In the Spotlight: Helen Brady
How long have you been a Loft member?
The first production I was involved with was Closer in 2003. The director, James Claridge, asked me if I’d help out with wardrobe and props. At the time he was a mature student doing the same course as I was at Warwick University – BA (Hons) Theatre, Media & Text; they don’t do it any more but it was an excellent degree, because it covered a very wide range of theatre and films, and the ‘text’ bit was not only Eng Lit, but also poetry, journalism, travel-writing, and in my case, script-writing.
How many Loft productions have you been involved with?
My Boy Jack will be the 23rd production I’ve dressed. I’ve done each of Gordon Vallins’s productions since King Lear in ’05, plus generally one to three other productions a year. I had to check the number on the archive, and there were some I’d forgotten entirely – which generally means they went smoothly with no hitches!
What has been your principal area of involvement so far?
Always backstage! I acted at school – always a man and usually the male ‘villain’, we were an all-girl school... mainly because I could drop my voice half an octave and project loudly. Good for Henry VIII in A Man For All Seasons, et al, and my zenith, the Jewish, and Egyptian, High Priest(s), in an adaptation of Carmina Burana – when I died screaming on stage at the end of each of the three acts!
My last stage incarnation was as Elizabeth I for the Warwick Pageant in 1995. Staged in the grounds of Warwick Castle, it was great fun to be a part of. I had to learn to ride side-saddle to make my grand entrance on the back of an enormous grey called Drummer; all of 17 hands, which means it’s a long way to the floor if you fall off! I’m told I and my entourage of attendant riders looked splendid as we made our stately progress toward the stage to a fanfare of trumpets.
But for the Loft, it’s strictly costumes. From a very young age until my mid-teens I wanted to be a fashion designer, then I wanted to be a film director – and for a while when I was finishing my first degree, I seriously considered doing an MA on the semiotics of costume design in films... so getting to dress actors sort of combines all three. Gordon asked me a few weeks ago what I got out of doing wardrobe, which for many seems to be regarded as a hard slog of a job. I had to pause and consider how to express it, but it comes down simply to ‘I enjoy it’. Oh yes, I’ll bitch and moan about demanding directors and recalcitrant actors... but then that’s part of the job description for back-stagers – grumble and get on with it. If we were all sweetness and light all the time you’d wonder what was wrong with us!
Are you involved with other theatre groups/societies?
Nope, you are my one and only – apart from a few excursions into helping out with local short film productions, oh, and Two Hats Theatre productions with James Claridge and Roger Harding.
Which is your favourite of the Loft shows you’ve worked on so far?
Now that is really difficult to say. I loved making the fantasy costumes for Peter Pan, but oh how I wished for a bigger budget, and maybe some sewing help. The challenge was to make do with what I could afford, and had time to produce, for a cast that totalled over 50 as I remember, counting all of the children in the two teams of performers. I just felt I could have done better... you know? On the other hand, working with diva-ish, stroppy-teenager girls made me swear ‘never again!’
What it did introduce me to was the glories of the RSC’s costume warehouse – magical! I went there to hire Captain Hook’s outfit and spent so long upstairs drooling over embroidered brocades and velvets that they had to send somebody to find me. The place is a costumier’s heaven, rack after rack of tightly packed fabric beauties covering every period and style imaginable – bliss! I got to go there again for Amadeus – great fun, but you do have to restrain yourself and keep the budget in mind. And keep a needle and thread handy – there’s nothing like historic costumes for coming apart – seams and hems disintegrate, petticoats tear and buttons fly off with wild abandon – once you’ve put an actor inside them!
Having said all that, I still have fond memories of Closer – possibly because it was the first and possibly because I was very involved in every performance. Each scene required carefully choreographed on-stage changes during black-outs – we joked about it as ‘a drama of shifting chairs’. Normally, my performance time is spent down in the green room, or possibly stripping an actor in the wings, before some frantic buttoning up to get them back on stage again.
Have you experienced any backstage or onstage disasters?
