Backstage Brilliance – Highlands Theatre Group Costumier Ron Russell

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Many things make theatre a success – but the right costumes provide the colour, and the actors within them the movement, that set the scene for the action on stage.  Costumes are just as much as a part of the set, and can provide great insights into a show’s story, particularly in those first few seconds when the actors appear.  Costumes can make or break a show – but when they are designed and produced by someone of the skills and standing of Ron Russell – every show is a sight to behold.

HTG’s production of Stepping Out with costumier Russell (back row fourth from right)

Highlands Theatre Group’s latest production, The Vicar of Dibley opens on May 12, and may not seem the type of show to be focussing on the efforts of costumier extraordinaire Russell, but the world of corduroy and cable knit, cardigans and crochet, along with 1920’s style tweed caps and the occasional, patterned sleeveless vest requires just as much attention to detail as all the green glamour and sparkle of a production of Wicked.

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Compared to many of HTG’s past productions, costuming for ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ may seem relatively simple, but that’s where you could easily be mistaken. Each piece to be worn on stage, has been thoroughly scrutinised for its authenticity, right down to the design of the buttons and the cut of the cloth. And we can only guess at just how many backs of wardrobes and spare room cupboards have been scoured over the past months in search of that elusive, now outdated waistcoat, or that never to be worn again plaid and pleated woollen skirt!

Russell’s Chinese silk outfit from ‘Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’

The Vicar of Dibley is just the latest in a long list of HTG productions Russell has been involved with – voluntarily sharing his costume expertise, designing and creating so many of the stunning costumes that audiences have been treated to over the years. Ron’s attention to detail has earned him the reputation of being somewhat of a perfectionist. He has gained a wealth of knowledge through meticulous research of period costume, enabling him to use his talent in being able to design from the original patterns. He has worked alongside a host of professional costumiers during his association with the Rockdale Musical Society and the Hurstville Light Opera Company, as well with the Australian Opera Company, where he was invited to inspect the wardrobe and costumes worn by Dame Joan Sutherland and Joan Carden. More recently, in 2013, Russell made available, a ‘Jane Austin’ style dress, to historic home, Harper’s Mansion in Berrima, where it was held and displayed for use during Australia Day celebrations.

Russell’s superb costumes contribute to the overall spectacle of each performance, and combine seamlessly with the creative vision of the set designers and builders, who work tirelessly for months behind the scenes, to create that element of magic that supports the action on stage. Actor and Director of this production, Jim Cheesley, has been responsible for many of HTG’s innovative set designs over the years, preferring to adapt traditional designs to his own and simplifying them, to allow focus to remain on the actors.

Russell’s Pink fairytale dress from  ‘Sleeping Beauty’

Equally experienced in his ability to construct sets, is Darryl Hope, who has collaborated with Jim on many occasions. He has been instrumental in the building of some extraordinary sets for the Highlands Theatre Company, taking credit at one time for the construction of a true to scale helicopter!

With the assistance of a multi-talented band of volunteers, who are always prepared to ‘go the extra mile’ such as Russell, audiences of HTG productions can always look forward to professional productions, by an amateur theatre company. To foster a love for and appreciation of Theatre among the general community, is high on their list of priorities and HTG is proud in the knowledge that it is a not for profit organisation.  The Vicar of Dibley is just the latest production to benefit from this community focussed group and no doubt will be an outstanding success.

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