Theatre: behind-the-scenes costumers

When you see any theatrical production, it’s easy to see the actors onstage, but it’s hard to see the people behind all that stage magic. Lights, sound, props and costuming all have their place in creating the illusion. Curious about what it takes to costume a show for community theatre, we spoke to two of Northeast Florida’s most dedicated community theatre costume designers.

Margaret Hennessey has costumed all over the East Coast, as well as internationally. For the last few years she’s been working pretty much exclusively for ABET. Hennessey has led quite a storied life, crossing the globe to work as an international teacher from 1991 to 2003, along with her husband.

Costuming for community theatre is different than costuming for a professional troupe (something she’s also done in the past). First there are budget limitations. “One of my strengths is being able to costume on a shoestring. Anybody could costume anything on an unlimited budget.” The shoestring budget means that she has to look to other sources, getting actors and actresses to look to their own closets for something she can modify. “The Salvation Army is a godsend,” she says. Part of her job is recognizing the bones of a clothing piece and the ability to turn it into something else by tacking on sleeves or other alterations.

Designing for community theatre also means that she must “look to the stock.” That is, when she builds a costume, especially a period piece, it will be most likely be used again in another show. To that end, she makes it easy to fit a range of sizes. If the actress is a size two, she makes sure it can be expanded up to a size 10 and otherwise easily modified.

One of the most important things is the audience’s perception of the costumes. “A consistent suggestion of the period will read just as well to the audience as meticulous detail.” Hennessey uses the basic silhouette, the iconic markers of a time period that translate to the audience.

Costume_ABET_DROOD_Tiffany-Tiffany Jordan, who won Best Costuming for Reefer Madness (with Dana Marie Ferger) for the 2012 Players by the Sea Season and costumed ABET’s Edwin Drood September of last year, says that the actor’s perceptions are another part of the picture. When you make something truly period, such as making a bustle authentic to the time, multiple petticoats and corsets, it “helps the actor to visualize their direction.” An actress will find herself moving differently in response to what she’s wearing, making it easier to access the character.

Jordan starts her process by listening to what the director wants. Parameters vary from show to show, whether she’s costuming a modern ballet or a straight play. Once she’s got an idea of what the director expects, she then researches lots of options along their mode of thinking, then produces a number of “look boards.” She shows those to the director and then designs around what they like for the production. “There’s a balance between keeping the director happy and yourself happy,” she says. If she doesn’t like the work, the director might be very happy, but it won’t go into her portfolio. Because it’s her work, she wants to make sure that her work represents her, in accordance with the wishes of the director. “It’s give and take,” she says.

Both Hennessey and Jordan agree that the effort and time it takes to costume a production would be surprising to most people. The audience enjoys the show, but, as Hennessey says, they don’t know “just how much goes into having them appear the way they do on stage.”

About Erin Thursby