Not really... a few sticky moments certainly – like when the smoke machine I was operating for Brief Encounter refused to co-operate and either gave out a tiny reluctant puff, when we needed atmospheric clouds... or it insisted on hissing and wheezing all through the quiet, dramatic bits of dialogue on stage.
The Christmas Music Hall caused me the most work; as previously stated, actors plus historical outfits – and in this case, add in vigorous dancing and lots of costume changes... well, I spent the entire run repairing clothes in the green room during every night of the performance.
Have you had any form of theatre training?
No – my theatre degree was academic, focusing on theory and critique. My knowledge of costumes is a long-established personal interest – starting with collecting costume dolls, aged six and now extending to collecting books on clothes, fashion and fashion theory. I’ve learnt to sew as I went along, though teaching myself to repair antique teddy bears (I used to be an antiques dealer) has come in useful when needing to implement running repairs and invisible darns on hired costumes. I can’t tailor from scratch, but I think I’ve become a dab hand at alterations and ‘embellishments’.
What do you do for a living?
According to my registration with the Inland Revenue I’m a writer – though I certainly couldn’t live off the odd crumbs I earn! After leaving Warwick I did an MA in screenwriting at Royal Holloway, London. I graduated in ’02 and since then have been invited to participate in three year-long writing programmes, sponsored by the Film Council and Skillset. Each has produced a feature script, and no, I haven’t sold any of them. In between I’ve had bursaries to professionally develop other screenplays I’ve written with script-editors, and I’ve sent more emails and letters to agents and film companies than I can possibly remember.
But it finally seems that all that beating at doors might be about to bear fruit. I’ve got a producer interested and he has found a director who wants to make a movie from my script. Very early days as yet, first-time feature for each of them, though they both work in the film industry – so fingers crossed. It will be small, low-budget and doubtless straight-to-video... but it will have my name on it. And the script? Is the very first one I wrote – much altered and now into its umpteenth draft... as they say, the only thing that pays in this business is persistence!
Apart from that... I keep body and soul together by working three days at a jewellery shop in Warwick, so as to have the rest of the week to write. Hand to mouth is a phrase I am very familiar with, but then isn’t it supposed to be the ambition of the artist to starve in the attic? Not starving – as is very obvious! – just waiting for a chance to prove that money may not buy you happiness, but it can sure make your miserable surroundings a lot more comfortable!
Besides theatre, what are your main pastimes?
Erm... probably that biggest of all time-wasters – the Internet. I surf, I blog, I waste incredible amounts of time idly reading all sorts of oddments. I try to avoid YouTube – far too time consuming, and far too addictive. But at least I haven’t succumbed to WoW – World of Warcraft. My daughter spends hours and hours following her Taurean-druid, hunter dwarf, and female worgen warrior (i.e. a werewolf) through mile after mile of simulated scenery.
I have been tempted to explore, but years ago having become mesmerised by the video game Starship Titanic and spending hours fruitlessly clicking a mouse, I have decided that I just can’t go there... though that online Lord of the Rings game does look mighty tempting... No, no, nonononono...
What would be your dream show to be involved with at the Loft?
I’ve had a bit of a yen to do a post-apocalyptic/Mad Max-ish costumed version of King Lear, but have Lear and the other elder statesmen played by women – a matriarchal society being replaced by a patriarchal military – sort of Boudicca succumbing to the Romans... but with steam-punk overtones. A step too far?!
Or, I’d love to make Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good into a musical – I think that would have great potential to be the next Les Mis.
But probably more feasible – I remember doing a module on feminist theatre at uni. I had the same first impression as everyone does who hears that phrase – ‘ooooo gawd, dungarees, sensible shoes and worthiness!’ I was very pleasantly surprised; we read some exciting and interesting theatre. For a long while I’ve kept meaning to dig out my old notebooks and look up the playwrights. I have odd fragments in my head of memorable scenes; I suppose one thing stopping me (besides finding time) is the thought that they may not be as good as I remember them being.