Critical Steps in Producing a Play or Musical: Costumes

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Spring Version of The Secret Garden May 2016 St. Vrain Valley Schools

Jill Shepherd, Costume Coordinator

When I was a little girl, Halloween at our house was not a big production.  Actually, I don’t know if it was ever as big a deal as it is now.  This was in the 1960’s and early 70’s (or ‘mid century’ as interior design people label it now…), so keep that in mind. I mean, we used to carve a pumpkin, buy some cheap candy and hand it out to the neighborhood kids.

When I was five years old, I was coerced into dressing as a pilgrim (really?) because my sister had brought home a pilgrim-looking hat from an overseas trip with the Girl Scouts–her present to me.  It was a terrible costume and that’s all I remember probably because I stuffed away the memory.

When I was nine years old, my mother put together a Queen Isabella costume for our class play about Christopher Columbus.  That was about as close as I came to a costume that you would expect, and I LOVED it!  The shoes were too small and crimped my chubby foot and the crown was made of aluminum foil and these blue bauble-looking things flailed themselves around my head.

My only line was, “Rise, Christopher!” because he was kneeling before me.  That was my first play and I’ll never forget it, mostly because of the costume my mother created for me. I also got to be the center of attention…

She didn’t create another for me ever again. Well, she did sew a celery stalk costume for me in high school for some sort of club initiation but I don’t think that counts as  a Halloween costume. Ironically, the celery stalk idea was mine and I thought it was a hysterical.  Don’t know that anyone else understood my vision, but there you go…

Costumes are one of the most creative and exciting components of theatre.  Honestly, they are a critical step in your selection of a play or musical.  Two facts come to mind when I think of a particular production–costumes and set.  Can this company afford the costumes and built them?  Can we rent or borrow?

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Mulan, Jr.  Presser Performing Arts Center July 2015

Evelyn Zidick , Costume Designer

Actors and Their Costumes

I find that novice actors are all about their costumes. I try to assuage their fears and trepidations right from the beginning.  Depending upon the company, during our first read thru, I show my cast some examples of what all of the costumes will look like. This includes the color palette for the show.

As a teacher, I know that most human beings are visual learners.  By showing costume examples to the cast, I help them to be more confident (if they weren’t so) and of course give them a rough idea of my director’s concept and a beginning step toward my thoughts about their character.

Do you have a costumer designer?  Or is it you?

Again, if you have a costume designer you’ll need to communicate your concept to them.  I ask for the budget for the show.  Let’s say you are directing Oklahoma! and you are expected to costume the show yourself.  Oh my.  That’s a big one, although somewhat simple to create.

Years ago, I’d trudge to the public library and find photos or pictures of painting that depicted the time period of a particular play.  Now it’s soooo easy!  Hello internet!Look on line and find some examples that you can print for your costumer (if they are inexperienced) and/or the cast. Don’t forget your public library, though.  Sometimes it’s easier to peruse their book shelves than search around on the web.

And….I nearly forgot!  Walk yourself into a fabric store such as  Joanns Fabrics or Hobby Lobby and study the various pattern books. They have a plethora of costumes.  Years ago, we had maybe three patterns to choose from, but since then these companies have done an excellent job of re-creating clothing from several times periods.

In particular, check out the Simplicity costume patterns.  If you are expected to build the costumes yourself, I’d begin my designing at a fabric store.


   Mulan, Jr. April 2016 Apex Home School Enrichment program

Renting Costumes

You can easily find a costume company in your city  or near to you from which you can rent. Generally, costume companies rent costumes for a set amount of time such as two or three weeks, depending upon the length of your production.

Sometimes they will ask for a deposit (per costume, thank you very much).  There will be a contract with the company’s rental policy, etc. Someone will need to be responsible for these rentals. Also, check with other community theatres, college theatre departments and area high schools to see if anyone rents to outside groups.  Perhaps instead of renting, you could do a trade of advertising space in the program?

Thrift Stores

Then there’s the good old thrift store.

I could write an entire blog about the value of thrift stores.  They are that useful to a theatre company. Everyone who works in theatre visits thrift stores at some point in their season. Obviously, it is cheaper than a box store and you’d be surprised at the gold mine you’ll find.

One tricky costume piece is children’s boots.  Recently, I directed Fiddler on the Roof, Jr. (for the fourth time in my career) and my entire cast of forty students, ages ten to eighteen, needed ankle length boots.  I warned the parents about six months ahead of time  (because this was a musical theatre class that lasted the entire school year).  Finding a pair of child’s boots can be difficult in the spring when our show was going to be performed.

Certain costume pieces such as children’s boots, are a hot commodity.

As usual, the diligent, enthusiastic parents went right out and found boots at thrift stores. Ta-da.  Those folks who waited until March were bereft for lack of inexpensive shoe wear. (That’s a funny phrase, I must say.) It was too late. So, start with your neighborhood thrift store in your quest for costumes.  It will save you time and money, I promise.

My One Concern

One thing I want to stress to you, friend.  I dislike present day plays or musicals merely because I find that those involved in the production can think a play set in 2016 will be easier to produce.  Oh contraire…

Recently, I directed On Golden Pond and boy, I grew weary saying, “No, you can’t wear your favorite skirt (or sweater or shoes or hat) on stage because you feel most comfortable in it.

You need a costume that depicts your character, not you.”  Even if you are directing for 2016, the costumes must be treated with the same respect and care as if the show was of the 1860’s.

Remember, theatre is a visual art although I don’t think that audiences often refer to it in this manner.  When the curtain rises and the lights warm the stage, an authentic looking costume which demonstrates time period, mood and character means EVERYTHING to the audience. It is the difference between a good show or an excellent one.

I don’t have the room here to go into great detail about the potential fun of costuming can be for you. But if you write to me privately, I’d be happy to help you.

I’ve costumed shows for nearly thirty-nine years.  Trust me or as my daughter says, “I got it covered.”

Next, I’ll give you some advice concerning stage lights.

Contact me at dhcbaldwin@gmail.com or Bumblingbea.com

I’d love to hear from you!

Purchase my book, Bumbling Bea on Amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/Bumbling-Bea-Deborah-Baldwin/dp/1500390356/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

 

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