DEEP THEORYDEEP THEORY; IDEAS FOR SHOW CONCEPTS:
COMES FIRST: There is a strange notionwhen you first begin designing costumes that some how "high concept" musttranslate to "high budget" or it isn't possible. I'm not exactly sure where oneacquires this stupid idea, but we, the design students at College of Marin and S.F. State,all had it. This is simply wrong. Imagination, forethought,and unified concept are the three cheapest things you can do for a show, a fact that ourprofessors attempted to hammer into us in vain. In fact, my post graduate experienceshowed me that usually these things can make a show happen more cheaply. At all events,there is no excuse for not having them, simply because your budget is small. You need tolook at the play script, and talk to your director about ideas even before you talk aboutmoney. If you have the right idea, there will be a way to make it happen, money or not. Itis ideas in design that get the ball rolling, once you have them, money often becomesirrelevant. [Concept comes from
THE IDEAReading the Play see page TBA]
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919
AND HIGH CONCEPT CAN MAKE DESIGN CHEAPER: The bestexamples I can think of are the set designs for the 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari. The designer of the movie wanted a look like an Expressionist painting, allsharply angled buildings and weird lighting. The idea was that the film should look likethe incredible twisted imaginings of the insane character who is the "narrator".However, when they were to film the movie, UFA studios had not the money even to pay the powerbill, so their electricity was cut off, and the show had to be shot by daylight. The designer,instead of abandoning his concept, improved it by thinking quickly, and using spare paintto paint the floors and walls with the "lighting effects" he'd wanted, using theGerman Expressionist style. As a result it looked even more like an Expressionist paintingthan it would have looked if he had a larger budget. It was a sensation in Europe when itcame out, and then made a similar critical hit in the U.S. years later when it came here.To this day this movie is shown regularly in art-house cinemas around the world, and isconsidered one of the most famous designs for film.
CAN DO THIS TOO: Many of my own bettershows were at least to an extent "inspired" by budget constraints. A thin budgetthat doesn't allow for doing the conventional thing is a great argument for pushing adirector into taking a chance with an unusual idea. At UAF, where we are perennially shortof the budget and staff necessary to conventionally mount musicals and the classics, wehave an impressive record of unusual productions: As You Like It,done c. 1971, Woyzecklooking like Dickens filtered through an expressionist lens,The Eagle's Gift, aNative Alaskan show made out of garbage, Much AdoAbout Nothing done with "Omnigarments," [see page TBA] and Jesus Christ Superstardraped and painted to look like Medieval illuminations [See page TBA]. Conventionally thinking administratorsat our institution were constantly perturbed by our "weird" productions, neverrealizing it is was their own budget cutting that often helps bring them about.
CAN MAKE THE SHOW: One of my former students, an incredible director/designer named Diane Swanson, did Gertrude Stein'ssupposedly "unplayable" The Circular Play, using costumes that wereincorporated into the set to facilitate the flow of the play: The setting consisted of sixtubular canisters with round ashtray lids, borrowed from the university janitorialservice, that converted to containers, drums, echo-chambers, a "car", andmusical chairs. In addition the ashtray lids came off and were revealed to beeccentrically decorated pink hats which the performers wore through much of the play.Inside the canisters were round pink pillows, which were sat upon, juggled and used assymbolic props. "The set is the costumes, the actors are the props, the words are theactors, and the play is really weird," explained Swanson. The six female performers,dressed in humorous amalgamations of masculine and feminine dress pulled from stock inshades of pink, began the performance reading pink newspapers, while sitting on thecanisters set in a circle. On the line "Circle Hats" the performers jumped upand placed the ashtray-hats (decorated with stock pink flowers, pink plastic curlers,beads and bows) on their heads with the aid of audience members. The production went on towin student awards for best play production, directing, and costume design that year. Ithad a budget of $50, only $10 of which Swanson spent, buying hot glue to decorate the hatswith scraps from the shop, and pink dye to tint some pulled costumes.
CAN BE OVERDONE: While less is notalways more, often one is "free" to do more avant garde costumes when the budgetdoes not "allow" literal period dress. One common mistake is to assume, becauseone is given a budget sufficient for doing a lavish period piece, full of detail andhistorical accuracy, that one necessarily should. The English have a wonderful put-downfor designers who do detailed realistic period work on shows that do not call for it. Theysay the show is "from the Laura Ashley school of theatre design," as if to inferthat the theatre designer is suffering from a love of prettiness for it's own sake, moreappropriate to an interior/clothing designer than a theatre artist. Good taste isthe enemy of good design. Simply because you have the budget to do a lavish,complex show, does not mean you must. What you must do is match the costume design to theshow, the characters, and to the directors concept.
