The OmnigarmentThe Omnigarment
Article that originally appeared in TD&T (Needs an overhaul, but willgive you the general idea)
When dealing with a director who feels strongly that the actors shoulddevelop their interpretation of the role during rehearsal, making changes right up to andincluding performance times, it is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to conceive oftraditional style costumes to fit that director's production. Mostly, when I work with adirector like this I steer him towards embracing the idea of anti-costumes (neutralcostumes of non-period shape), which are at least not a liability towards an actor influx.
For the costumes for Much Ado About Nothing at the University of AlaskaFairbanks, however, the director, Tom Riccio, wanted elaborate Renaissance looking dress,with a masquerade ball feel to the show. He also wanted to double cast, put women in somemen's roles, have violently athletic movement, (aerobics-Shakespeare he called it) andallow performers to develop their interpretations of their characters, without dictation,up to the end of the rehearsal period. This last item particularly created a need forflexible costuming, since the costume department could not know which "tack"each performer would take until it was too late to change the character interpretation ofthe costume. The number of interpretations an actor might produce for the characterDogberry alone is positively hair raising in this context, particularly when one considersthat the show needed to be designed prior to it's even being cast.
I found it necessary to find a way to fulfill the director's wish for aperiod-looking show, while still allowing the actors to move and alter their costumes atwill. This was a challenge I had been secretly waiting for. Odd to say, I have alwaysthought that actors knew far more about choosing proper costumes than even they realize,and much, much more than they are given credit for. I had tried for some time to cater toactor's costume requests, but I had never set out to do a whole show where the actorscould actually determine much of the design for their roles.
To take care of the "aerobic" movement problem, I concludedthat it would be possible to embellish unitards with paint and sleeve puffs to create akind of Ballet version of Renaissance dress to allow for "aerobic" action, butthis still didn't allow costumes to change from role to role. To do this I still neededsome other way to change the basic garment.
I then found an unusual garment at a craft fair called a Cameleon. TheCameleon is a strange invention that makes up into ten different things from a purse to acape to a pair of pants. The Cameleon is made from a large hexagon of fabric, with agathered tube in the center. The tube has a zipper and three drawstring casings, and thehem is also bordered with a drawstring. I couldn't use the Cameleon directly, since allthe 10 garments look more hippie-ish than Renaissance.However, seeing the Cameleoninspired me to try to invent a simple garment that could convert into multiple variations.
Working from the basis of a masquerade mask, I developed a series offabric squares attached to the mask on elastic bands that I called theOmnigarment: asingle article of clothing that can be arranged by the actor into three different types ofskirts, two types of breeches, seven types of tunics, five types of capes, and three typesof wimple as well as a few other things. In addition, the garment could be worn as a maskfor the masked ball scene of Shakespeare's play. The pattern, while radically differentfrom the Cameleon, was simple to sew and make, and was capable of more"period"-looking variations than the other garment.
I then took a single black and white outline design of a unitard with"period" sleeves attached, and a flat design of the omnigarment and Xeroxed 60of them, a pair for each performer. I then embellished each pair with the "rainbowsherbet" colors the director had requested as suitable for a comedy. On the day theplay was cast, I presented the designs to the actors by laying them out on the floor andasking that they chose one with a color scheme for themselves. Interestingly, the doublecast actors, (the two Benedicts, Heros, Beatrices, and Claudios,) picked nearly identicalcolor schemes as each other, despite not consulting their counterparts. All of the actorsmiraculously chose the colors I would have chosen for them myself, so, while giving theperformers a strong sense of control, I lost nothing in my sense of the quality of thedesign. (As I said, most actors' costume good sense is badly underrated.)
After construction of the omnigarments I then made a home videodemonstrating twenty-five ways to wear the garment. I showed the video to the actors priorto first dress, and then handed the garments over to the actors. They discovered threemore ways to wear it within ten minutes. This thing is a great toy both for the actors andcostumers.
Then, in addition to the masks on the Omnigarments, we made about 10extra masks to tie the design together and underline the play's obsession with disguiseand mistaken identity. These were attached to assorted body parts depending on thepreference of the performers. False faces peered out at the audience from every imaginablebody part: A pregnant woman decided to wear a mask over her belly, a "lewdfellow" (played by a woman) wore his on his crotch as a codpiece, the dunder headedconstable Dogberry wore his on his hat, and a swift-running messenger boy chose two facesfor knee-pads. All the masks were made out of light, washable Veriform (akaHexelite)thermoplastic mesh.
