IDEA STEALINGIDEA STEALING
STEALING: Ideas rarely, if ever,flow spontaneously forth in original brilliance from a mind untouched by outsideinfluences. God does not, in costume design, tap lightly on your shoulder and tell you theAll New Perfect And Inspired Way to design Miss Julie for your graduate designseminar. Some people's designs may look like she did, but she didn't. Design is a processthat works out of and through many pieces of information, from costume history, tocultural perceptions of color, to actor's body proportions, to budget realities, and more.Trying to design costumes without being influenced by outside factors is thereforepointless.
ITY: Originality incostume design, therefore, is much more a case of finding the right idea than originatingit. Thought must mainly be expended in the looking for, and in the adapting of, ideassuitable for the purpose. Original thought is needed to arrange these ideas in new,different, and above all, appropriate ways for each show. Ideas can and should be drawnfrom everywhere, and it is the unoriginal designer who won't bother to look for ideasoutside of her own limited brain. "Idea stealing" is a matter of being open toall the ideas, colors, and textures the world has to offer, and using them in one's art.There are an incredible number of places that you can look for ideas that are worth"stealing," and your research for a show should not begin and end with onlycostume history and the script to guide you.
THE DIRECTOR: First and foremost,you need to know what your director is doing, what she wants, and what opinions she has onthe costumes. Some directors are designers themselves and have valuable and interestingideas for the visuals of a show. Some may be unable to do a pencil sketch, but still needyour designs to coordinate with their concept. Rarely do they send you off without ideas.Tom Riccio, a director I work with in Alaska, is the sort costumers are sometimes inclinedto write off: he can't draw and he's color blind. However, he has consistently given methe best ideas for shows: a full length coronation cape of giant Xeroxed dollar bills forUbu Roi, a flown-in stage covering "entanglement" costume of vines and garbagefor The Eagle's Gift, and masks that "magically" adheredto the face without strings for Qayaq.
- Whenever possibletalk to actors about character. This is what actors do. It's what they know about.In addition to designing the show as awhole, you also need to design each individual character's costume. Getting to know whatthe actors know about their characters is usually helpful in deciding what to do. Actorsfrequently come into the costume shop during the build of a show to ask questions aboutthe designs, and to offer suggestions. Treating this as normal, even helpful behavior,instead of an annoyance, not only is politic, but practical.
FROM DRUMMING: Each year atUAF for example, we do an Alaska Native show. The actors, many of whom are Eskimos andIndians from rural towns, come into speak to me about their roles. These roles are oftenbuilt out of Alaskan legends, rural experiences, and visions from group drumming inducedtrances, that these students are far more familiar with than I am myself. It would besheer idiocy of me to pretend I know more than they do about what elders in the bush wearnow, or to turn down a request to wear Grandpa's polar bear skin boots to portray a greatShaman/hunter character. Creating an atmosphere of openness gets actors to come bring youtheir good ideas, so you don't have to think of everything. It also doesn't hurt to joinrehearsals and group work occasionally if you have the inclination, or to try out drummingand trances along with them. Whatever works.
TO SUGGESTIONS: The key iscommunication. The other folks working on a production are not the enemy. The otherstudents in design class are not your competition. Sit, and talk, and think, and look, andlisten. Ask for everybody's suggestions. There are no awards in design for thinking it allup yourself. Steal ideas liberally from anyone who gives you good ones. Get to know peoplewho give you good ones. Ideally you will create a group in your theatre of people who gettogether and swap ideas. This is why folks have production meetings, it's what theyare for.
ING CONCEPTS FROM OTHER MEDIA: One of the best ways to find good design ideas is to look at other media likefilm, painting, sculpture, etc. For example, nobody criticized film designer EikoIshioka for lifting her design for Dracula's gold robe in Bram Stoker's Dracula
On the contrary, she received an Academy Award for Costume Design for doing so, because toadapt that style to that use was an impressively appropriate new idea. Idea stealing, inthis case, is unquestionably original thought. So, too was taking the musical City ofAngels, about a screen writer and his on film alter ego, and costuming it like one ofthe 1940's black and white movies that is the focus of the play. And, one need hardlyexplain that "borrowing" costumes from Seuratt's Sunday at la Grande Jatte,for Sunday in the Park With George, did nothing to reduce it's originality.
S AND DECORATIVE ARTS:Artwork is a far richer resource than even an art history class will indicate. Only thoseartists blessed by the art historians make it into those classes. There is also all theart made by the peoples of the Third World: masks, textiles, jewelry, carvings, painting.There is the art of "peasants" in the old world, made of straw, and fiber andwood. Art by women, like quilts, tapestries, fiber arts, rugs, samplers. Art that arthistory passed by because it went out of fashion like 19th Century Historicism, Realism,Pre-Raphaelitism, or 20th Century Symbolism, Mysticism, and the "Ash-CanSchool". There is art that "really isn't art" or is "minor art"because it performs a decorative or useful function, like furniture, automobiles, china,jewelry, or toys. Or art that isn't art because it is the product of modern technology,like photography, computer art, or items of mass production. There is art that is"bad art" because it was propaganda, or advertising, sponsored by Hitler orStalin or the Philip Morris Co. There is art that is forgotten because it was popular,naive and sentimental like Victorian engravings, or 1930's magazine illustrations. Thereis artwork everywhere you look, on food packages, in post offices, and all of it is fairgame for adaptation.
