The sew must go on: Edinburgh theatre costume assistant switched to making masks in lockdown
The theatre industry, more than most, has been decimated by the Coronavirus pandemic, not just robbing actors of their income but denying the army of creatives who work off stage their livelihoods. People like Jennifer Allan.
The 40-year-old who lives in Meadowbank was working as a dresser on the Royal Lyceum's production of Mrs Puntila and her man Matti when the world went into lockdown.
She recalls, "It was a lovely company and cast to work with. As a dresser, you prep all the costumes before the show and then work closely with the cast, helping with their quick changes and dealing with anything costume related that goes wrong during the performance.
"It was my first show with the Lyceum as I’d been away from theatre for a while doing TV and film work and I was really enjoying being back, particularly at the Lyceum where I’d wanted to work for a long time. It was awful to have the run cut short."Although Allan could see lockdown coming, she admits the speed with which it happened took everyone by surprise.
"I understood very early on how serious the virus was but there was a lot of confusion about the size of venues required to close back then, so, as much as it was inevitable, I didn’t expect it to happen the way it did, with no final show. Basically, we left on the Saturday evening unsure if we would close and then got a phone call on the Monday to say the rest of the run would not go ahead."As a freelancer, Allan who was costume superviser on Limmy Live and recently worked on Outlander and Princess Switch Switched Again for Netflix, found herself in a precarious position when she discovered she didn’t qualify for any financial help from the government."At first I was very unsure and worried but the government's advice was to approach my last job and ask to be re-employed and furloughed. I am so very grateful to the Lyceum for doing that. Straight away I knew I would use the lockdown to concentrate on Wren & Thistle."
Wren & Thistle was an Esty shop selling handmade bespoke gifts and accessories that Allan set up while living in London, where she worked on West End productions for 12 years. In between performances of Les Miserables, on which she worked for eight years, and other hits shows such as We Will Rock You and Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, she would turn her hand to making gifts.
"It was a way to fill my time before the evening shows but since moving back home and working in so many different jobs, normally with very long hours, I hadn’t had the time to commit to it. I like to be busy and was grateful to have it as a focus during lockdown.”
She continues, "I’d always had lots of plans for Wren & Thistle and was starting to think about them when masks were made mandatory, instead I got straight on with making them. It felt good to be doing something productive to help with the pandemic while reducing the amount of single use masks being used."
As word of mouth spread, so the popularity of her masks grew and she admits that making them saved her in more ways than one.
"Making them to order meant that I ended up having lots of lovely chats with customers. I had learned to sew on the job in London, with the help of a lovely wardrobe department, so I’m mostly self taught, hearing that people were happy with how they were made, how they fitted and how they washed helped my confidence a lot.”
As the buzz about her masks built throughout the Capital and beyond, Allan got the call from River City that she never expected. "I used social media to advertise which was great, and there are some lovely groups that I share to - one of which was my local residents group, so I got to meet a lot of my neighbours too,” she says.
Virtual markets, including notonthewestend.co.uk, which was set up to support people who normally work in the theatre, and Scotland’s Virtual Market Place on Facebook, which replaced this year's Christmas markets, also proved invaluable but it was her social media posts that landed her the job of supplying the face coverings that are worn by all the main characters in River City.
"I never ever expected that to happen. The costume supervisor on River City got in touch after seeing my social media posts. She said she needed to buy masks for the majority of the principle characters to wear as the storylines brought in the pandemic and that she would prefer to support a small business rather than a big chain. I am very grateful for her support."When I saw them on screen it was lovely. It's strange enough to think masks are something I would ever end up making, let alone see them on screen. I’d made small pieces of costume for theatre shows before but never for TV, so it was a whole new experience."If you admire the River City masks and would like one for yourself, contact Jennifer Allan via wrenandthistle.etsy.com or facebook.com/wrenandthistle