Team Management in a Costume Context

written by La Bricoleuse 

One of the things i always try to impress upon those interested in a professional costume production career is the importance of management skills and an understanding of workflow. I talk to my students about this in classes, and to assistants about it in professional jobs (where appropriate, of course). I mention it whenever people ask me what kinds of skills they need to work on in addition to the obvious sewing, patterning, etc.—i always say, read up on management and workflow techniques, and learn a few basic words and phrases in Spanish. Seriously.

My current job provides a great example of why this is so important.

I’m on a team led by a single draper. (So, most of our MFA students major in draping; this is the position to which they someday aspire.) Under him are three full-time first-hands—myself and two other women—and a fourth part-time first-hand. Work responsibilities flow from the draper to the four of us and on down the line. 

So what’s down the line on our team? 

First up, we have two operators. Operators are sometimes called “stitchers” as well—they operate the industrial machines. Operators typically only do machine sewing, and they are very, very fast. Generally, it takes the draper and at least one of the first hands devoting all their time to cutting and setting up work to keep those operators busy. If they are idle, you lose them to other teams, so it’s a pretty breakneck race to make certain you always have work for your operators to do.

Next, we have four finishers. Finishers do hand work—attaching closures and labels, hand-sewing elements of the costume, pinning, basting, etc. Finishers work slower than operators, obviously, but they work a lot faster than you might think. 

In addition, we have two floaters, who are people that do both machine and hand work. One of our floaters is in-house, and one is outsourced (meaning, we send boxes of work to her and she does it in her own shop). For the past four days, one person’s entire day has been spent just generating work for the single outsourced floater.

On top of this, we have three interns—two highschool sophomores and a retiree—who work around 7 hours a day as volunteers. The interns are very diligent and enthusiastic, but they require a bit more consideration than the “pro” workers when assigning responsibilities. The two young women are just learning the skills they need for this job, and the older woman has some of the handicaps of age (poor vision, slower energy level, special physical accomodations such as work that can be done on a flat table while seated). 

If you’ve been keeping count, yes, that’s a total of sixteen people on the team, with eleven of them looking to the other five for their workflow. Each of us on the “steering committee” level is responsible for keeping two people busy for 100% of their workday. When you recall my statements about how it takes one person per operator just to keep them working, you realize that it shakes down even more disparately than that, so that some days, two of our first hands wind up supervising the other nine workers on their own. 

Of course this is a very particular case—not every draping team has sixteen members, and we’re doing this at the top level of Broadway production. Most places, certainly, you have a much more sanely manageable team—one or two first hands, a stitcher or two (or a stitching pool that serves all drapers sometimes). Still the point holds: brush up on your managerial skills!

Here are some basic things i always keep in mind when i have a team to work with, whether it be a single assistant or a team of six or more:

1.) Hand stuff off like it’s going out of style. By this i don’t mean, be lazy and pass stuff off on poor sods reporting to you. I mean, try your best never to do anything yourself that could be done by someone less skilled than you are. If you are a draper or first hand, don’t spend your time, say, stitching in a label unless it’s the last day of work on a project. There’s plenty of stuff no one can do but you—correcting patterns from fittings, cutting out particularly fiddly stuff, etc. Always ask yourself when you pick up a job, “Can anyone else on my team reliably do this, or be taught quickly to do this?” If the answer is “yes,” consider handing it off. 

2.) Show an interest in those working for you. This one is what i think of as the grease that makes the team machine run. Talk to your teammates. Make small-talk, ask about their lives, not to excess but enough that shows them you see them as a person with a life outside of work. If they speak English as a second language, ask them a few basic phrases in their language (Spanish being the most common [1], but at my current work, Russian and Greek are close seconds.), such as “good morning” and “thank you.” If you connect with your team on a human level, even in just the most basic of ways, they will appreciate it and feel happier about working with and for you.

3.) Respect their knowledge. You may be generating work for the team, but always acknowledge their experience and don’t be too proud or “big” to defer to them at times. For example, i always ask my operators their opinion on the amount of seam allowance needed when cutting—they sew all day every day; they know what’s going to be too much or not enough. I ask finishers for their input on how they think something should be best hand-sewn for a couture finish; it’s their job, they know! Everyone’s got something to contribute, and when appropriate, i do ask others for input.

4.) Always stay flexible. I start my day with a basic outline, planning out a short task list for all the people reporting to me. I don’t enforce it like a drill sargeant though; things come up, things go faster or slower than you think they will, unforeseen setbacks happen and crazy productivity cranks into overdrive; at any point, i’m prepared to completely rethink my plan for the day, for myself or for my part of the team. I’m willing to bargain, trade of workloads, swap jobs, whatever it takes to get what needs to be done done in as efficient a manner possible. 

5.) Never let them see you sweat. By this i mean, don’t flip out publicly. Don’t bitch to those reporting to you about how screwed the team is, or how huge the workload is, and if you are concerned about anything regarding the job at hand, pass that up the ladder, not down. Talk to your draper or shop manager, don’t whine to your stitcher or complain to your intern. They look to you as the bellwether—if you seem okay, they feel okay. Okay feeling workers work more efficiently and screw up less. 

That’s it, my overview of the staff demographic of your average Parsons-Meares draping team creating a whole messload of showgirls in crazy trick costumes. And i didn’t freak out once about the fact that Shrek ships out Tuesday! GO TEAM DRAGONETTES!