Wednesday, April 12, 2006

How to Scare Away A Costume Designer

I had a chat recently with Walterdale's resident costume goddess, Geri Dittrich. She just finished designing costumes for The Skin of our Teeth (including utterly fabulous dinosaur and mammoth costumes!), and I caught her momentarily at rest between projects. Geri has been a costume dynamo at the Playhouse for years, often working single-handedly late into the night to indulge the whims of eccentric directors like me.

I knew that Geri had already expressed an interest in designing Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and since that show will be running just before A&C, I didn't think it was fair to expect her to do two complex shows in a row. But since she knows Walterdale's wardrobe inventory better than anyone, I figured I should pick her brain on behalf of whoever happens to be my designer.

"No togas," she said, before I even got a full sentence out. "We could build some, pretty easy, but there's nothing to start from. Will we need a lot?"

I refrained from giving her the full details of the casting conundrum. Instead, I told her it was a big cast, but that we could afford to double-up and re-use a lot of basic costume components throughout the show. But even as I was saying this, I knew it might not be the case; you see, I've had a costume concept brewing in my back-brain for awhile, and I realized that I might, even now, be making unofficial commitments which would determine the design direction of the show. If I wanted to make my crazy, half-formed idea work, I would have to articulate it now, right now, or else forget about it.

So I took a deep breath, and said, "Basically, I think there are three ways to go with this show." This was my way of softening the blow, I think, because I'd save the really crazy idea for last.

"First, we could do it all in period: Roman and Egyptian, togas and robes." Geri interrupted here to speculate on where we might be able to rent or borrow some togas. Lots of churches, apparently, retain stocks of Roman costumes, for Passion plays and the like.

"Um...the show goes up in mid-April. Just after Easter." I winced. So much for that.

I pressed on. "Option number two would be somewhat abstract: you know, a more conceptual design that doesn't rely on any specific period. See, I was sort of thinking, these characters tend to think of themselves as sort of larger-than-life, you know, like Greek gods or something..." This petered out quickly, since I didn't really have much of an idea here--and besides, as Geri was quick to point out, Greek gods wore togas too, or toga-like robes. What's the difference?

Okay. Another deep breath, damn the practicalities, here goes: "The third option is really ambitious. I kind of see these characters as taking huge strides, making enormous gestures, right? So I thought that maybe their steps could sort of...transcend history. Or move across different time periods. So that Act One might be set in Rome and Egypt, right, but by Act Two or Three, we've sort of moved into another time--medieval, maybe, or the Renaissance. And then another leap, and we're in the Napoleonic wars. And then maybe we end up in World War II, or something. Basically," I quickly added, "we draw on whatever periods we have costumes for, in the wardrobe, already." Ah! There, a practical justification for what was, otherwise, a completely daft request.

There was more to this concept, but I felt I should stop there. I didn't tell her about the image I had of a triumphant Octavius descending upon Alexandria in Act Five like George W. Bush stepping onto the aircraft carrier in full flight gear, declaring "Mission Accomplished!" Nor did I mention a potential to loop back in time when Cleopatra says, "Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me."

And I should have said that, actually, because it's really the word immortal that clinches this whole concept for me: the idea that Antony and Cleopatra know they'll live forever, if only in legend, and that the world moves too slowly for titans like them. "I dreamt there was an emperor Antony ... his legs bestrid the ocean ... " Yes, and his glories are larger than any one empire or civilisation or time can contain.

I should have said all that, because Geri's a smart cookie and I think she would have understood where I was coming from. As it was, all I really left her with was the crack-pot notion of costuming one show four times over. Maybe, once I secure my own costume designer, I can set it all out in a way that makes sense.

Although, even then, and no matter how many damn time periods I try to cram into one play, sooner or later we're still going to have to find, or build, some togas.


cpc said...

Togas are easy - full Elizabethan costumes, however, are another matter...

Scott Sharplin said...

Careful, Carolla...that sounds almost like an offer to assist... :)