Curating the Closet of the Character

by Joe Kucharski
in Design
Jane Fonda and Samantha Mathis in 33 Variations at the CTG/Ahmanson Theatre
Jane Fonda and Samantha Mathis in 33 Variations at the CTG/Ahmanson Theatre
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Designing a contemporary costume plot
Period and fantasy productions transport you to a world far removed from your own, and with that the costume designer is challenged to create an entire world that is completely foreign to an audience, or recreate one that a portion of the audience might recall quite vividly. The challenge for the costume designer of a contemporary dressed production is that the audience is much more familiar with the world of the story. Within our global society, even with a story that takes place half way around the world, there are higher expectations of the clothing and how it serves to express character. Tony Award-winning costume designer (Eclipsed), Clint Ramos describes it this way, “I think the most successful contemporary productions I’ve seen, and been involved in, are where the clothes are so perfect they actually are invisible in the right way. Contemporary dress productions require utmost truth in costuming. The audience can spot a lie in a second because it is their world—so really, the choices need to be ultra-specific and precise.” 

In thinking about the approach to the text and early conversations with the director and design team, the process doesn’t differ greatly from any other type of production. So, while the audience may perceive the characters in a very different context, the role of what the costume designer must convey is very much the same. Denitsa Bliznakova, Head of the Design and Technology program at San Diego State University describes her process. “Reading and analyzing the script is always the first part of the design process for me. First impressions are key! I write my thoughts and impressions down, so I am always able to go to that moment when I experienced the play for a first time. I strongly believe that the team of designers who is responsible for bringing the play to life, must not veer off too far from those initial feelings/reactions. In a way, those are the feelings we would want our audience to experience. We (designers) are an important link between the script, the stage, and the audience.”  Tony Award-nominated costume designer David C. Woolard notes, “I feel that as a costume designer I am helping the audience see character, social relationship, and arc of the story no matter what.” 
Greg Keller and Samantha Mathis in 33 Variations with costumes designed by David C. Woolard

Moving past the initial impressions and the emotional world of the story, costume designers work to understand the individual characters and their place in the given structure of the culture and society. At this point, the costume designer is faced not only with their own understanding of contemporary clothing, but ideas and expectations from the director, design team, and actors. “The director, designers, and actors are exposed to the current fashions every day of their life,” describes Bliznakova. “The familiarity allows us to jump a step forward in the process of creating the play’s world.  It is a small jump forward. There is still much to research with every production and many decisions to be made.” 

Even though the time period may be close to our own, so many factors in each production require a costume designer to conduct specific research on location, career, class, and profession-based dress. Gathering that specialized information is a key element in authentically conveying the story to the audience and helping an actor embody a dimensional character. 

Worlds to Explore
Bliznakova walks us through one detailed example of this process. “I worked on a play, The Last Match that was produced at the Old Globe theatre, written by Anna Ziegler and directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. It is about an American tennis player, at the end of his career, ‘battling’ a new competitor from Russia. From the very beginning I found out that the characters were based on actual tennis players. This was incredibly helpful, as I could immediately begin my research of the two main characters. The inspirational research phase of the design process was much shorter on this play, since the world we were entering was clearly outlined by the playwright to the design team. I spent much more time familiarizing myself with the tennis world. As a costume designer, I deal with characters that have all kinds of lives, work various jobs, and deal with all kinds of problems. It is my job to become very familiar with the world of each character before I design the costume for him/her. My assistant and I visited a number of tennis shops and talked with the experts there as well as a number of tennis players. Luckily, I already had some knowledge about tennis, as I used to work at a tennis club during my summers when I was a teenager.” 
Natalia Payne & Alex Mickiewicz in the world premiere of The Last Match at San Diego’s The Old Globe

While very common to fully render a period or fantasy costume show, where custom builds tend to be the norm, that is not necessarily the case with many contemporary productions. “Rendering style depends on the needs of the show. Usually I use tear sheets or theme boards for a modern dress show rather than sketches,” Woolard describes. “Often with modern dress one is dealing with a budget constraint that does not allow building of costumes, only shopping. I have found that it is helpful for me to not lock down the look too specifically when having to shop. For me and my team, trying to find something so specific as a pattern, color, size that is sketched is sometimes not the best thing. Once I draw something I want the items that I have drawn in the specific color and pattern which can stress a budget.” 

With execution of the design focused mainly on shopping, as opposed to building costumes, the skill set the costume designer needs from their team is very different in focus. “With a contemporary show, it really is about using a different knowledge-base in terms of the assistants and the shops,” Ramos shares. “It is about finding what’s out there now, a deep knowledge of pop culture, and being able to be nimble in terms of shopping. I tend to create closets for the characters for a modern show, which means over shopping and returning. For that process, I need the assistant and the shop to be more nimble. The job is not as ‘manufacture’ oriented but rather more ‘curatorial.’” 

Designed to Fit the Story Palette
One of the key differences in designing costumes for a contemporary show is working closely with actors in fittings. While it is always critical to have an open dialogue with actors about their character and costume, the subtleties of fit and movement in a contemporary garment necessitates more focused fitting time. “I always leave more time when fitting a contemporary show which is almost always shopped.” Ramos elaborates, “I leave it because the actor is as much an expert of the period as I am, so inevitably we can have a more nuanced, more informed discussion of archetypes, the way people in our present times dress and the rules of our present society. We can say ‘do you know how so and so in the news wears his pants? It should be like that.’ So, a pair of jeans can elicit a long conversation because it taps into that actor’s relationship with the concept of ‘jeans.’ It is not much different from the process with a period show but with a period or created culture; most of the time, the actor relies on the designer more to dictate the mode of dress.” 
Lupita Nyong’o and Saycon Sengbloh wear Clint Ramos’ Tony Award winning costumes for Eclipsed

Within that collaboration, however, it is important for the designer to lead the dialogue, for they are the one navigating just how each individual costume fits within the whole production. “It is very important to hear what they are saying but the actor does not know the whole stage picture as I do,” Woolard explains. “There might be a reason I want them in green; maybe everyone else is in red and I want to show that they are not part of the group.” 

It really comes down to striking that balance between advanced planning done through design meetings and sourcing, with allowing space for collaborating with each performer. “When finalizing the designs for a contemporary dress show, I like to leave some aspects of the design flexible,” Bliznakova describes.  “However, there are some choices that the director and I commit to that are not open to an ‘interpretation.’ Often color choices are not something I would feel comfortable changing during the fitting process, especially on the larger shows I work on. It takes a very long time and careful planning to establish a color palette for all of the costumes in a show. Changing even one character’s costume look could affect the rest of the show.” 

While elements of the process may vary, the outcome of any costume design, whether period, fantasy, or contemporary remains the same. “The way I define a successful costume is the one that helps the character come alive,” Bliznakova explains. “Often, a costume would go unnoticed and that is okay. It means that the costume felt as it belonged in the story to the specific character. Yes, it is wonderful when the play allows for a costume to make a statement. However even then, remember, it is not the costume the audience should be thinking of, it should be the character and his/her choice to wear it.”