The first time Kat Stephens donned one of Shirley Wrinch’s costumes, it was the early 2000s and she was playing the impetuous child genius Thomasina of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
The pale minty green, flower-patterned, piece in a girl’s pre-debut Georgian style looked straight out of the Regency era – “I was stunned to learn that Shirley had in fact made it by hand and specifically for me,” remembers Stephens.
“Every time I see it in her basement, that whole memory comes flooding back.”
The Thomasina dress – which the perennial stage favourite, Stephens, has worn in subsequent plays – is just one of hundreds in the Wrinchs’ home. A home now brimming with meticulously and skillfully crafted clothing ranging from the Elizabethan era, through the Regency era, even into the 1920s.
“It’s full of costumes that really are characters unto themselves,” describes Stephens.
“It’s going into a sort of magical lair,” says Graham Ritchie. He started working with Wrinch, first as an actor and then as the force behind the annual Bard on the Rock plays. “They’re hanging off the beds, they’re on racks, on more racks, there are dressmakers’ dummies everywhere, there are racks of materials, there are more racks upstairs.
“It’s a paradise.”
“They are crammed together in the tens, hundreds probably,” says Ritchie. “You can extract one little costume from a rack of 70 costumes and there’s an entire story in this one costume.”
“You remember having to run in that costume through the rain outside of Cates Chapel to get backstage because we don’t have a theatre,” laughs Stephens.
“A pair of tights that I distinctly remember ripping a hole in when I took a big step and the look at disapproval on her face,” recalls another frequent presence on Bowen stages, Calder Stewart. “And then she brought them back to me the next day, fixed.”
“And all of the hats,” says Stephens. “It’s always a battle. Graham Ritchie insisting that we don’t need hats in this Shakespeare production and Shirley, of course, making sure that we’ve all got our hats.
“Shirley always wins and we always look amazing.”
“I believe it was Lois Meyers Carter who first had the idea of introducing Shirley’s love of sewing with our love of theatre,” muses Jack Headley of Tir-na-nOg Theatre School. It was the early 2000s. Tir-na-nOg was working out of a little studio in Artisan Square and had a particularly enthusiastic group of teenagers who were interested in doing Shakespeare. So that all of the kids could have chances at good roles, they put on two plays – Love’s Labour’s Lost and Hamlet. Wrinch costumed both.
“She was always just wonderful with kids,” recalls Headley. “She would take their measurements and have them for fittings and adjust the pieces.
“Just absolutely remarkable.”
“Most people build costumes in sort of a temporary fashion. But hers were actually like real clothes,” recalls Headley – who has also had occasion to wear the garments. “Really comfortable and extremely well made. Inside and out. Every detail perfect.”
“Her frame of reference for fashion through the eras is staggering,” says Stephens. “It’s every detail – what you see and what you don’t see.”
There are the bum rolls for women’s hips to help the Elizabethan skirts bell out properly – there are undercoats and petticoats of different shapes and sizes.
“It’s so carefully curated to make sure that it cuts the right shape when it’s on the actor. And it depends on our body type as well,” says Stephens.
“She’s just phenomenal, incredible,” says Tir-na-nOg’s Julie Tetzner. “Also her delight of being around the youngsters – her and her husband both.”
(David Wrinch, though not famous for his skills with a needle and thread, is too part of the costume crew, helping out Shirley. Not to mention it’s his house too, filled with costumes. Headley and Julie also mention David helping build the risers for the audience seats in the Tir-na-nOg theatre when it was built. )
After she worked with Tir-na-nOg, word and knowledge of Wrinch’s prodigious talent and generosity was out and soon enough, she was costuming other plays.
She’s been key to the Bard on the Rock series – dressing seven, going on eight Shakespeare plays in that series. “She is amazingly amenable,” says Ritchie, who counts the Wrinchs as dear friends. She turns up at rehearsals, measures people, and is always in the background in the dress rehearsals and in the initial runs of the play to make sure everything goes well and make last-minute adjustments.
“She didn’t get the title of first lady of Bowen theatre for nothing,” says Ritchie. “Without the costumes, it wouldn’t be a spectacle. It wouldn’t be theatre.
“With my plays in particular, there are no sets, there are no props. It’s just black curtains and good lighting, good acting, and good costumes. Plus, the viewers’ all-powerful imaginations,” he says. “Those ingredients are all completely interdependent, and you remove one and nothing works.”
After starting his stage days on Bowen, Davin Killy left the island for a time and dabbled in theatre elsewhere. “You don’t have that [collection] elsewhere,” he observes. One resorts to the black pants from the closet and a borrowed collared shirt.
“That’s the usual theatre experience,” says Stephens, “you’re picking up scraps whenever you can because everything is low budget.
“The costume is such a big part of the character. How you how you step, how you carry yourself, and especially in those different periods, because they actually can pull your body in a different way,” says Stephens.
“You could go to a Bard on the Beach show and compare their costumes to our costumes. And I don’t know, I think we look better.
“The community as a whole gets such a better theatre experience when Shirley Wrinch is involved.”
Losing the costumes, should Wrinch no longer have the space (or patience for costumes filling every nook), would be nothing short of a tragedy, says Killy.
“We’re extremely nervous at the thought that she will one day finally and quite rightly say nope, that’s it,” says Ritchie.
So Theatre on the Isle – a long-time beneficiary of Wrinch’s costume wonderland – is scouting out potential homes for the staggeringly valuable (in terms of artistic contribution to the island) collection.
Attempts to store the clothing in the past have been hampered by the need for heated and ventilated storage (once the fabrics take on a moldy or mildewy scent, it’s impossible to get out I’m told). There’s also a need for the costumes to be accessible – for a troupe of actors to try on clothing.
If you have ideas (or even perhaps talents to lend a hand to Wrinch), Theatre on the Isle’s email is email@example.com.
As much time and effort she invests into the costumes, Wrinch won’t take a penny for her work, and even dislikes accolades at the shows (“I go out of my way to embarrass her if she turns up at the play,” says Ritchie, “just to make the point that she is fantastic. And she gets furious and everybody applauds.”)
In the end, all Wrinch asks is for is a photo of all of the actors in their costumes.