ABOUT OMNIGARMENTS: One method(outlined in detail in it's own section) is to try to develop a group offlexible costumes that can be controlled by the actors themselves. Omnigarments (flexible costumes capable of multiple variations) are the choice that offers themaximum amount of actor input into the design. By designing a series of simple butflexible garments that can be tied, wrapped, or draped into a variety of choices, thedesigner may concentrate her work solely on suggesting the main show concept through colorand texture of materials. This leaves individual character's costumes to be worked outbetween the director and actors. This is an especially good choice for shows that developout of ensemble work through the course of rehearsals, or for directors and actors wholike to make lots of changes dangerously close to opening night.
FROM STOCK: The difficulty withOmnigarments is that they must be made or bought, which rather means you must either haveenough money or labor to make/buy all the costumes from scratch. Depending on the quantityof actors to be clothed, and the cost of the materials involved, this may be medium tocostly. To do a show cheaply one usually needs to pull it largely from stock, or buy it atbottom prices from thrift stores. Making a show from garbage-stock need not require thatthe show look awful. More to the point, it can take a show where the costumes should lookawful like Sweeny ToddOliver, or The Good Woman Of Schezwan, andmake it look really beautifully, disgustingly awful.
, AND PAINT: The main problem witha garbage stock show is that the costumes, coming from a variety of other shows and thethrift store do not, as a rule, have a similar coordinated color scheme, textures, ordetails. The answer to all these difficulties can be easily met with a conscious thoughtprocess about what color, texture, and detail scheme you want, then putting it into actionwith some dye and paints. In other words, you can decide on a look that is borrowed fromany style of painting from Seurat, to Goncharova, to Lichtenstein, and simply dye, andspray and paint it onto pre-existing garments. This is an especiallygood method for us in Fairbanks where we have only one fabric store.We take garments from thrift stores, or made from cheap muslins and tobacco cloth, andsimply turn them into the fabric and painting style we want with dye and paint. I hadWoyzeck, a huge low-budget show that was pulled almost entirelyfrom garbage stock, get a review in which the costumes were praised as "almostDickensian in their detail and richness." It was done by painting them all withdiluted RIT in spray bottles, and goosing them with highlights of fabric paint in GermanExpressionist style.
BE LIMITED BY THE AVAILABLE FABRIC:As long as you can get light fabrics you can make heavy ones by interlining, as long asyou can get pale fabrics you can get dark ones by dyeing, as long as you can get plainfabrics you can get patterned ones by painting them yourself. This is not a new trick, ora lowly one. The unbelievably lavish 189? Irving-Terry Macbeth used these tricks onits most famous costume. Ellen Terry wrote in her memoirs that she had gone with thedesigner to the London department store Liberty's in search of a rich Byzantine lookingfabric for her gown as queen at the banquet. They found the perfect fabric, but at anoutrageous price that not even the Lyceum Theatre could afford. The designer, whileconvinced that it was the right choice, only bought a small sample of the yardage, and alarge quantity of a cheap fabric of the same weight, much to Terry's disappointment. Terryhowever was suitably thrilled a few days later when she saw that the cheap fabric had beenpainted and decorated into a replica of the expensive one that actually looked better fromthe distance of the stage. This is the fabric of the gown that appears in the famous JohnSinger Sargent portrait of Terry in the English National Portrait Gallery. Modern fabricpaints make this kind of slight of hand easy, as well as aesthetically pleasing.
L COSTUMES: Manyinteresting costume concepts come out of the ideas developed in modern art. Symbolism,Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Futurism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Bauhaus,Suprematism, and Abstract Expressionism, all were inspirational in the most interestingcostume designs of the 20th Century. Sonya Delaunay's designs for The Gas Heart,and Cleopatra were part of the Dada movement, Alexandra Exter's work on the Sovietsci-fi fantasy film Aelita - Queen of Mars was influenced by Suprematism, Picasso'swork on the ballet Parade, and Dr.Seuss's Oscar winning work on the film The5000 Fingers of Dr.T, were examples of Cubism and Surrealism respectively. The mainthrust to all these art movements was a turning away from the Realistic, representationalstyle that dominated Western art from the Renaissance through the 19th Century. In costumedesign this freed up designers to make designs that were based on the internal life ofcharacters, or on movement, or on abstractions of external appearance, and a whole gamutof other ideas besides Realism. Courtesy of these pioneering designers, you have a choiceof a much broader range of expression than a 19th Century designer had. Studying these artmovements as they apply to costume design, can often yield interesting ideas, useful forshow concepts.
