Designer . . . Actor . . . Director

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011 | Uncategorized

At some point, I find myself wondering how we can make the design experience more effective, more… je ne sais pas.

I’m tired of having actors bitch in the dressing room or to the director during notes, and expressing things about the costume that they won’t tell me.

They tell the director that they don’t feel right in the costume, because it doesn’t feel like the character.  Or they complain to wardrobe that none of their costumes fit (when in truth they just don’t fit like modern clothes).  Or I get a message from stage management that there have been “discussions in the dressing rooms about the wigs…”(a nice ambiguous note that is entirely useless to me in terms of fixing any actual problems).

Sometimes it feels like they are trying to design their character for me.  This is extremely frustrating.

But I have heard from a number of actors now that they feel that they can’t say anything in the fitting room.  Either because this is what they were taught in school (shut up and wear what you are told), or they have said things in the past to designers, and the designer burst into tears, or got angry, or otherwise behaved poorly.

So I have been trying to figure out how this could be improved.

How can we as designers engage actors in an appropriate dialogue about character, when we have already created a design with the director? How do we encourage them to share and collaborate, without overriding the design choices we have already made?  How can we create WITH actors (who don’t fully finalize a character until well into the rehearsal process … and for many, until they put on that costume we’ve designed for them.)?

I do think it is, in part, education.  If actors are taught to just shut up and wear what the designer gives them,then of course they have no outlet if something just feels “off,” then where else can they express that but behind the back of the designer.  So they need to be taught appropriate ways to communicate during a fitting. (This includes realizing that they are not the designer, and that the designer has made choices for specific reasons. Questions work much better than demands or petulant, “That’s ugly” commentary.)

But it would help if designers knew how to approach actors, and how to take that criticism as well.  Yes we are told to grow a thick skin when it comes to our designs, but it seems that we do that in relation to the director only. We must remember that actors have opinions too.

I don’t have solutions here.  Only mutterings, musings, and questions.

5 Comments to Designer . . . Actor . . . Director

Skip Stewart
December 7, 2011

I insist on sitting in on all meetings with the cast so I can answer any and every comment or complaint directly. But even before that, in all fittings I ask cast members individually what they “need” or would like to have done and give all comments and issues to the producer/director before anything is said. If there is a complaint, I address it right then and refer it to the director/producer myself and basically defuse their negative comment before it goes public in a meeting. Staying ahead of trouble is the best way to keep it down. This puts me out in front of anything negative. It shows I am proactive and always looking to improve what I have designed / built for the actor. It shows them that I have their best interest in mind. Often times it removes me from the decision making and puts the “bad news” choice or decision about the costume on the director/producer. If there is a complaint about how a period costume doesn’t fit like a “today’s costume” I remind the actor that this is motivation for their character…most often it gives them more input to what that character had to endure back then. A twist?…yeah but it works more than it doesn’t. Turn Lemons into Lemonade. Best Regards, Skip Stewart

December 7, 2011

I agree with Skip- and I usually ask if the actor is comfortable in the costume. This allows them to voice their feelings, and gives me a chance to explain our choices and make sure the costume fits properly. It is frequently the occasion of one of what my associates refer to as “underwear lectures” as part of “why it doesn’t fit like today’s clothes.” there is a need for a thick skin, but that goes two ways. You aren’t trying to make them look like themselves, after all.

December 9, 2011

I try to educate and explain as much as I can in fittings. “Do you know why you dress this way?” “This is how you wear a fedora.” I even compare wearing a 40′s suit properly to elizabethean costuming because for some kids today it’s that foreign to them. “I know it feels wierd but it looks right.” I consider it part of my job to help them understand why I chose what I chose or the fashion of the given period. Most actors respond well if they know where I’m coming from and that I am not randomly picking things.

In regards to the ambiguous notes, I hate those too. I’ve learned to always go right to the source and tell them what I’ve heard and ask for specifics. Cuts out much wasted time.

There will always be someone you can’t reach. The most professional line I have ever heard was years ago as an overhire dresser for the touring production of Les Mis. The wardrobe supervisor was going thru costumes with a new cast member. “..and it is not acceptable to reinterprete the costume designer’s vision.” Letting them know up front what the rules where and that the design was set in stone down to the knot in a ratty kerchief kept that show tight.

It’s harder with contemporary shows because actors are so familiar with the clothing. The I would never wear this line is my favorite. When push comes to shove I counter with “You don’t have to but I’m very sorry, your character does.” Sometimes they have to be reminded to let go of themselves. It only helps them be a better actor.

And then on occasion you have to let go. I had an older actress who when measured gave me a laundry list of things she would and would not wear. I chose my battle and gave in to most directives but insisted on a wig. I explained my situation to the director and stage manager and they backed me up by telling the actress how great it was for her character. She still hasn’t forgiven me but I know it all comes from insecurity as an older actress struggling with not being able to do things like she once could.

Theatre is about people and their motivations. If I as a costume designer don’t try to understand where they are coming from than why am I in this business?

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August 23, 2012

What always comes to mind as the most important thing when it comes to costumes is helping the audience get a clear understanding of the characters. I am currently working with a puppet theater company designing and creating costumes for large puppets that actors dressed in all black will operate. The first question I asked the resident designer about their upcoming play The Hobbit was “what are the different personalities of each hobbit, which ones are family/friends, which ones stand out as the main characters? Fashion in any format is about portraying a vision to not just an audience but your peers and even strangers. We use fashion to silently express who we are. Same with costumes. In a 2 hour production you don’t have a week for the audience “to get to know the character” you have just a few seconds or a few minutes, the first impression needs to make an instant impact on the audience and help with them understanding the character. This is what I explain to the actors just controlling the puppets. “Your puppet isn’t as fancy because he is supposed to be poor and weathered and a klutz.” I do ask for the actors input though. They need to feel as part of the character as possible and It’s natural for them to grow their own vision. We do this,when reading a book, then we see the movie and the actors don’t sound or look or act like we imagined them too. I let the actors know I am not taking personal orders, but I respect their input. If it is something I can’t or won’t do I explain why so they still feel valued and understand why. Sometimes though you can appreciate their creative input and utilize their ideas. I think It’s important to listen so they feel respected but also maintain your position as the ultimate designer and creative mind. I used these same theories when I was a make up artist years ago and the male actors would cry about wearing eyeliner! You have to gain their trust sometimes to worker together a little better. Taking their pictures from a distance to show how they looked to the audience helped build their confidence that they did look like an older gentleman and not the bearded lady! :)

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