Deep Theory, Ideas for Show Concepts

THE IDEA COMES FIRST: There is a strange notion when you first begin designing costumes that some how “high concept” must translate to “high budget” or it isn’t possible. I’m not exactly sure where one acquires this stupid idea, but we, the design students at College of Marin and S.F. State, all had it.

This is simply wrong. Imagination, forethought, and unified concept are the three cheapest things you can do for a show, a fact that our professors attempted to hammer into us in vain. In fact, my post graduate experience showed me that usually these things can make a show happen more cheaply. At all events,there is no excuse for not having them, simply because your budget is small. You need to look at the play script, and talk to your director about ideas even before you talk about money. If you have the right idea, there will be a way to make it happen, money or not. It is ideas in design that get the ball rolling, once you have them, money often becomes irrelevant.

ART AND HIGH CONCEPT CAN MAKE DESIGN CHEAPER: The best examples I can think of are the set designs for the 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari. The designer of the movie wanted a look like an Expressionist painting, all sharply angled buildings and weird lighting. The idea was that the film should look like the incredible twisted imaginings of the insane character who is the “narrator”. However, when they were to film the movie, UFA studios had not the money even to pay the power bill, so their electricity was cut off, and the show had to be shot by daylight. The designer, instead of abandoning his concept, improved it by thinking quickly, and using spare paint to paint the floors and walls with the “lighting effects” he’d wanted, using the German Expressionist style. As a result it looked even more like an Expressionist painting than it would have looked if he had a larger budget. It was a sensation in Europe when it came out, and then made a similar critical hit in the U.S. years later when it came here. To this day this movie is shown regularly in art-house cinemas around the world, and is considered one of the most famous designs for film.

 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919

COSTUMERS CAN DO THIS TOO: Many of my own better shows were at least to an extent “inspired” by budget constraints. A thin budget that doesn’t allow for doing the conventional thing is a great argument for pushing a director towards taking a chance with an unusual idea. At UAF, where we were perennially short of the budget and staff necessary to conventionally mount musicals and the classics, we had an impressive record of unusual productions:

  As You Like It, done c. 1971.

 Woyzeck looking like Dickens filtered through an expressionist lens,
The Eagle’s Gift, a Native Alaskan show made out of garbage,
Much Ado About Nothing done with “Omnigarments,”
 and Jesus Christ Superstar draped and painted to look like Medieval illuminations. Conventionally thinking administrators at our institution were constantly perturbed by our “weird” productions, never realizing it is was their own budget cutting that often helps bring them about.

HIGH CONCEPT CAN MAKE THE SHOW: One of my former students, an incredible director/designer named Diane Swanson, did Gertrude Stein’s supposedly “unplayable” The Circular Play, using costumes that were incorporated into the set to facilitate the flow of the play: The setting consisted of six tubular canisters with round ashtray lids, borrowed from the university janitorial service, that converted to containers, drums, echo-chambers, a “car”, and musical chairs. In addition the ashtray lids came off and were revealed to be eccentrically decorated pink hats which the performers wore through much of the play.Inside the canisters were round pink pillows, which were sat upon, juggled and used as symbolic props. “The set is the costumes, the actors are the props, the words are the actors, and the play is really weird,” explained Swanson. The six female performers,dressed in humorous amalgamations of masculine and feminine dress pulled from stock in shades of pink, began the performance reading pink newspapers, while sitting on the canisters set in a circle. On the line “Circle Hats” the performers jumped up and placed the ashtray-hats (decorated with stock pink flowers, pink plastic curlers,beads and bows) on their heads with the aid of audience members. The production went on to win student awards for best play production, directing, and costume design that year. It had a budget of $50, only $10 of which Swanson spent, buying hot glue to decorate the hats with scraps from the shop, and pink dye to tint some pulled costumes.

COSTUMES CAN BE OVERDONE: While less is not always more, often one is “free” to do more avant-garde costumes when the budget does not “allow” literal period dress. One common mistake is to assume, because one is given a budget sufficient for doing a lavish period piece, full of detail and historical accuracy, that one necessarily should. The English have a wonderful put-down for designers who do detailed realistic period work on shows that do not call for it. They say the show is “from the Laura Ashley school of theatre design,” as if to infer that the theatre designer is suffering from a love of prettiness for it’s own sake, more appropriate to an interior/clothing designer than a theatre artist. Good taste is the enemy of good design. Simply because you have the budget to do a lavish, complex show, does not mean you must. What you must do is match the costume design to the show, the characters, and to the directors concept.