"Mystery Designs", c.1930 showing the influence of modern art.
- Because this is a tremendously over usedstyle, it is a tremendously underrated one. Mainly, it is put down because too often it isused on inappropriate plays, or more often is simply poorly done. Certain plays andplaywrights, particularly Shaw, Chekhov, Shepard, O'Neill and Wilde, desperately need allthat period detail to set the plays in context. Many 20th Century American playwrightsworks are so low-key and realistic in style that any unusual costuming would distract fromthe script unduly. These are the plays that need Realism as the design style. Theimportant thing to remember about Realism is that it is a style, like all theother "isms," and it consequently requires the designer go with the stylewholeheartedly. Realism absolutely requires a passionate search for appropriate detail,fabric, color and underpinnings, with no sloppiness about research, cut, accessories, orcharacter. Realism is the most difficult style to do well, but one of the most satisfying,since when you pull it off, absolutely everyone can see you did so. Use it sparingly, onappropriate shows, but with great precision when you do, and it can work.
- Occasionally shows arise thathave so many costume changes in them that budget and shop time seem to loom larger thanconcept. The natural temptation is to simply pull anything available from stock, andthrust it on the minor actors in a kind of shoddy realistic style, while concentrating onprettifying the leads. The thing is, usually these plays with actors playing multipleparts are a far cry from realism. A good way to force concept to the fore again is toadopt some type of "base costume" that sums up the overall look of the show youwant, and then differentiate between multiple characters with one or two simpleaccessories. The shows Our Country's Good, and Marat/Sade are actuallywritten around this costume method. However, it is simple to use on any non realist play.Back in Alaska we did Qayaq, The Magical Man, a traditionalNative show, with neutral historicist base costumes on all the actors, while differentspirit characters were simply indicated with masks and props, much as was done in precontact ritual theatre. The insanely irreverent Ubu Roi was designed aroundridiculous base costumes consisting of brightly colored long underwear and ConverseBasketball shoes, with absurd bits of costume to indicate character: The ghosts of thedead kings of Poland for instance had paper crowns from Burger King, worebedsheets and held flashlightsup to their chins like children playing at being ghosts, soldiers were armed with helmetsof all nations, Nerf Bats, and water pistols. The idea is that you can state your conceptfor the show clearly with the base costumes, and for each of the characters withaccessories. This lets you concentrate on only designing the essentials for the play.
- I've been thinking a lot about garbagelately. Over the last few years it hit me as a suitable concept in all its manysubtleties. I've even written a play about it. There are a lotof ideas that garbage engenders. For example, what is garbage? Is it a particular thing?No. Is it everything? How old must an old thing be before it's garbage? How old must oldgarbage get before it is a pile of artifacts worthy of study? Just as all men, no matterhow noble are future food for worms, all material things that we now covet, pay for, andvalue are future garbage. One man's garbage, is another man's valued object. Things =garbage = things. As in the statements: "Your junk" and "My things".Or like the old roadside sign: "We buy your junk. We sell antiques." Recycling,too, figures into the picture. The ability to see goodness and usefulness in an object orperson that isn't valued by others is a rare, positive virtue with practical value.
THE THEATRE: With all thetalk of "greening" theatre by intelligent recycling of set and costume elements,nobody seems to have really advocated embracing the idea of using garbage from the outsideworld as a major building material. Perhaps this is because in a small way we have alwaysdone this to save money, and the idea does not seem particularly new. However, I wouldurge designers to consider garbage as a major design element for aesthetic reasons aswell. Many forms of garbage are alarmingly pretty: bubble wrap, packing puffs, cardboardfood containers, plastic bottles, dead audio tape, old Christmas cards and wrap, bottlecaps, chip bags, etc. American garbage often includes wondrous design elements fromadvertisement and packaging that simply beg to be reused, so colorful, and festive as theyare.
