldiers’ shirts. Not that she is complaining.
“I’ve had the best time,” says Anne. “I’ve never done anything like this before in my life, and I’d do it again at the drop of a hat.”
Blood + Chocolate streamed online
DISAPPOINTED theatre fans unable to get a ticket for Blood + Chocolate will be able to watch it via the internet.
The show, which sold out before its run began, will be streamed via a live webcast on Thursday from 6.30pm.
Blood + Chocolate is a co-production between Pilot Theatre, Slung Low and York Theatre Royal.
Pilot Theatre’s digital producer Mark Beasley said: “Although we can’t replicate the whole live experience, we hope to capture the magic that audiences have witnessed on the street of York on to the small screen.
“For the people who have seen it already, they will get a chance to see the show from another perspective and the people who didn’t manage to get tickets will be able to get a sense of the enormity of the production.
“Finally, to get a closer experience to the real thing, we suggest you listen to the stream whilst wearing headphones – and then you can also discover the true spirit of Blood + Chocolate.”
Pilot has been streaming its work since 2008. Last year, the company did a webcast of the 2012 York Mystery Plays.
• The webcast will start on pilot-theatre.tv at 6.30pm. Access is also available through pilot-theatre.com
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