Monday, December 12, 2011

My latest project - costuming a show

Been a looong time since I did a show, and this one is a doozy.
Lonely Heart opens at BATS theatre on 17th January 2012
Eighteen years in the making, this musical is the work of Michael N Williams, a very old friend of mine. (As in long standing, not ancient!) We first met when I was 17 and auditioning for Fiddler on the Roof, and he was the Musical Director at about 20. While that was my first and last appearance onstage in a musical, Michael has gone on to become a fabulous and sought after MD.
The story is based on the real life Lonely Heart killers, Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez. It's a grim story set in late 1940's America,  about swindling rich widows out of their money, and occasionally their lives. I love it, even though I generally prefer happy stories. It is a beautifully told tale with stunning music and Michael has done us proud.
Anyway, I am the costume fairy. And I thought it was a good opportunity to look at the difference between costuming a show and making costumes for reenactment, or for pleasure, as so many of us do. Theatre costuming is my background and it took a year or so to get used to unthinking the constraints of stagework, now I have to put them back on!
Costumes for stage have a number of requirements - lighting, scale of texture and detail, changeability, usability, relationship and mood.
Theatre relies on lighting a lot to create effects, set moods, change scenes. Stage light is always coloured - "neutral" light on stage is usually salmon or straw coloured.
See how golden this scene is - the camera picks up the colour far more than the eye does, which responds to the light in a subliminal way.
Because of the use of coloured lights, costume colour and texture is important. This production is to have a film noire, grim feeling, and so will be quite monochromatic, but black is boring on stage (a message I wish most of the performers in the world would finally hear!) and doesn't reflect light well, and is also surprisingly cheerful when partnered with white on stage. I blame years of tophat and tails Fred Astaire numbers. So, I'm going for steel blues/greys. From deepest midnight through steels to palest blues. Drab to sinister, will work well with the light.
Martha and Ray. Like so many of the images from the time, it has a blue caste. We want to capture that without it being visually boring.
Scale of texture and detail
 Real things don't look real on stage, they look diminished. It's to do with the light and the distance. Delicate beading and embroidery are wasted; a hot glue gun line sprayed with gold paint looks better than a piece of cording. When choosing fabrics and trims for stage, I look at them from at least 20 feet away to see if their detail travels over distance. This is why theatre costumes often seem tawdry to non theatre costumiers, because they have to be! And I suspect that early film costumes suffered from the costume dept not realising they needed to rein it back a bit, as film and TV are more like real life.
One of the key costumes in this show is based on a dress Beck was photographed in several times. I will be exaggerating the details in order to have them work on stage.
Quick changes are almost unique to stage work. Plays are sometimes written to bear in mind the need to change costumes very fast, but not always. So fastenings and entrance/exit points are essential and a costumier needs to know about these things before embarking on a make. Quick changes need rehearsing also - one show I did at dress rehearsal a change took 5 minutes, when there was only 30 seconds. Three run throughs however and we had it "down pat". In this show I am using a couple of unconcealed conversions to change costume - where the actor themselves makes a change to the costume, usually off to the side but within plain view of the audience. This is a tricky theatrical device and one that you need to stick to throughout, but it can be very powerful. Changing from a prisoner to a nurse who hates her job and feels like she is trapped in it, for example.
Carrying on from changeability. You make a costume, you go to rehearsal and find that a character is rehearsing pulling a plot essential handkerchief out of a pocket that you didn't know the costume needed to have, therefore doesn't. The character is thrown to the ground and wrestled with, and they're to wear a vintage dress you've borrowed and promised to return in the same condition. Noone thinks to tell the wardrobe unless you've made it clear, keep asking, and go to rehearsals. Costumes need to perform :)
Costumes help enormously to help the audience understand who is on the up, on the down, how they see themselves in relation to other characters, and vice versa. Colour is often used, and texture and drape. Stiff costumes for suppressed characters, that kind of thing. Easier to play in this space when staging a period piece than modern dress, as there is more costume to play with and it is 'out of time' for the audience.
Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, while a film, is an excellent example of using colour to establish relationship, and also, let's face it, to help the audience keep track of who is who! The Montagues in blue, the Capulets in red. Even in this shot, Romeo stands out among the reds as being 'not people like us'.

One of the tricky bits of this play is that the leading lady is a plain frump whose anger at 'her lot in life' has built up to a point where it fuels criminal behaviour. She is also poor. So, no fabulous vintage gear for her - her costumes need to fit badly. This is hard! I want the audience to get this about the character, not think I am a lousy costumier. It's not an issue most costumiers face, we all want to look gorgeous, don't we? So, I am probably going to make the clothes fit but use other ways to convey that they are not good quality, and this is helped by Bryony being such a wonderful actress; she doesn't need me to achieve this mood for her, only to not contradict it. Also in one scene we want her to look transcended and beautiful, as she sees herself, and so I need to maker her look worse the rest of the time, to heighten the contrast. Should be fun!