BRIEF NOTE ABOUT OMNIGARMENTS: One method (outlined in detail in it’s own chapter) is to try to develop a group of flexible costumes that can be controlled by the actors themselves. Omnigarments (flexible costumes capable of multiple variations) are the choice that offers the maximum amount of actor input into the design. By designing a series of simple but flexible garments that can be tied, wrapped, or draped into a variety of choices, the designer may concentrate her work solely on suggesting the main show concept through color and texture of materials. This leaves individual character’s costumes to be worked out between the director and actors. This is an especially good choice for shows that develop out of ensemble work through the course of rehearsals, or for directors and actors who like to make lots of changes dangerously close to opening night.

 Much Ado About Nothing

PULLING FROM STOCK: The difficulty with Omnigarments is that they must be made or bought, which rather means you must either have enough money or labor to make/buy all the costumes from scratch. Depending on the quantity of actors to be clothed, and the cost of the materials involved, this may be medium to costly. To do a show cheaply one usually needs to pull it largely from stock, or buy it at bottom prices from thrift stores. Making a show from garbage-stock need not require that the show look awful. More to the point, it can take a show where the costumes should look awful like Sweeney Todd, Oliver, or The Good Woman Of Schezwan, and make it look really beautifully, disgustingly awful.

  Fabric Painting in Woyzek

DYE, SPRAY-DYE, AND PAINT: The main problem with a garbage stock show is that the costumes, coming from a variety of other shows and the thrift store do not, as a rule, have a similar coordinated color scheme, textures, or details. The answer to all these difficulties can be easily met with a conscious thought process about what color, texture, and detail scheme you want, then putting it into action with some dye and paints. In other words, you can decide on a look that is borrowed from any style of painting from Seurat, to Goncharova, to Lichtenstein, and simply dye, and…

SPRAY-DYE spray and paint it onto pre-existing garments. This is an especially good method for us in Fairbanks where we have only one fabric store. We take garments from thrift stores, or made from cheap muslin and tobacco cloth, and simply turn them into the fabric and painting style we want with dye and paint. I had Woyzeck, a huge low-budget show that was pulled almost entirely from garbage stock, get a review in which the costumes were praised as “almost Dickensian in their detail and richness.” It was done by painting them all with diluted RIT in spray bottles, and goosing them with highlights of fabric paint in German Expressionist style.

 Fabric Painting in Woyzek

  Fabric Painting in Woyzek

 Fabric Painting in Woyzek

YOU NEED NOT BE LIMITED BY THE AVAILABLE FABRIC: As long as you can get light fabrics you can make heavy ones by interlining, as long as you can get pale fabrics you can get dark ones by dyeing, as long as you can get plain fabrics you can get patterned ones by painting them yourself. This is not a new trick, or a lowly one. The unbelievably lavish 1881 production of Tennyson’s “The Cup” at the Lyceum Theatre shows an example.   Ellen Terry wrote in her memoirs:

In the master carpenter, Arnott, we had a splendid man. He inspired confidence at once through his strong, able personality, and, as time went on, deserved it through all the knowledge he acquired and through his excellence in never making a difficulty.

“You shall have it,” was no bluff from Arnott. You did “have it.”

We could not find precisely the right material for one of my dresses in “The Cup.” At last, poking about myself in quest of it, I came across the very thing at Liberty’s—a saffron silk with a design woven into it by hand with many-colored threads and little jewels. I brought a yard to rehearsal. It was declared perfect, but I declared the price prohibitive.

“It’s twelve guineas a yard, and I shall want yards and yards!”…

….”You leave it to me,” said Arnott. “I’ll get it for you. That’ll be all right.

“But, Arnott, it’s a hand-woven Indian material. How can you get it?”

“You leave it to me,” Arnott repeated in his slow, quiet, confident way. “Do you mind letting me have this yard as a pattern?”

He went off with it, and before the dress rehearsal had produced about twenty yards of silk, which on the stage looked better than the twelve-guinea original.

“There’s plenty more if you want it,” he said dryly.

He had had some raw silk dyed the exact saffron. He had had two blocks made, one red and the other black, and the design had been printed, and a few cheap spangles had been added to replace the real jewels. My toga looked beautiful.

Modern fabric paints make this kind of slight of hand easy, as well as aesthetically pleasing.