Most people viewing the play never guessed that what appeared to be avariety of costumes on the performers, was in fact simply a series of very similarcostumes (differentiated by color) worn in a variety of ways. Even the various long robesworn by the older characters in the play were simply longer versions of the sameOmnigarment minus the mask: Leonato's elegant robe, Friar Francis' monk's garment, andDogberry's paunch-highlighting gown were all cut from the same basic pattern, converted tolong rectangles. Nearly all the actors devised their own costume arrangements, requiringvery little guidance on the part of costume staff. Actors switched their styles as theyswitched roles for double casting, and some even switched styles from scene to scene.
Eventually, after the show ended, these costumes were rented to anothercompany, without alteration, for Taming of the Shrew. They apparently suited the needs ofthat play so well that despite a tepid review of the acting, the costumes were stillpraised quite strongly.
Not all shows are suited to glittering gold masks and sherbet coloredRenaissance sleeves. Naturally, I have fantasized about a number of other forms that mightbe useful for changeable actor-controlled costumes. Recently I have been working ondesigns made of slit ovals and rectangles of heavy knit, which I hope to eventually use ina more serios show than Much Ado. This form seems to wish to tie into Japanese andMedieval looking shapes that appear very solid and classical.
In the realm of ready-made costumes, obviously, the hippie-ish Cameleonwould be great for earthy `60s style shows. The Cameleon company attests that theirgarments have been bought by theatres for production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. TheCameleon also has the advantage of being commercially available in a large number ofcolors, as well as plain muslin. It's also very durable, suitable for ensemble buildingwork.
Stretch knit multi-piece ensembles like the commercially available Unitsand Multiples also are capable of a huge variety of changes of silhouette, and areparticularly good for dance and movement. Stretch and Sew produces a multi sized patternfor all the knit ensemble pieces for women for only $10, and sewing these things ismindlessly simple and fast. I watched a Women's experimental theatre company a few yearsago make fantastic use of the small stretch tubes in these sets, wrapping them arounddifferent parts of their anatomy during different moments in their piece, doing theirtransformations on stage. In fact it is the on stage transformative possibilities ofomnigarments that make them most theatrically exciting.
Another less drastic alternative than making or buying a whole new setof costumes, is making up a box of already made stock costumes from old shows, with avariety of colors, textures and accessories, that actors can create full outfits with.This, however, requires more knowledgeable performers than the other methods, and requiresa great deal of costumer assistance at rehearsals to help the actors. Generally I haven'tfound this method effective with any but the most costume-experienced performers on theone extreme, or children on the other. Middle ground performers just don't handle thiswell.
Finally, there is also the obvious possibility of your creating a newomnigarment, of a different shape. As I mentioned earlier, just the slight variation ofthe larger, rectangular version of the 4-square shape, without a mask, worn by the oldercharacters, could convert into about a half-dozen different variations from the shortermasked original. Other shapes, I have pondered over include stretchable tubes and bags,circles, triangles with snap ends, assorted squares and rectangles, and a variety of starsand octagons. The secret seems to be in finding a shape that is neither too simple to belimiting or too complicated to be used by the actor.
The possibilities, though hardly endless, are at least varied enough toprovide a large number of very distinct design looks, suitable to an equally large varietyof non-naturalistic production styles. And while Omnigarments for costumes, are unsuitablefor many plays, the advantages to including actors in the design process, are too obviousto require defending: Student performers can thereby develop an interest in design, aswell as a sense of responsibility for their costume. It is no longer this outside imposed"thing", but a product of their own creative imagination and ingenuity. The castis drawn together by the shared experience of exploring the conversion possibilities ifthe garment, and assisting in any on stage changes. The costume becomes what it issupposed to be, an on stage tool for the actor. The costumer is surprised (I was) andpleased at discovering that actors do in fact have a latent design sense, and develops animproved respect for actors. Actors in turn are flattered to be trusted with importantdesign decisions, and don't get in an adversarial position with the designer. The designerretains control of the look of the show as a whole, while the actor gains greater controlover the look of his individual character. And the audience, if it's aware of the process(depending on the type of garment it may or may not be obvious) is fascinated. No redoingof costume construction to change the designs at the last minute, no actor/costumer wars,everybody wins. Try it some time, its fun.