- I had toyed with usingbits of garbage in my shows but I had only made whole costumes outof garbage with my costume class as an in class project for years, pretty much for the theoreticalexercise. Then I went to Russia. At the Interstudio Theatre in Pushkin I saw they didwhole productions of shows like Don Juan and The Magic Flute using garbageas the main construction material for both sets and costumes. The Russians had differentsorts of garbage: metal shavings, plastic doll parts, Visquine, cloth strips, plasticcutouts, keys, machine parts, punched out metal strips, etc. but the uses of the garbagewere still mainly aesthetic, not structural. The use of the garbage was so constant, andthe design so strongly theatrical, that, strange to say, the fact that the main materialwas garbage was hardly even noticeable in viewing the show. Garbage had simply beenincorporated into the strong designs as a basically available material, without drawingattention to itself.
FAMILY VALUES: Some timeafter my return to Alaska, I was presented with an unusual show, The Eagle's Gift,that was a consciously modern show about traditional Eskimo values. The look had to bemodern, not traditional, but the thrust of the story was that traditional Native valueshave a useful application to modern life. One of the main traditional Native values asregards clothing is that when an animal is killed for food, all the parts of the animalmust be used in order to appease it's spirit and preserve the eco-system. TraditionalNative dress therefore used hides of birds, fish, and all the fur bearing animals. Puffinbeaks and deer hooves were made into rattling mittens for dancing, walrus ivory and evenwhiskers were made into hat decorations and tools. Nothing was wasted. "Garbage"did not exist. When early Alaskans encountered Western garbage, they used it-turning oldshell casings into noisemakers, buttons into decorations. Trying to apply this concept tothe modern world was my show "concept." Since we do not hunt for our food in thecostume shop, but rather go up to the soda and potato chip machines, I resolved we mustuse "the hide of the chip bag and the shell of the Coca-Cola" todecorate the spirit characters in the show. Chip bags were stitched together andstuffed with fiberfill to make parkas. For the duration of the production,nothing was thrown out of the costume shop, all food packages, fabric scraps, etc. wereused to cover Root Woman, a kind of angry Mother Nature figure who arose up out of theearth and covered the stage with entangling vines, like Glinda the Good arising out of alandfill. Inthis case it was the intention of the design to draw attention to the recycling, as a wayof showing Native values adapted to the modern world.
- I'm now back in Russiaagain, (1994-95) and while here I am exploring the aesthetics of garbage. To this end, I have atlast visited a garbage dump. According to my diary "I am 35 years old, I'vealways wanted to visit a dump, but I've never done it before. It's better than ValueVillage. There you can 'shop for less,' but at a dump you can shop for free." Ifyou have, like me, put off a dump visit till now, you need to overcome your inertia andgo. It is artistically inspiring as well as useful. Now I'm working on a dress, to beentirely covered with garbage. I have limited my search to small metal objects that caneasily be sewn onto the dress. What is enlightening is what a great variety of things fitinto this tiny limiting category. Like contemplating the infinite possibilities ofsnowflakes, the dress is already a symphony of different little clinking objects. Thereare dozens of different sorts of bottle caps, keys, watch parts, broken metal toys, painttubes, toothpaste tubes, filter canisters, hair curlers, army and religious medals,computer bits, machine parts, you name it. And the act of finding them and sewing them onhelps to fix the varied colors, textures and shapes of each in ones mind in the same wayas a butterfly hunter determines the slight variations in a species. Each object, notnecessarily attractive in itself, becomes a part of a glittering whole. Suddenly I findbeauty in any object that is different from the others because it makes a counterpoint tothe main theme of bottle caps. This is useful. Looking at things closely from an aestheticstandpoint is one of the main ways to come up with ideas. This exercise with the metalobject dress is making me do this with a whole class of items.
NEVER HAVE TOO MANY IDEAS: Research intothe history of costume, art and theatre, intense scrutiny of physical objects as varied asbottle caps and fungi, conscious study of playscripts and character all can help you findideas for shows. Life for a costume designer must be a continual study of aesthetics,drawn from both history and daily life, as it applies to design. You take thisinformation, process it into ideas, collect and expand on these ideas in your notes, andultimately use the ideas in designing shows. Concentrated exploration of new ideas throughreflection and discussion as they appear before one, multiplies them like bacteria. One ortwo ideas here and there for a show are not enough to last through past one productionmeeting, so you need to make all efforts to fertilize single ideas (like, "Gee,what is garbage really?" or "Could we let the actors design their owncostumes?") into whole groups of ideas, capable of seeing a production throughto its finish. This is why I study garbage in detail and do dozens of doodles and notes onpossible Omnigarments. Ideas don't just pop up by themselves. You need to plant them withsensory input and multiply them by working on them. With enough ideas to work with,designing shows is fun, and carrying them out is simplified as well as economical.