NON-REPRESENTATIONAL COSTUMES: Many interesting costume concepts come out of the ideas developed in modern art. Symbolism, Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Futurism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Bauhaus, Suprematism, and Abstract Expressionism, all were inspirational in the most interesting costume designs of the 20th Century. Sonya Delaunay’s designs for The Gas Heart, and Cleopatra were part of the Dada movement, Alexandra Exter’s work on the Soviet sci-fi fantasy film Aelita, Queen of Mars was influenced by Suprematism, Picasso’s work on the ballet Parade, and Dr.Seuss’s Oscar winning work on the film The 5000 Fingers of Dr.T, were examples of Cubism and Surrealism respectively. The main thrust to all these art movements was a turning away from the Realistic, representational style that dominated Western art from the Renaissance through the 19th Century. In costume design this freed up designers to make designs that were based on the internal life of characters, or on movement, or on abstractions of external appearance, and a whole gamut of other ideas besides Realism. Courtesy of these pioneering designers, you have a choice of a much broader range of expression than a 19th Century designer had. Studying these art movements as they apply to costume design, can often yield interesting ideas, useful for show concepts.

Two Russian “Mystery Designs”, c.1930 showing the influence of modern art.

REALISM: Because this is a tremendously over-used style, it is a tremendously underrated one. Mainly, it is put down because too often it is used on inappropriate plays, or more often is simply poorly done. Certain plays and playwrights, particularly Shaw, Chekhov, Shepard, O’Neill and Wilde, usually (though not always) need all that period detail to set the plays in context. Many 20th Century American playwrights works are so low-key and realistic in style that any unusual costuming would distract from the script unduly. These are the plays that need Realism as the design style. The important thing to remember about Realism is that it is a style, like all the other “isms,” and it consequently requires the designer go with the style wholeheartedly. Realism absolutely requires a passionate search for appropriate detail, fabric, color and underpinnings, with no sloppiness about research, cut, accessories, or character. Realism is the most difficult style to do well, but one of the most satisfying, since when you pull it off, absolutely everyone can see you did so. Use it sparingly, on appropriate shows, but with great precision when you do, and it can work.

 Costumes designed for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

BASE COSTUMES: Occasionally shows arise that have so many costume changes in them that budget and shop time seem to loom larger than concept. The natural temptation is to simply pull anything available from stock, and thrust it on the minor actors in a kind of shoddy realistic style, while concentrating on prettifying the leads. The thing is, usually these plays with actors playing multiple parts are a far cry from realism. A good way to force concept to the fore again is to adopt some type of “base costume” that sums up the overall look of the show you want, and then differentiate between multiple characters with one or two simple accessories. The shows Our Country’s Good, and Marat/Sade are actually written around this costume method. However, it is simple to use on any non realist play. Back in Alaska we did Qayaq, The Magical Man, a traditional Native Alaskan show, with neutral historicist base costumes on all the actors, while different spirit characters were simply indicated with masks and props, much as was done in pre-contact ritual theatre. The insanely irreverent Ubu Roi was designed around ridiculous base costumes consisting of brightly colored long underwear and Converse Basketball shoes, with absurd bits of costume to indicate character: The ghosts of the dead kings of Poland for instance had paper crowns from Burger King, wore bed sheets and held flashlights up to their chins like children playing at being ghosts, soldiers were armed with helmets of all nations, Nerf Bats, and water pistols. The idea is that you can state your concept for the show clearly with the base costumes, and for each of the characters with accessories. This lets you concentrate on only designing the essentials for the play.

GARBAGE: I’ve been thinking a lot about garbage lately. Over the last few years it hit me as a suitable concept in all its many subtleties. I’ve even written a play about it. There are a lot of ideas that garbage engenders. For example, what is garbage? Is it a particular thing? No. Is it everything? How old must an old thing be before it’s garbage? How old must old garbage get before it is a pile of artifacts worthy of study? Just as all men, no matter how noble are future food for worms, all material things that we now covet, pay for, and value are future garbage. One man’s garbage, is another man’s valued object. Things = garbage = things. As in the statements: “Your junk” and “My things”. Or, like the old roadside sign: “We buy your junk. We sell antiques.” Recycling, too, figures into the picture. The ability to see goodness and usefulness in an object or person that isn’t valued by others is a rare, positive virtue with practical value.

GREENING THE THEATRE: With all the talk of “greening” theatre by intelligent recycling of set and costume elements,nobody seems to have really advocated embracing the idea of using garbage from the outside world as a major building material. Perhaps this is because in a small way we have always done this to save money, and the idea does not seem particularly new. However, I would urge designers to consider garbage as a major design element for aesthetic reasons as well. Many forms of garbage are alarmingly pretty: bubble wrap, packing puffs, cardboard food containers, plastic bottles, dead audio tape, old Christmas cards and wrap, bottle caps, chip bags, etc. American garbage often includes wondrous design elements from advertisement and packaging that simply beg to be reused, so colorful, and festive as they are.

