Designing Theater Costumes

Costumes represent a major budget item in theater productions, yet the process of designing and creating them is rather mysterious. The Seagull’s director, Bogdan, and the costume designer, Susan, recently answered a few of our questions.

Bogdan, how do you as the director develop the costuming vision for your play?

Costume design is not initially a distinct process. I read the play many times and take careful notes about the characters, the setting of the play, the personalities of the characters as well as their motivations and emotions. As I get clearer about what I like and what I want to create on the stage, costume colors, fabrics and style begin to emerge as one of many facets of expressing that vision. I intentionally give no attention whatsoever at this point to the cost of my ideas, knowing that I can always scale back if necessary. I create rough sketches and assemble photos of possible costumes for each character and each costume change. I give myself enough time to leave my ideas for a few days so that I can come back and reassess what I have done and make changes if needed.

Then I look for someone who can sew and be my partner in transforming my wild ideas into an implementable costume plan that takes budget and time constraints into consideration.

Susan Voight, Costume Designer of The Seagull

So, Susan, I guess that person was you. How did you get involved with Entity performances?

The original costume designer for the production of Lend Me A Tenor last year, had some things come up that made it impossible for her to continue in that role. Bogdan asked me to step in. There wasn’t a lot of time left to make any changes, but I knew from my past experience how important it was that the costume fit the mood of the character and the character’s relationship with others. When the decision was made to perform The Seagull this year, I was very excited when Bogdan asked me if I would manage the costuming from the beginning.

You mentioned past experience with costume design. Please tell us a little more about that.

My mother had very strong ideas about making rather than buying clothes and she taught each of her daughters to sew beginning at quite a young age. For me, there was a kind of magic in starting with a roll of flat fabric and ending up with a beautiful dress.

I started dancing when I was quite young and, as I grew older, my mother made all of my dance costumes. There was something inspirational about wearing these costumes made with so much love, and this carried over into my dancing. Then, in my twenties, I was part of a small dance company that had little budget for costumes. The choreographer and I would go to different fabric remainder shops in New York City and turn them into costumes for sixteen people. It was amazing to experience what a big role color, fabric, and pattern played in creating the mood of a performance.

Could you say a little more about the elements of color, fabric and pattern?

Esther Gilvray showing her Irina Arkadina costume

Sure. One of the leading characters in The Seagull is the actress Arkadina, a woman in her forties, who refuses to accept that she is no longer in demand for theater roles. She desperately needs to be constantly at the center of attention, and she does this in part by wearing bright colors and lots of jewelry. I had so much fun finding bold, sparkly fabrics and embellishments that would push her look to make a very bold statement.

The challenge is to find fabrics in the right colors, with the right texture, that drape appropriately on the actor’s body. All are equally important in achieving the appearance you are seeking. Leave out any one and you are unlikely to successfully create a harmonious costume.

Finding the right fabric is only the starting point, however. You also have to consider not only the individual actor, their body type and what they will be comfortable wearing, but also how well everything will coordinate with the actors to create a harmonious whole.

That makes good sense. What was your process in developing the costume designs for The Seagull?

First, of course, I had to carefully study the sketches and pictures that Bogdan mentioned and to explore these in detail with him. This gave me an essential insight into his sense of the play and the individual characters. 

Then I read the play quite carefully to get my own sense of each character. I even went to YouTube and found four to five different versions of certain scenes that seemed to me especially important in defining the different characters. I confess to being very judgmental at times, but rejecting the ideas of others helped me to gain clarity about what I thought would work.

Of course, the decisions ultimately were Bogdan’s. I made a sketchbook of ideas to help him better visualize what I was thinking about and we went over things very carefully. We had to find realistic compromises that, given the budget and time limitations, would still work for him.  In retrospect, I probably should have done more sketches – the ones where I worked out the details on paper turned out to be the ones where we had the fewest misunderstandings. Needless to say, we both had to be willing to give up some of our cherished ideas! 

Susan, doing some magic with her sewing machine

Bogdan, it sounds like this was a challenge for two creative minds to get on the same page. Anything you would like to add here?

First of all, I want to say that Susan did a great job of making sure we stayed on the same page and helping me to not miss small but important details. Getting the actors involved in the process was an important factor for which I was responsible. I needed to ensure that we had their input and support and that they had the freedom to disagree with our decisions. In some cases, that was because they were thinking of their own preferences rather than those of their character – and this disagreement actually fueled worthwhile discussions that led to deeper understanding of their roles.

Susan, you also spoke earlier about the role of clothing as an expression of the character’s personality. Why is this so important for theater? 

It’s important not only for theater but for our daily lives as well. Most people are simply not aware that clothing is a language through which everyone expresses their personality. Just think about how you decide what to wear when you get up in the morning or change clothes in preparation for an activity in the evening. Color and style send strong messages to others, whether we intend it or not. Just as a simple example, think about what you choose to wear for a night out with friends in comparison to your choices for a hot, first date.

You could see this as well in the reactions of the actors when they tried on their costumes at the fitting trial a couple of weeks ago. For example, Esther Gilvray is a women who puts great value on being part of a team and does not particularly like to stand out in any way. She was delighted with her costumes but confessed to being a bit uncomfortable wearing the loud, boisterous dresses of her character, Arkadina. Luiza Maddalozzo is a joyful, happy, full-of-life woman who is very different from her despairing, deeply unhappy character, Masha. She found her costume to be very supportive in managing this difficult acting transition. 

There is obviously a lot involved in creating the costumes. Susan, what has it been like trying to turn that vision into reality?

A lot like a roller coaster ride! Fun and exciting one moment and then crashing down into despair the next. I have been sewing for over 60 years and that first cut of expensive fabric can still be terrifying. I rely a lot on experience but I am still finding new things that I didn’t know before.

Costume fitting for The Seagull cast

Then there is the moment when the actors put their costumes on for the first time – and the director sees it in reality, again for the first time. You just have to prepare yourself mentally for the inevitability of alterations and the fact that that means you have to take apart what you invested so much time and energy into putting together I always tell the people who are learning to sew: the seam ripper is your friend!

Bogdan, is there anything you would like to add?

Help with creating costumes is always needed. Someone does not have to be an experienced sewer to make an important and needed contribution. If you can sew on a button or hem a cuff, you are welcome. It is a great way to be part of a creative team and everyone who has helped this year has enjoyed it enormously.

Interview by Roger Voight

Pictures: Katrin Fegert, Dasha Kozlova and Susan and Roger Voight

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