Q&A with costume director of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert

SHN Theatres in San Francsico presents Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, its first and only show of the summer. Based on the 1994 movie, the show follows three friends who embark on an Australian Outback adventure and put on a drag show in a remote location.

The international hit showcasts over five hundred costumes, 2011 Tony Award-winning costumes to be exact, and requires the right people to ensure its national tour success. Michelle Harrison, the costume director for Priscilla, took the time to answer some of The Aggie’s questions below.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you do for the show?

HARRISON: I work with the designers to recreate costumes based on the Tony award-winning designs and the movie. We do fittings, put all the wigs together and manage all 500 pieces. I also have to work with the set and lighting designers, because we want to have the lights and the set to emphasize the costumes. Sometimes we require flourescent lighting for some pieces.

I work for Troika Entertainment, producing national touring musical theatre productions. At the moment, we’re working on seven shows. I have about thirty employees, including those who work on the road. We’re located in Maryland, and it’s two and a half hours to the city, so it’s convenient to get all the tours sent out.

What other shows have you worked on? Do you have a dream show?

I’ve worked on Evita and Wizard of Oz… My dream show? I’ve actually worked on it: 42nd Street. In 2007-08, I traveled with the show. It was a big cast, really flashy, lots of fun and a really complicated show. Priscilla was another dream of mine.

Where did you go to school, and how did you figure out what you wanted as a career?

I went to Stephen F. Austin State University outside of Houston, Texas as a general theatre major studying directing. It was a great theatre program where I had a well-rounded experience. After graduation, I wanted to go on tour, so I went online, sent out resumes and waited. In 2004, I joined Troika, and up until two years ago I was a wardrobe supervisor traveling with each show with two assistants.

What do you love about your job?

This is my dream job, and I never get bored. I’m never not challenged, and I’m constantly surprised. You never stop learning; I still make mistakes. With all of the different shows, each day is a new experience. I never want that to get old or stop; I want to always grow as a theatre person. As long as it’s still fun, I’ll stick with it. We’re doing musical theatre for god’s sake — we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Now, what’s the trick for quick changes?

Lots of practice! A lot of the guys in the show had never worn wigs, dresses or heels. We had to start at ground zero, like teaching everyone how to walk in heels like a woman would. We quick rig the costumes, making costumes easier to take off and change easily… We can then gradually speed up to changing in fifteen seconds. The makeup was new for the guys because it was drag queen makeup and culture. We taught them how to apply huge eyelashes, block out eyebrows, draw on lips, etc. Each actor does their own makeup, even without a mirror. We try to get the cast to take care of themselves as best they can.

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert will be in town at the SHN Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco August 21 to August 31. Tickets are available at shnsf.com.

— Elizabeth Orpina

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