Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sewing for Community Theater

My last post on October 7th was about the reviews of the 39 Steps, a fantastic comedy that I was fortunate to be the costume designer for. 

Costume Design is really not for people who love to sew.  It is about understanding the play, the characters, the set and the illusion the actors and the director want to bring to life.  Costume Design is just as much about collaboration, project and budget management as it is using space, line, shape, form light, and texture to manipulate scraps of fabric into costume.  I'd have been dead from the beginning had it not been for the kindness of Andrea Sickler, the stage manager, who handed me a costume plan she'd saved from a production of the show she had done two years ago.

From this simple listing of items of clothing each character would need, I crafted a detailed spreadsheet plan which cross referenced the characters, actors sizes, and desired characteristics of the costumes.  I could change the sort of the spreadsheet by character, or size, of type of garment. Here's an excerpt:

The Chatham Theater has a wonderful collection of costumes that is decades old.  Most costume designers prefer to rent the entire collection of costumes pre-packaged for the play they are working on.  'Cabaret?  Oh, call up the costume company and rent that package.'  It did briefly cross my mind to do that, but with a small warehouse filled with beautiful things I could not bear to incur the expense of renting.  So with the producer, the stage production manager, and another costume designer, we ventured into the vault and came out with some 150 items.  The 39 Steps is a play with four actors who portray over 40 characters in just two hours.  Let that sink in.  In many parts of the play, there are really only seconds between costume changes.  In fact, actors often traded costumes right on stage.  It's something of a trick for a milkman's jacket to not look too large on a small frame actor, and then not too small on a large frame actor, but that is what we were able to pull off.

To help organize the costumes, I created a category and numbering system.  Items were linked to characters, and to positions on rolling pipe racks.  As the play progressed, the dressers could pick off the rack the costume combination for the next character.

The elements of design came to the forefront in finding costume pieces that would signal the character to the audience.  The actors were a huge help to me.  "I want to be mysterious, sexy, and funny."  OK... black suit, jacket with a peplum, tilted hat with a long feather, a mink wrap (hey $5 from the Goodwill!).

  "I want to be the wife of a country farmer who dreams of life in the city."  OK... earthy tone clothing, modest, slightly contrast colored apron, light prints and solids.

 "I want to be a professional women.. a suffragette of sorts."  OK.. violet colored suit with black piping. 

There was a scene in which "Pamela" had to taken off her wet stockings to dry by the fire.  Sounds easy.  Do you know where to get vintage ladies stockings and garter belt?  Most ladies stockings today come with elastic sewn in at the top, and most garter belts sold are really not functional.  I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when we found an ancient box of vintage nylon stockings in the costume vault, but then I thought I slipped into Hell when I picked up a garter belt and it disintegrated in my hands.  It took weeks to find a garter belt.  On an early Sunday morning, I appeared at the Rockaway outlet of Victoria's Secret with my actresses measurements.  The young ladies weren't sure what to make of a 60-year old guy looking for a garter belt, but they directed me to a very emphathetic garter belt specialist.  At the bottom of a drawer, pushed to the back, was a real garter belt.. a damned fine sexy one too!  The belt played a key comic moment in the play.

  I might mention that just a few weeks later Victoria's Secret would come to the rescue again in Manhattan when they gave their massive fashion show generators to the National Guard during the weeks after Sandy.

The play's Director, Bell Wesel, was a live wire.  She had a creative vision that I was never able to fathom because I was down in the dirt of the details while she was trying to bring on the laughs.  At one point, she told me one of the characters needed a fez.  He needed to be smarmy, but funny too.  A fez is not something you can go down to Walmart an buy off the shelf. 

Through the magic of eBay, I found the perfect fez.  The problem was that it was in Turkey.  In fact, I needed two.  One for the actor and a second for a dummy dress like the actor which would be thrown down from a box above the stage after the appropriate gun shot.  I sweated big bullets waiting for the box to come from Turkey, but they came just days before we needed them.

If you're wondering, I did do some sewing.  Much of it alterations.  For the two clowns, I sewed two black shirts.  The collars had only a stand with a velcro strip to ring the actor's neck.  I made several dickies.. a tux shirt with bow tie sewn on.. a policeman's shirt with gold braid dark blue tie.. a loud salesman's shirt with ties to make you sick.  As it turns out, only the tux dickies made it into final production.  For most of the play, the clowns simply wore the base black shirt. [sigh]

Of the many people who helped me, Beverly Wand, gave me the encouragement to make it happen when I thought things were slipping out of control.  Beverly won the 2012 NJACT Perry Award for Outstanding Costume Design (The Grapes of Wrath.) She was right there to help pull a set of marching band hats out of the sky when the tartan golf caps I'd found didn't cut it for Belle.  After the play ended and it was time to put the costumes away, I came down with a nasty flu and she put everything away herself.  I still feel badly about letting her down.

One day I hope again to be the costume designer for a play.  After 39 Steps, I assisted Julia Sharp, who was doing the costume design for The Wizard of Oz, and Fran Harrison, costume design for A Christmas Carol.  For Wizard, I helped make 22 hats that are 3' wide poppies.  For Carol, I made a coat for Ebenezer Scrooge.

More on these tomorrow... g'night

1 comment:

  1. That sounds like so much fun, Tom! The costumes look great.