So in summary, theatre costuming is about doing shouty design things to help the audience catch nuances of mood, relationship and plot. They have little time to ingest a concept - with movies and TV we can watch a DVD over and over but live theatre is in the moment, so you have to grab people and take them on the journey with you. This is all achieved by a harmony of acting, moving, light, set, costumes and sound. Each one needs to work with the others. It is tremendous fun. Oh, and on a shoestring budget too!
More on this as it unfolds...


  1. Great post, you have me wanting to go work backstage again... Would love to see the shots of your work. :)

  2. Happy to send you a couple of costumes to make, Steph! ;-)

  3. I look forward to hearing more! It's good to get a look at things we don't always think about (although I already have - I guess the rendition of Life Is A Dream that took my breath away in graduation class at Grammar school had something to do with it, with its simple but very powerful costumes - they practically illustrated many of your points, like the changeability to suit various characters, colours etc...)

  4. That sounds fun! Just be glad that you have warm lighting ;) Dancers always perform in very cold harsh light that can make even the loveliest of costumes look horrible. Good luck with your costumes. Will there be progress posts. I admit to being very intrigued by the method of creating costumes for on stage changes.

  5. I do intend to do some progress posts, a balance of not giving too much away but enough for it to make sense! :) My first real costuming experience was Guys and Dolls, requiring Take Back Your Mink costumes that had to come off (all quite decent underneath mind!) and I learnt about not using velcro (ugliest sound ever!) and it got me fascinated with the problem solving side of costuming, which is so much more interesting than making day clothes! :) So will do my darnedest to capture the fun bits!

  6. Thank you for giving such a clear picture of what you will have to do, brings back the days of, admittedly, amateur dramatics in the UK. I look forward to more. How many in the cast? and do you dress them all?

  7. June you're a thesp! An ex-thesp? Very interesting fact to tuck away there :) 5 in cast playing about 15 characters and about 25 costumes. Eep!!!

  8. Dear Mrs. C.,
    Wow, so well written. For the first time I "got" what it is costumiers have to do, and what factors they have to juggle. All I was aware of was the scale issue and the quick change issue.

    Looking forward to more behind-the-scenes viewpoints. This is a real treat.

    Very best,


  9. What a great write up! It takes me back to studying costuming.

    Sigh. Technically I "know" all of this, but I still suck as a theatre costumer. I want everything to be little and pretty and subtle and perfect up close! And historical!

  10. Natalie, every discipline in constructing costumes has its own set of constraints, and I guess we take our own for granted so they don't seem a big deal. Because of how I think, I like to articulate them for myself and the list of constraints I could run off about what I observe those of you who make historically accurate costumes work with is really impressive!
    Momi, you were born to make film costumes, obviously! All those unforgiving closeups blown up to ten times life size on the screen - subtle, pretty and accurate rules! :) Having said that, like I said the other day, hand finishing works better on stage generally as it has a nicer profile, and using the right kind of fabric is important too. Synthetics rarely look right on stage for period costuming - the drape is all wrong!

  11. Fascinating and a real treat to get a peek into the world of theatrical costuming. Explained so clearly and now I have lots to ponder and imagine.
    The challenge of finding technical and aesthetic solutions to a design concept and on a budget is something I know you will conquer with your usual aplomp, skill and enthusiasm. As usual, I am in awe of your ability to do it all and do it well. Kia kaha my lovely friend Kels

  12. What a fun project! And not a lot of time before opening night. Cut, sew, fit, dye, trim, and distress, like the wind!

  13. Thanks for the insite! Very interesting. I was in a play during high school (Oliver) and I have taken from that the idea of the difference between theater and costuming for history. When you costume for yourself you want to go for authentisity as a matter of pride and as a matter of figuring out how these people felt in their clothes. So the sewing techniques are correct as you can get and the underclothes are as correct as possible. In theater, it only has to look right from far away so none of those micro details are important.

  14. I meant the micro details were NOT important.

  15. Hi Wandab, true fiddly details are wasted, however underclothes are really, really important, especially the ones that inform the shape, such as stays, corsets and bras. If these are not the right shape then the costume will simply not work. And it is important for the actors to feel the right kind of feel too, as it helps them to get into the character. But hand sewing the seams on a chemise or making gorgeous little embroidered flowers in the same colour as the fabric? Not so much' :)

  16. Such a great write-up, MrsC! I costumed one stage production--a children's play (as in for children, not with children as actors) back in high school. It involved a fancy layering job for the quick costume change that I was very proud of!

    And I think you can balance the fine line of frump with proper fitting--I see plenty of "egads, why" clothes that aren't poorly made or fitted in vintage photos...just poorly selected lol! Some of my family are sad culprits of this...

  17. I really enjoyed reading this and learned such a lot. Thanks for a great post. Reading through your posts is like being on a journey of learning, and a lot of fun :)

    1. Aha Ali, are you doing a flit back through time? Funny as I just finished another musical for MNW. This one was a breeze in comparison, as I had seriously expert help!