KNOWN ART: Forinstance, it seems absurd to me to consider doing Of Mice and Men, withoutconsidering the photography of Dorothea Lange who documented life in migrant farmer campsin the 1930's. It also seems a big missed opportunity for idea stealing that Tchaikovsky'scontemporary, Symbolist painter Mikhail Vrubel did a painting called "The SwanQueen" that no one seems to have adapted for use in Swan Lake. And I don'tthink anyone would complain about the designs for the film Edward Scissorhands,though the style is taken from decorative Kitsch of the 1960's and 70's, as well as sci-fifantasy drawings. David Hockney scored a hit with designs for The Rake's Progress,adapted from Hogarth engravings. I, myself once did designs for Marat/Sade,inspired by therapeutic drawings done by the insane.
YOUR AVAILABLE MATERIALSSUGGEST DESIGNS: Another good source for ideas is the material at hand. Every nativeculture in every land on the planet has managed to make art, and costumes out of thematerials at hand. In Alaska, costumes were made out of fishskin, bird skin, and allsorts of fur bearing animals. Decorations were made from flattened porcupine quills,puffin beaks, and shark teeth. Almost anything can be made into costumes, and often thebest idea comes when you only have a few things to work with. As an example, on Jesus Christ Superstar we had only enough money to costume allthe actors in the show if fabric cost $1 a yard. The only fabric we could get at thatprice was tobacco cloth, a kind of extra strong cheese cloth in a sheer beige. When washedit forms into a sort of lumpy Fortuny pleating and takes dye well. So that was the idea.We just swathed everybody in pleats, and then spray dyed the pleats with RIT to look likedrawings in Medieval gospels. The concept was a direct result of the budget requiring weuse only this one fabric. Limitations of this kind actually make design decisions simple.
Jesus Christ Superstar fabric painting.
ALL GOOD STEALABLE IDEAS: Yournotebooks, idea boxes, scrap books, Xeroxes and costume books come in handy here. Anyidea that is worth stealing is worth writing down, drawing, or Xeroxing for later use.When you come upon a good idea at the library, in an art gallery, out in the world, or inthe movies, you need to record it in some way so you can use it when you need it.
NATURE DIDN'T MAKE NO UGLYCHILDREN: Now the title at left is a perfect example of the above idea about noting thingsdown. I don't remember when or where I heard this statement, but I wrote it down as acatchy title to introduce an otherwise obvious idea: You can steal ideas from nature, notonly plant and animal forms, but microscopic views of things, outer space, decay, sky,weather, fractals, rock formations, patterns in sand and sea, you name it. Regular contactwith nature is also renewing to the spirit and psyche. I myself have been findingincredible inspirations in color, texture and shape lately from a study of mushrooms inthe wild. Even fungus is incredibly beautiful when you really look at it closely.
TACKY CRAFTS STORES: Neverunderestimate the aesthetic possibilities of Kitsch and its building materials.Dimensional fabric paints were commonly used in designing tacky T-shirts long beforecostumers regularly used them. Ditto for metallic Friendly Plastic. Chenille yarn, oftenused to make sweaters and appalling stuffed toys, also makes excellent period Victorianchenille fringe. Costumers are a tiny, impoverished bunch, but amateur crafts people comein all incomes and cover the earth. As a consequence, companies rarely waste time makingand marketing crafts materials for us, but shoot to the bigger market. So, in big craftemporiums like Ben Franklin Crafts, you can find hundreds of materials that, while theyare usually put to dreadful use, can be made to do much more exciting things than usual.Wander through the aisles, look at the supplies closely, and try to imagine how they couldbe used in the costume shop.
Alice in Wonderland decorated with flowers taken from tacky afghans.
STORES: Ditto the abovefor hardware stores. Besides which it is incredible fun to stand in the aisles lookingwith intense keenness at dryer hoses and other hardware, trying them on the head, aroundthe neck etc. as clerks and home handymen look at you like you just slipped your moorings.Hardware stores too have a constant rotation of new, inspiring supplies. I should mentionin a historical footnote, that hot glue was a little used carpentry supply adopted bytheatre people in the late 60's and early 70's almost twenty years before they hit thecraft stores. If costumers never went to hardware stores, they could have waited anothertwenty years for them to come to their attention.
PAINTING STYLES/INTERIORDESIGN BOOKS FOR COLOR PALATE: Color palate is one of the things I do least well on myown. My color sense tends towards the conventional and even cliché. This fortunately isnot a problem. I simply steal them. One can take them from color swatches in interiordesign books, or do as I often do, take them from a painter with the appropriate mood. OfMice and Men's colors I stole from dull 1930's Sears Catalogs, Woyzeck'scame from Breugel the Elder, Frank'n'Stein's I stole from black and white movies,Qayaq, The Magical Man's came from Eskimo masks, Cabaret's came from painter Otto Dix, and The InspectorGeneral, AK's came from the Monopoly game. I could go on, but I'm sure you get theidea. If you feel yourself falling into a color rut, jack yourself out with an infusion ofan outside color scheme.
THE BEAUTY OF THE
HEAP: Myfavorite place for stealing both ideas and materials, is of course, the waste basket. Butwhy stop there? There is Salvation Army for the show with a budget, and the city dump forthe show without. The dump, in fact is an inspiring experience, not to be missed: shoppingfor free! And such materials! Curly metal shavings in all colors and sizes, dead packagingof all kinds, beautifully distressed textiles, strange broken objects of industrial andmechanical use, strips and sheets of metal and plastic punched out in different designs,dead doll and toy parts, crates of all sorts, plastics, papers, you name it. All free, andall looking for an idea to make them useful again.
YOU ARE LOOKING FOR: Moreimportantly, the garbage objects themselves are ideas, about color, texture, and material,and it is really just a case of identifying the idea you need. In all the above cases,artwork, crafts supplies, garbage, or whatever, you are simply sifting through preexistingideas. Your job is then to find the appropriate one, or ones for your show. The newidea, the one that you will have to produce, is how to adapt theold idea to the needs of your production. This is where idea stealing metamorphoses intooriginal thought.