Behind the Scenes at the Shaw Festival

We are so lucky to have the Shaw Festival right here in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The theatre is such a magical place.

Yes, I know there is a ton of hard work to create that magic. Years of training and honing your craft. Lots of blood, sweat and tears. Long hours of practice and rehearsal. Auditions or performances that sometimes don’t go so well. And of course, possibly waiting tables between jobs.

I know it’s not all glamorous.  I spent much of my youth training in dance and music theatre, so I know a bit of what it is like.

But when all that effort, practice, skill and talent come together……it is magic.

When I speak of that magic, I’m not just talking about the performers. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes – direction, stage management, set design, choreography, and many more to list.

Like the Wardrobe Department.

Last week, I was lucky to be invited to tour the Wardrobe Department at the Shaw Festival. I got a fascinating glimpse of what it is like to take a costume from concept to design to the stage.


Costumes are such an integral part of any production. They help to convey things about the story, the characters, and the time period. They also must be comfortable and practical for the needs of each performer, and must hold up well through many shows.

Honestly, in spite of my early years in the performing world, I really had no idea just how much work went into costumes for a show. Here’s how it goes.

The Costume Designer works closely with the Director of the show. Their task is to portray the story, characters and Director’s vision through the wardrobe. They research scenarios, cultures and periods of history which help demonstrate this vision. From this they create a costume plot which follows characters through the progression of the production, changing their attire when appropriate. This plot can include sketches, photographs or computerized images that are presented to the director and production team. Once approved, the creation of the costume begins.

The Head of Wardrobe is responsible for co-ordinating the production of the costumes, in line with the Costume Designer’s vision.

Not only does this involve the main garments the characters wear, but thought must also be given to accessories – footwear, hats, gloves, jewellery, ties, handkerchiefs, belts, etc. One of the things that I found extremely fascinating on my tour was chatting with the people who create the accessories. Did you know one person is responsible for all of the footwear used each season? Or that there is one person who dyes fabrics as needed? Or that there is a whole wall of ties? Yes, ties. Hundreds of them, organized by colour. Ken’s dream of closet organization.

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So my tour started in the Accessories department. I had an interesting chat with Michelle (Mimi) Harrison, who is responsible for Bijoux. She was working on a necklace while we visited.

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But I was especially taken with a stole she was working on. So glamorous.

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Sydney Cavanaugh, who is Head of  Wardrobe, graciously modeled it for me. She also very graciously stayed with me for the whole tour, answering my questions. She is one busy lady, so I truly appreciated it.

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Isn’t it gorgeous?

Then right behind Michelle, we met Sadie Isaak, who is in charge of Footwear.

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So much work goes into footwear. Sadie was painting a pair of shoes a specific shade of blue to match a costume. She also explained to me how she takes a pair of shoes and adds other accessories as needed to get the exact look the Costume Designer wants.

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And of course, the shoes need rubber soles, so that the actors don’t have to worry about slipping.


I never knew just how much work went into footwear!

We made a quick stop by the Milliner’s station. Ken loved the hat second from the right.

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And from there we went to the Fabric Dying Room. This was something that kind of surprised me. I thought since the Shaw purchases fabric for costumes, what would they need to dye them for?

Well, when we went in, some fabric was being distressed – you know, made to look a bit scruffy. This is all done through dyeing techniques.

These costumes were for some characters portraying factory workers in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. So a bit of wear needed to be added to the clothes.


Jean Rumney is the genius behind this process, and she works her particular magic in what is actually a giant soup kettle. She shared a great story about this kettle  – apparently it was blessed by the Pope! So her work is sacred, indeed.


This photo below shows the original fabric, then the distressed fabric of the costume.


Wow, what a skill.

Some costumes are dyed in places to look like sweat or dirt stains, to create more “scruffiness” if needed. This is all possible with dye. I really found this fascinating.

Then we returned to the Cutting room, to watch the Cutters at work.

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I really would have loved to take this gorgeous red dress home. Isn’t it dreamy?



My tour through the Wardrobe Department really gave me an insight into just how much work goes into this process. Such a group of creative people, creating truly gorgeous work. I will have a whole new appreciation for the costumes as I watch them onstage this year. Most of the costumes I saw were being made for Light Up The Sky, which starts running on June 25th.

As I told you in my Niagara Summer Bucket List, I want to see lots at the Shaw Festival this year. I am seeing Pygmalion in a few days, and Light Up The Sky next month. I have been promised some Sweet Charity tickets for my birthday, and I have heard great things about Top Girls. I’m also really curious about The Next Whisky Bar, a Kurt Weill Cabaret. It only runs for six performances, and according to the Shaw website, it looks like it is sold out already. I should have got my tickets sooner.

So learn from me and get your tickets fast.

The Shaw Festival runs lots of Backstage Tours and Chats throughout the season, so make sure to include one in your theatre plans. It really gave me a deeper appreciation for all that goes into that incredible magic we see onstage.