The Cabinet of Mrs Noltensmeyer

A visit to a Thalia Theater workshop

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Costume painter Klaudia Noltensmeyer creates frightening, funny and absolutely enchanting beings in her workshop. Our author Lisa-Marie Eckardt visited her in this cabinet of curiosities at Hamburg's Thalia Theater.


Lisa-Marie Eckardt

Lisa-Marie Eckhardt loves to travel the world over and write about it. However, she always comes back to Hamburg in the end.

More from Lisa-Marie

The alien is still a creation in progress. A paper-thin jersey with over-sized shoulder pads dangling from a clothes hanger. Klaudia Noltensmeyer takes off her blue protective mask and strips the rubber gloves from her hands. Then she runs a testing hand over the green-painted fabric: “That's turned out beautifully!”

She leads me from the “chaotic mess”, her term for the airbrush room, to her workshop. The 61-year-old sits down behind paint pots, mixing jars and brushes, smooths her paint-splashed coat down and a chin-length, grey strand of hair over her ear. She wants to use my visit as a break, because otherwise she'll barely have time to catch her breath today. “It has to be millimetre-perfect – the paint has to be in exactly the right places. And there's no way to go back and correct it”.

“The theatre is always plain crazy”

Their instinct for colour is what makes good costume painters, she explains. “I have to know exactly what the colour will look like under the spotlight. Because light has so much power”. She used to go to every rehearsal to check it. Now, she says she has a precise eye for how fabrics and colours will change under stage lighting.

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Das Große Haus ("The Big House") in the historic district was built in 1843 and holds 1000 audience members.

“Schere, Faust, Papier” (“Fist, paper, scissors”), which also feature the freshly-sprayed aliens, premieres in a week's time. The schedule's pretty tight, and now there's a flu bug going around as well – but Klaudia Noltensmeyer isn't worried about herself so much as about the production's costume designer: “If he gets sick it would be a disaster!” she cries. and grabs her cheeks theatrically. Then she laughs and adds: “But the theatre is always plain crazy”.

Amid all the hustle and bustle, Klaudia Noltensmeyer and her workshop are a constant. She has been employed as the Thalia Theater's costume painter for more than 30 years, has seen several artistic directors come and go. Plays may not have been staged for years, directors and costume designers may move on and different actors may be engaged, but the figures here in her cabinet of curiosities seem to live on. The workshop walls are crammed with postcards, photos and drawings.

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Hotchpotch of curiosities: The costume painter has been working in the workshop for over 30 years.

Like being in Italy, on the way to the opera

A big white box is to be seen on one card, behind it Cologne Cathedral. “That's the opera house in Cologne. I worked there for ten years until the Thalia head-hunted me,” she recalls. Klaudia Noltensmeyer was born in Cologne. She actually wanted to be a costume designer herself. However, she had to do an internship before she started her course. That was how she ended up in costume painting, quite by chance. “My good fortune,” as she now knows. Because costume designers are mostly freelancers, and come and go with the stage directors. “I can stay here in my workshop in Hamburg”.

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"The paint has to be in exactly the right places. And there's no way to go back and correct it".

Klaudia Noltensmeyer

Beside the postcard hangs a copy of the “Rhineland Constitution”, a set of rules reflecting Cologne’s philosophy life. Article 3: It always works out somehow. That's a general rule of theatre life, but it also applies to Klaudia Noltensmeyer's decision to come to Hamburg. “My heavens, the most fantastic place to work and with this district around it. I love to walk along the Alster or the Colonnaden in my breaks. Then I feel like I'm in Italy, on the way to the opera”. She still remembers every detail of the moment when she first entered the foyer of the Thalia Theater: “To me, it was as moving as something out of a Thomas Mann novel. It was the way I had always pictured northern Germany. So Hanseatic, so bourgeois”.

That's far from making the Thalia conventional, she says. “We also do a lot of experimental stuff,” says Klaudia Noltensmeyer. Such as the costumes for a performance of Kleist's “Penthesilea”. “People still talk about it!” She dyed the Amazon queen's dress and Achilles's shirt with theatrical blood. When the battle for love between the two was fought on stage, the actors poured buckets of water over each other. “That made the dried blood run down their legs,” says the costume painter enthusiastically, pointing to the picture on her wall. “Oh, it was breath-taking!”

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Klaudia Noltensmeyer used to go to every rehearsal to check the costumes. Now, she has a precise eye for how fabrics and colours will change under stage lighting.

If something goes wrong, it'll be all right on the night

The fat suits for a performance of Kafka's “The Castle” were exciting as well, she tells me. To make them, she dyed 40 metres of fabric and sprayed on deformed body structures, which she also patinated – i.e. aged artificially – as a final touch. Another time she had to paint pin-stripes on a suit freehand. Another drawing on the workshop wall is a reminder of that.

Now, however, it's back to the daily routine: a colleague collects the freshly-painted alien to be tried on. A few short minutes later she hands the costume back to Klaudia Noltensmeyer. “Looks super.” – “Oh, fantastic. High five!” says the relieved costume painter. Slap. Then the colleague whisks back into disguise.

The problem with the aliens, explains Klaudia Noltensmeyer, was the structures and physical characteristics – she had had long discussions about it with the costume designer. “We're doing it now as the diametrical opposite of the human anatomy – after all, they are aliens”.

Then she disappears back into her “chaotic mess”. The first alien is finished. She still has to spray four more. She dons her protective mask and tests the spray gun. When she presses the button, a fine spray jets out and catches a colleague in the face. “Whoops, a good thing it was just water at this stage,” says Klaudia Noltensmeyer, laughing. Maybe it's like a stage rehearsal: If something goes wrong, it'll be all right on the night. Article 3: It always works out somehow.

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