Monday, January 27, 2014

Costume Design: From Renderings to Reality

Take one look at what a character is wearing and you already have an idea of who they are. With just one glance—a designer has done their job. Costume design speaks to character, status, occupation and the very world in which the play resides. It informs playgoers and aids actors in developing their characters. It’s up to a designer, working with a costume shop, to craft this visual part of the production.

Costuming a production can be time-consuming and challenging, especially when factoring in the size of the cast and multiple costume changes. SCR’s production of The Light in the Piazza has more than 80 costumes for a cast of 13—all the work of one designer. It’s up to her to take the lead and create the aesthetic through costumes.

Leah Piehl, who designed costumes for last season’s hit The Motherf**ker with the Hat, returns to SCR for the Piazza challenge. She started her work early in the process by reading the play, meeting with the director and researching the play’s time period to find inspiration. Then she develops a design concept that works within the world of Piazza.

Piehl’s inspiration for The Light in the Piazza: 1950s European fashions and American fashions. She plays with the more fitted European silhouettes against the American “petticoat” and a-line shapes, creating a contrast between the characters. As the musical progresses, Margaret and Clara’s costumes parallel their growth, inspired by the European culture that surrounds them. Piehl also decided to focus on the relationship between Margaret and Clara by placing the two in subtly matching palettes—Clara in softer tones and Margaret in saturated tones.

With her final designs completed five to four weeks before first rehearsal, the next step is to actualize them. Piehl, her assistant, three costume shop staff members at South Coast Repertory and a group of over hires are the team that makes it happen. Using Piehl’s costume renderings as a “road map,” the team works together to get the costumes as close to the renderings as possible. Sometimes building—making the costumes in house—is the key, and SCR has a strong costume shop that builds a majority of the costumes for each production.

While building each costume would be ideal—it is not always feasible. With such a large number of costumes needed for this production, time becomes the biggest challenge. Costume Shop Head Amy Hutto is the solution. She coordinates the shop and determines how much time can be spent on each costume. And it can be quite a bit of time. A man’s suit takes 40 hours to build and a woman’s dress takes about 32. Shoes alone take at least an hour each to prepare for any production. For The Light in the Piazza, Hutto estimates that SCR’s Costume Shop will build one-third of the costumes. She decides which piece should be built and which can be pulled and adapted from previous productions.

Fittings, alterations and building all push the shop into an organized frenzy as the team assembles each costume. Once the production moves from the rehearsal room to the stage, certain looks may need adjustments as the production comes together. As the first previews approach, each design element of the production (costumes, scenery, sound, and lights) must work in harmony to create the world of The Light in the Piazza. The end product is another piece to the story unfolding on stage.

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