Friday, July 30, 2010

A Look into the World of Costumes

Today at the American Shakespeare Center, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jenny McNee, one of the resident costume designers, to discuss the realm of her expertise. Well, I sat, and Jenny worked. While she sewed, Jenny gave me some great insight into how costume design has evolved at ASC. According to Jenny, the process changes from season to season. Costuming generally begins with a discussion with the director, to determine the time period, if there is one, and the world of the play. In the past, Jenny would have begun by sketching different ideas for costumes. Now, however, Jenny begins the process by thinking about necessity: what is needed for the show and how much time there is to put it together. The designers pull many costumes from stock; that is to say, they take them from costumes that ASC already has from previous shows. Often, costumes from different past shows will work together for the present show, in a way that might not have been expected (for instance, they may have similar colors or textures).

When creating the various costumes needed for a show, Jenny considers several important factors. Time plays a major role in this part of the process, because Jenny and the other designers sometimes have only a week to compile all of the costumes for a show. For this reason, costumes are recycled over many seasons, though the designers do sometimes make entirely new costumes – for example, all of the coats being used in the current production of Othello are hand-made, an amazing feat to accomplish in such a short time span. Costumers in my school’s Theatre Department generally have between two and three weeks to realize their designs, so to me one week seems unrealistic, but Jenny and fellow designers make great costumes nevertheless. Other factors that might affect the costume choices include: whether an actor needs to change costumes quickly backstage; whether a costume is an “overdress” or an “underdress”; whether a certain type of fabric needs to be used; whether a costume needs a zipper, boning, or lacing; and whether the costume needs seams in a particular place. Truly, the costume designers have a lot to keep in mind.

Another concern for the costume designers is the period of the show. Not all shows at ASC are staged in the early modern period, so the costume designers must discuss with the director the desired period for a show, and then go on from there. With specific periods, the designers can research the typical dress of that time and use that research to shape their ideas. The easiest period to work with is of course the Elizabethan, because Jenny and the other designers have so many resources to pull from. In some cases, though, the director does not have a set period in mind, and in these instances sketching is the most useful tool. Jenny refers to these shows as “mash-ups,” where textile and color connect the costumes, and they evoke a mood or a place, rather than a certain period of time.

The final stages of the process consist first of going through the pulled costumes with the director to decide which work, and which do not. At times, the designers almost turn to “mind-reading,” as Jenny puts it, to discover exactly what the direct wants, so that they can then fix or create anything the director finds to be missing from the costumes. The designers take an inventory of what each actor needs for his or her character, so that they’re sure to have all the necessary items. At this time, the designers take note of what items need to be bought in order to complete their inventory. In the last week of rehearsals, the designers can see the costumes on the actors, and can decide what works and what needs to be added or changed. The costume designers, according to Jenny, continue to design the little pieces, primarily accessories, up to a show’s preview, and often add items based on what they see at the dress rehearsal. The process feels long and arduous, even if it only lasts just over a week, but based on what appears onstage, it’s one that is extremely worthwhile. I admire Jenny and the other designers for their hard work, which, as I saw this morning, is no exaggeration. My own experience with costuming is limited, but I know enough to understand that creating costumes for an ensemble of actors in one week is a great accomplishment. With this in mind, Jenny and the other designers’ work is even more impressive to me.

Elizabeth Reams

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