The crotch in your pants tears open — wide.
You’re not at home or in a bathroom stall at work. You’re on stage in front of an audience of thousands, including lots of children — a few of whom have started snickering.
In the darkness of the wings, a tiny light, a beacon of hope. You leap off into the shadows, and within seconds — literally, because you have to be back on stage again almost instantaneously — a woman in black, wearing a headlamp, produces a needle and thread and she sews you up.
It ain’t pretty, but it will do until the next costume change.
“I’ve had to fix that at least twice — once was the first show I ran for the Joffrey,” explained Jerica Hucke, the draper for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, of said costume incident.
It turns out, the costume folks at the Joffrey thrive on such drama, but they’d just rather you didn’t see it.
“It’s kind of fun. The adrenaline of it — that’s why we do live theater,” said Ellie Cotey, the costume manager at Joffrey.
In the Joffrey’s costume shop at 10 E. Randolph, it’s a “super, super busy time,” says Cotey, adding some finishing touches to the bodice of the sugar plum fairy costume on a recent afternoon. Joffrey’s annual “Nutcracker” — the company show that sells the most tickets each year (in part because it has the longest run of any of its presentations) — opens Dec. 2 at the Lyric Opera House.
If it’s a chaotic time, it’s a controlled chaos. Three stitchers sit near a large window, working mostly in silence as they apply finishing touches to various costumes. Cotey’s team of six, including herself, has a combined 120 years of experience in the trade.
Beside the stitchers is a wall of thread spools, colors so bright they’d make a rainbow jealous. Another wall is lined with plastic tubs with all sorts of labels: “Fur,” “horse hair,” “pearls,” “gold metallic trim” and something called “braid and gimp.”
There are about 260 costumes in total for “The Nutcracker,” most of them on hangers on racks, waiting to be packed into road boxes that will be loaded into a truck and taken to the Lyric.
Cotey stands at a cutting table arranging the gold leaves on the sugar plum fairy costume. The piece is intended to glitter and dazzle beneath the stage lights, but not so the audience will say, “Oh that’s a different costume from last year.”
“We hope it doesn’t look jarringly different,” says Cotey, pointing out the old fairy costume, which she says had become a bit “dingy.” “The goal is to have it look sparkly and new.”
In an adjoining room, objects that bring to mind the leathery eggs from the 1979 movie “Alien” sit scattered about the costume shop’s laundry room. They’re actually the ballet’s giant walnuts, and child actors will be enclosed in them from head to waist during the World’s Fair scene in the show. When this version of the show opened in 2016, they were made of papier-mâché.
“They were beautiful, but they were heavy, … they had wood frames in them and they kept getting really, really banged up every year because the kids couldn’t see out of them, so on stage, they’d bang into each other,” Hucke said.
So Hucke came up with the idea of using a “thermo plastic” mesh, which is lightweight, can be painted and, most importantly, allows the kids to see out.
“They do bump, but it bounces a little bit better and they can see [out] so they do a little less bumping, which is kind of sad because it was very funny,” Hucke said.
Cotey, Hucke and the rest of the team will all be somewhere backstage — and out of sight — during the run of the show. They’ll each carry a little pouch, containing needles, scissors, thread, safety pins. They can’t do repairs in the dark. Some used to have what’s called a “bite lamp,” which is clamped between the teeth and leaves the hands free, but COVID changed all of that. Now folks use tiny head lamps or lights that dangle around their necks.
And like a pit crew, Cotey’s team is ready to sprint into action at a moment’s — maybe a fraction of a moment’s — notice.
“It’s fine if your heart is pounding as long as your hands aren’t shaking,” Hucke said. “You have to be really confident in that moment that the thing you’re doing — that you can get it done in the time you need to do it. … Anything could happen backstage and you have to always be prepared,” Hucke said.