Lord of the stories

The curtain rises. Manfred Scholz is a passionate storyteller. “Theater is enchantment and costumes tell stories,” he says. Dressed in a blue jacket with a dotted necktie and purple handkerchief, this eloquent man is sitting at a table in the costume tailoring department of the Nationaltheater in Mannheim. “I learned my profession as an apprentice at a gentlemen’s bespoke tailor back in the seventies,” he explains. “But I wanted to be creative and already applied for a job at the theater during my apprenticeship.” Scholz submitted three applications and waited eight years for an answer. Today, he and the team he leads in his role as head of costume tailoring at the Nationaltheater Mannheim create stories out of cloth for drama, opera and dance. A single season can see as many as 40 premieres, including many operas with elaborate costumes. Whether a waffle pattern in a tiered skirt, gentle, delicate leaves for Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” or static Biedermeier dresses with voluminous fleeces for Robert Schumann’s opera “Genoveva”: Freudenberg nonwovens ensure that artistic ideas can be turned into costumes that bring stories alive on the stage.

Scene 1. The air in the room is a curious mix of second-hand shop, gym and fabrics. Around 60,000 costumes hang in the costume tailoring props store. Golden bodices with hooks in the style of the Baroque period, a dress with an Empire collar made of soldered copper wire and sequins for Maria Stuart, and a net shirt with hand-painted tattoos. “The makeup artists then paint the neck so that everything looks real,” says Scholz. “Costumes are often also made to look old, such as for the play ‘Odysseus’. There the clothes were dyed and artificially soiled, a process that can bring tailors to tears. But this is theater – if all you want to do is to sew beautifully, you should go into fashion.” For costumes that have to be filigree and light or need to move, the tailors use Freudenberg interlinings by the roll, which are then cut and stitched into ripples or fringes, for example.

From Domingo to Denoke, Scholz knows many famous artists and has costumes in the props store that were worn by them. “Everything is tailored to the individual body”, he says. “And of course we all know sighs of a star as she says, ‘No, this it not me – I cannot find myself in this dress.” Naturally he does not name names. Instead, he notes with a wink that "psychological skill and persuasion are also part of the business."

Scene 2. Around 50 employees work in the costume tailoring department, including women’s and men’s tailors, hatters and shoemakers, wardrobe masters and properties staff. They are also on hand during the evening performances and help with costume changes. “There, under terrific time pressure, artists are rapidly put into different costumes back stage as pulses race. That’s theater,” says Scholz. “In the opera, there was once a stage set that included a house, behind which the hero got changed. It was a little awkward on one occasion when the house disappeared too early and the hero had not yet finished changing. It happens.” In general, the Mannheim audience can be very difficult, the result of which is not unknown to modern productions. “You’ll hear cries of ‘outrageous’ or ‘get off,’” says Scholz. “This is very honest and direct, but not always pleasant."

“Viewing from the walls” – teichoscopy. How is the costume that the audience ultimately sees on stage created? To begin with, the director and costume designers sit together and discuss the concept of the play. This is how the staging of many classics is modernized, for example. The costume designer then produces the first drawings or ‘figurines’. Either drawn, glued together as collages or modeled on the computer, the designs are pinned to mannequins or pinboards, the edges of which are full of notes on different fabrics and materials. Next, the costume designer sits down with the wardrobe masters to create cutting patterns based on the drawings. It is also the wardrobe masters who discuss with the costume designer which of his or her ideas are feasible and which may not be. “When costume designers give their art free rein, great things are created on stage,” says Scholz. “Today, the courage and imagination to think big and new is sometimes lacking. That’s a pity.” Nevertheless, there is a fixed budget for each piece and not every costume can be made from scratch, which would be too expensive. One week before the premiere, the first rehearsals are held with costumes, makeup and light. “This is when the artists learn to cope with ruffles and corsets. In front of the mirror, they transform themselves from ducks to swans as they swap their sneakers for high-heeled shoes and start to move elegantly,” Scholz explains.

Scene 3. Purring sewing machines, rolls of yarn in all colors and steaming irons: it is all action in the ladies’ tailoring shop. “No two days are the same,” says tailor Barbara Käsbauer, who is currently sewing a gray dress. “We often spend hours on the details of costumes as we work our way into different epochs. We work with many different materials such as fine fabrics, fleeces, leather or plastic. Looking out from backstage to see how and if everything is working on stage is great. The contact with the artists is also something special.” Next to her stands master tailor Heike Just, who nods in agreement: “There are many more possibilities here than in normal tailoring. From futuristic dresses to colored and painted fabrics through strip nonwovens that are then woven together, I have already tried many things. That is what makes theater so fascinating to me.” Freudenberg interlinings ensure the optimal fit of fabrics used in blazers, pants and other items of clothing. The technology group has also developed special elastic nonwovens, designed to provide high elasticity in all directions. Especially in the theater, many pieces of clothing are put through various processes such as printing, dyeing or bleaching. The interlinings used must also be able to withstand these processes without damage. They need to be suitable for many outer fabrics, adhere well and withstand heat and cold without deforming.

Scene 4. In an adjoining room stands Andrea Scholz as she gilds a pair of uniform boots with metal foil. The air is heavy with the smell of glue. “The theater is an exciting place,” she says. “Even if a lot of the manual work is exhausting, I get my reward when I’m in a rehearsal and can see how my work comes alive on stage. My work is important for the production.” Behind her is a fat-suit that makes an actor look much more voluminous, painted skin color and covered in food stains. Next to it lies a pair of wings, elaborately painted.

Curtain down. The best moment for Scholz is when the stage lights go up in the evening. This is when he can finally see how the fabrics and costumes come across on stage and how the audience reacts to them. “I can immediately sense the result of our work in every single piece. That’s great”, he says. “Each piece is a new challenge: how to implement ideas and enchant the audience with the stories. This is not always successful. But if it succeeds, the effect is magical.” Every sentence he speaks tells you that Manfred Scholz is living his dream. His passion is storytelling​.