Costume design, vintage sewing machines, painting
I’m at that uncomfortable place on a design project… that one where I’ve committed to the show, have my cast list, and have met twice with the director to discuss ideas and inspiration. I love the show, I love the ideas, it’s a great group that I’ve successfully worked with in the past. Now I have to sketch and present my ideas, which opens the floodgates of every single fear, doubt and hesitation I’ve ever experienced. I’m terrified. Just to give you a little backstory: I’m not a total noob, I’ve been a professional costume designer for ten years now, and a randomly creative artsy type since I exited the womb some 40-ish years ago (but whose counting?). It doesn’t get any easier. I should be sketching right now, but all I want is some kick-ass tacos and a bottle of wine.
What If My Ideas Are Crap? My past ideas have been relatively crap-free (with the exception of 1 or 2). In fact, I’ve gotten positive feedback from roughly 98% of the directors I’ve worked with, including those where the final product was less than stellar. I’ve been rehired by the vast majority of those companies/directors, heck I’ve even been nominated for a Jeff Award. So why doesn’t that boost my confidence past this point? I may not have the answers, but I’m approaching a better understanding of what goes on in my own head as I work on designing a show. I usually have a strong idea about the design of a show once I’ve completed 1-2 readings of the script. Even if the director agrees, I’m still freaked out, trying to predict ahead to opening night & beyond, how the audience sees it -and how the critics see it- which are the kinds of things that are largely out of my hands. Will they get it? Will they enjoy it? Will my costumes enhance their experience or detract/distract from it? I do my best with the information and resources I have available at the time, which is the same answer I’d give to any question about my motivations in any arena. Allow me a moment here: I think I’m a pretty good designer, and I’m proud of most of my work. Would I change the dress for that one character in The Seagull from 12 years ago? SURE. But that’s why I keep going. If I design The Seagull again, it will be totally different. If I designed nothing BUT The Seagull for the rest of my career, it would be vastly different EVERY TIME. That’s the beauty of theatre!
What If The Critics Hate It? Wow, this is a tough one. But I admit, I FEED on the feedback of peers, and that sometimes (unfortunately) includes critics. I’ve learned a lot about critics over the years: which are fair & objective, which ones are biased towards/away from experimental work, which ones like EVERYTHING, which ones are overly intellectual, which ones don’t have an intellectual bone in their bodies… but I think it comes down to the fact that often the best source that actors, directors and designers have for feedback about their work is the word of critics. Unless you are able to interview every attendee at the conclusion of every performance, you won’t get more solid feedback. Some of that is changing with the input of Twitter & other social media outlets. If you think a show sucks; tweet about it! If you loved it: tweet about it! Theatre artists are fairly narcissistic, and love praise as much as any other human. By the same token: harsh criticism cuts to the bone and can be truly devastating. I was there a few years ago, but a great experience snapped me out of it, and I jumped back in with both feet.
How Can I Appropriately Costume 27 Characters on $500? Once the designing happens, the making must follow. No way around that. I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the world, but storefront theatre in Chicago tends to budget between $20-50 per actor for costumes. Now, keep in mind, that’s usually PER ACTOR, not PER CHARACTER. Some of these actors are portraying between 1-5 characters without an increase in costume budget. Think about it for a moment: You have a job that expects you to dress in a particular way. You are given $50 to meet that dress code… however: On Monday you are a baker, Tuesday you are a Knight, Wednesday a Peasant, Thursday a King, and Friday an Accountant. That $50 might cover any one of those, but it’s really pushing it to cover all 5. In my fantasy world, I can design the most perfect & appropriate costume for each of those days, but when you fold the budgeting process in, sacrifices must be made. I get it, really I do. Reality can be a bitch, but reality doesn’t diminish the expectations of your audience. This is where I excel. I’m not just being cocky here. I have learned to stretch a dollar until it begs for mercy. I’ve converted 1980s prom dresses into sublime Elizabethan loveliness. I’ve made bedsheets into an entire town. I’ve got the skills. Part of me whispers “Sometimes it would be nice to NOT have to sacrifice….”
Where Does That Leave Us? Frankly, the same place it leaves us every night, Pinky. We get creative, we get scrappy, we make silk purses out of sows’ ears. We kick the most ass we can possibly kick. We sketch, we sew, we thrift, we pull things out of places where the sun doesn’t shine. Why? Well, because it’s what we do. It’s what I am best at. I help actors feel confident in what they wear to be who they need to be to make the audience laugh & cry, love & hate them. I’ll get over my BS as I have for the past 50+ productions in order to put my best foot forward. For tonight though? I’m enjoying tacos, wine & the company of my cool/weird/wacky kids, who I secretly hope become accountants and engineers, rather than artists.