Saturday, April 16, 2016

Methods of an Addicted Costume Designer

Contributed by Viviane Galloway

The other day I went to the website of an OOB theater company that had received a tremendous amount of press for a recent production. Being a fellow costume designer, I wanted to see who had designed the costumes for this production. It didn't surprise me that none of the posted reviews of the production mentioned any of the design elements—set, lighting, props, costumes, sound--but it shocked me that nowhere on that website did the theater company itself mention who had designed their productions. There were plenty of beautiful production photos and headshots of every actor, but it was as if the designers didn't exist or were of little consequence to the ultimate success of the production!

Now, I happen to know that this particular theater company actually thinks very highly of its design team. But it occurred to me that if this oversight could be made by a theater company itself, that there may be a lot of people, both in the audience and working in theater, who are not quite sure what we designers really do. Because space is so expensive and so scarce in this city, we don't have the experience of seeing each other every day at the theater. I can't run up from my costume shop to pop into rehearsal. I talk to the Stage Manager mostly by email. It takes me longer to bond and earn the trust of the actors. The irony is that although I love what I do because of the community, I actually spend a large portion of the process on my own. So, what exactly do I do? Well, let me tell you. . .

I spend a LOT of time on research. Just living in New York is research! Every day I walk by amazing architecture, see new art and the latest fashions, commute through culturally diverse neighborhoods. You see pretty much everything in New York if you keep your eyes open. In addition we have all the museums, the Historic Society, and the largest library system I've ever used. I usually bombard my director with a plethora of images from all these sources and more. With an average production schedule of four weeks, things are usually moving too fast for me to do renderings, but I'll sketch things out, or I develop a look-book for each character (especially if I will be shopping for costumes and can't be sure I'll find exactly the same thing as what I may have sketched.) I read the play a lot. I read it out loud for myself, I make notes, I close my eyes and go through different scenes in my head. At rehearsals I talk to the actors about their characters, and observe their style—how physically active are they? Are they connecting with their costumes or feeling constrained by them? I love to bounce ideas off the actors when I can—if they are excited about my design then I know I'm on the right track.

I am a whiz now at planning my production schedule around major holidays. Many of the big thrift stores have sales on those days. Also, when I shop I keep my eye out for the colored tag that is discounted that day. I'm fun to travel with: “Yes, I'd love to go to Rhode Island with you this weekend, if you don't mind stopping at all the thrift stores in that area.” Most indie-theater companies don't have the luxury of keeping a lot of (or any) costumes, but I have a storage unit, which allows me to hoard costumes. So I usually spend a day or two going through my own stock.

And I spend a lot of time just building costumes and pulling everything together in my studio at home. Construction, alterations, trim. . . this usually all happens in a matter of days. I lug everything to rehearsal, do fittings, watch rehearsal if I can, and then I take everything back home and do more alterations, add more trim, and on a rare occasion, start all over!

Given the fast pace, tight budgets, and crazy logistical issues involved with independent theater, life can get stressful. Every time I design a show, at some point—usually about a week before First Dress—I go into my husband's office in tears, and I say . . . “I'll never finish. . .” “I'm too old for this. . . .” “Don’t ever let me do this ever again. . . “He makes the appropriate sympathetic and encouraging remarks, but I swear that when I leave to go back into my studio I hear him chuckling. He seemed startled the first and second time I did this, but after a while he has learned that soon I'll be on that high again from seeing my costumes on the stage, seeing how they work with the set and the lighting and hearing from the actors how they feel in them. Then the show goes up and I find out if my costumes really tell the story that I wanted them to tell.

That is why I do it, because my art is my voice, my way of telling a story, of expressing myself and how I feel about a particular issue or situation. The fact that I get to do this within an amazing community of artists, and the opportunity to collaborate with so many really talented artists and make lasting friendships, makes it all worthwhile.

Viviane Galloway is a New York based costume designer. Her credits include Pygmalion and Mother Courage (Jean Cocteau Rep.); Mrs. California , Dear Ruth, The Baltimore Waltz and The Butter and Egg Man (Retro Productions); and The Tempest, Happy End, The Cradle Will Rock, Candide and A Little Night Music (Theater 2020). Viviane has been nominated for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards for Outstanding Costume Design for The Desk Set (Retro Productions, 2010) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Theater 2020, 2013). Viviane also frequently designs at The 52nd St. Project, a program that works with kids to create original productions, and would encourage all of you to get involved as well!!!

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