Paul Smith’s first experience on stage was an inauspicious event.
Unable (or unwilling, he says) to learn his lines, he wrote them down and stuck them to his skateboard stage prop.
“I hated learning lines. I hated being in the spotlight. Being in front of people who are all looking at me … no no. At that point, I thought, maybe being in front of the curtain isn’t for me.
It was the business behind the curtain – the mechanics of putting on a show – that really caught him. Behind the scenes – now that was a place to be, he said
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Speaking from one of Wellington’s Grand Old Lady’s costume rooms, the Opera House, Smith looks very much at home.
Surrounded by wigs, shoes and costumes of various descriptions, he is in his element.
His professional life is a curious mix of roles – wardrobe master, corporate finance infantryman, high performance netball referee (he is 1.9 meters tall).
But the theater has always been his happiest place, he says.
As a tour wardrobe manager for Jersey Boys, he’s also just happy to have a gig in an industry that’s on its knees overseas.
He has his work cut out for him. The show has 270 looks. Most looks have three outfits. That’s over 750 costumes.
It’s a big job, says Smith, 40.
“People don’t realize the behind-the-scenes aspect of what’s going on in a show. They see the glamor of the performers on stage but behind the curtain there is a whole team – 20 in this show – who make props, costumes, wigs, changes of scenery.
That’s the goal, he concedes. The audience wants to see a flawless performance. The backstage crew is the mute performers, the supporting actor, which is just what it should be.
Smith says costumes are like performers – they create character.
They tell a story, especially in a period show where a story spans decades – Jersey Boys goes from the 50s to the 2000s.
“You have to represent the weather changes with the costume. They help the audience understand the story presented on stage.
Smith, a graduate of Massey University’s fashion design course, marked his current contract while in isolation, having returned from Macau where he worked at The House of Water dance – a big Cirque du Soleil type show.
He had spent two years in Macau. Even when he went into lockdown, his borders tightly closed, he was able to keep his job as performance continued for local residents until June 2020.
Smith got his first taste for the theater at the age of 14 when a friend’s father was on the Porirua Little Theater production crew of Little shop of horrors.
One spectacle led to another. He has found his place behind the curtain.
At Tawa College, he rose to the top of the home economics class where he learned to sew.
After school he accepted a job as a bank teller, lacking the confidence to enroll in Massey University’s fashion design course until 2000.
In 2005, after graduating with honors, he moved to the UK where he found work in the panto scene – a great gig for any actor or backstage crew.
He worked the wardrobe in the production of Peter Pan in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. It was her first gig as a professional wardrobe manager.
He was all alone. He didn’t know anyone. It was sink or swim.
It was long hours, he said, and a whole new level of theatrical production from what he was used to, but it was a formative experience.
He returned to Aotearoa in 2006 and returned to the bank where he had worked during his early years after school. The corporate world offered a steady income, and he made a steady rise to agency director.
The opportunities for wardrobe managers are rare. His job in the bank was necessary to keep bread on the table.
Fortunately, his bosses over the years have given him sabbaticals to work on one show or another.
His first professional role in New Zealand was in Starlight Express.
Others followed: jobs with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, New Zealand Opera, Disney’s Aladdin in Australia, The dancing water house in Macau.
Directly after Jersey Boys he goes to Australia to work on Frozen, provided Covid doesn’t ruin this gig.
A lonely business
Life on the road can be difficult for those with commitments.
He has the luxury, he says, of being a free agent to tour without any dependents.
It can be a lonely business tour, but as someone who enjoys independence, it suits him.
“You have to be able to get along with people from all walks of life because they become your family. “
For Smith, backstage in any theater is a home away from home.