In theatre, as in real life, how one dresses reveals a lot about a person. This summer, I asked Megan West, Park Square Theatre’s Production Manager, to tell me how costuming is handled from start to finish. So she did!
Park Square hires a designer to create costumes for each play. Before meeting the cast, the costume designer has already done much character research to consider appropriate wardrobes to help create the characters’ identities. S/he puts together a “collage book” for each character, consisting of fabric swatches to determine what colors, hues and textures to use, pictures from fashion publications or ads, online images and whatever else may seem indicative of the character. All the while, s/he is also consulting with the play’s director to discuss what really works.
The costume designer also attends production meetings to collaborate with the set and lighting designers. For instance, the set designer may know not to get a red sofa if costumes will be in red, or the costume designer may know not to create green costumes if a set will be designed using green tones. The lighting designer also needs to know about chosen color-schemes to create effective lighting.
The actors will have been measured and had fittings as part of the costuming process, which gives them some idea as to what they will wear. Not until technical rehearsals happen will the actors start wearing the costumes. It is the time for them to get a sense of how it feels to move with the costumes on as well as to practice how to quickly change in and out of costumes. The actors, in fact, have their wardrobe organized and labeled on a rack in the dressing room as well as provided with a list of their costumes. Everything is organized to help the play run smoothly.
Not all costumes need to be “created from scratch.” That is actually an expensive process so, more often than not, clothing is purchased from stores, usually on discount or used. Clothing and accessories can also be rented at low cost–a dollar per week for jewelry, $3 per week for pants, $4 for coats. Actors may even own personal pieces appropriate for the play, which the theatre pays them rent to use.
The designer’s job is not yet over even after the show has opened. Audience reactions in the preview performances can influence costume changes. For instance, if an orange dress causes laughter in a serious scene, then the designer must change the dress. Or does a tank top on an heiress, for example, look cheap and shabby on stage when it shouldn’t?
Costumes must be kept clean throughout the play’s run, too. Park Square has a part-time wardrobe staff member who keeps track of laundering schedules and repair lists so a hired laundress knows what and when to wash in-house or dry-clean and what needs mending. In general, clothing is washed every other performance, but articles that touch skin, such as underclothing and slips, must be laundered after each performance. A helpful “trick of the trade” is to spray vodka on clothes as a disinfectant. Once the play ends, everything gets a final wash.
When I have watched actors in performances, I was unaware of all that is involved in the costuming process. So much meticulous attention to detail is necessary to design or acquire the right costumes and to maintain and organize them. So much hidden work goes into creating magic on the stage.
Some Costumes for Calendar Girls
(Look out for the upcoming blog, “Costumes 102: After the Show.”)