RUSSIAN GARBAGE: I had toyed with using bits of garbage in my shows till about three years ago. I had only made whole costumes out of garbage with my costume class as an in class project, pretty much for the theoretical exercise. Then I went to Russia. At the Interstudio Theatre in Pushkin I saw they did whole productions of shows like Don Juan and The Magic Flute using garbage as the main construction material for both sets and costumes. The Russians had different sorts of garbage: metal shavings, plastic doll parts, Visquine, cloth strips, plastic cutouts, keys, machine parts, punched out metal strips, etc. but the uses of the garbage were still mainly aesthetic, not structural. The use of the garbage was so constant, and the design so strongly theatrical, that, strange to say, the fact that the main material was garbage was hardly even noticeable in viewing the show. Garbage had simply been incorporated into the strong designs as a basically available material, without drawing attention to itself.

 Chip bag parkas in The Eagle’s Gift

NATIVE AMERICAN FAMILY VALUES: Some time after my return to Alaska, I was presented with an unusual show, The Eagle’s Gift, that was a consciously modern show about traditional Alaska Native values. The look had to be modern, not traditional, but the thrust of the story was that traditional Native values have a useful application to modern life. One of the main traditional Native values as regards clothing is that when an animal is killed for food, all the parts of the animal must be used in order to appease it’s spirit and preserve the eco-system. Traditional Native dress therefore used hides of birds, fish, and all the fur bearing animals. Puffin beaks and deer hooves were made into rattling mittens for dancing, walrus ivory and even whiskers were made into hat decorations and tools. Nothing was wasted. “Garbage”did not exist. When early Alaskans encountered Western garbage, they used it-turning old shell casings into noisemakers, buttons into decorations. Trying to apply this concept to the modern world was my show “concept.” Since we did not hunt for our food in the costume shop, but rather went up to the soda and potato chip machines, I resolved we must use “the hide of the chip bag and the shell of the Coca-Cola” to decorate the spirit characters in the show.

 Chip bag parkas in The Eagle’s Gift

  Chip bag parkas in The Eagle’s Gift

Root Woman in The Eagle’s Gift

Chip bags were stitched together and stuffed with fiberfill to make parkas. For the duration of the production,nothing was thrown out of the costume shop, all food packages, fabric scraps, etc. were used to cover Root Woman, a kind of angry Mother Nature figure who arose up out of the earth and covered the stage with entangling vines, like Glinda the Good arising out of a landfill. In this case it was the intention of the design to draw attention to the recycling, as a way of showing Native values adapted to the modern world.

SMALL METAL OBJECTS: I’m now back in Russia again, (1994-95) and while here I am exploring the aesthetics of garbage. To this end, I have at last visited a garbage dump. According to my diary “I am 35 years old, I’ve always wanted to visit a dump, but I’ve never done it before. It’s better than Value Village. There you can ‘shop for less,’ but at a dump you can shop for free.” If you have, like me, put off a dump visit till now, you need to overcome your inertia and go. It is artistically inspiring as well as useful. Now I’m working on a dress, to be entirely covered with garbage. I have limited my search to small metal objects that can easily be sewn onto the dress. What is enlightening is what a great variety of things fit into this tiny limiting category. Like contemplating the infinite possibilities of snowflakes, the dress is already a symphony of different little clinking objects. There are dozens of different sorts of bottle caps, keys, watch parts, broken metal toys, paint tubes, toothpaste tubes, filter canisters, hair curlers, army and religious medals,computer bits, machine parts, you name it. And the act of finding them and sewing them on helps to fix the varied colors, textures and shapes of each in ones mind in the same way as a butterfly hunter determines the slight variations in a species. Each object, not necessarily attractive in itself, becomes a part of a glittering whole. Suddenly I find beauty in any object that is different from the others because it makes a counterpoint to the main theme of bottle caps. This is useful. Looking at things closely from an aesthetic standpoint is one of the main ways to come up with ideas. This exercise with the metal object dress is making me do this with a whole class of items.

TravelRussia92876 16.jpg Russian Metal Garbage

YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY IDEAS: Research into the history of costume, art and theatre, intense scrutiny of physical objects as varied as bottle caps and fungi, conscious study of play scripts and character all can help you find ideas for shows. Life for a costume designer must be a continual study of aesthetics,drawn from both history and daily life, as it applies to design. You take this information, process it into ideas, collect and expand on these ideas in your notes, and ultimately use the ideas in designing shows. Concentrated exploration of new ideas through reflection and discussion as they appear before one, multiplies them like bacteria. One or two ideas here and there for a show are not enough to last through past one production meeting, so you need to make all efforts to fertilize single ideas (like, “Gee,what is garbage really?” or “Could we let the actors design their own costumes?”) into whole groups of ideas, capable of seeing a production through to its finish. This is why I study garbage in detail and do dozens of doodles and notes on possible Omnigarments. Ideas don’t just pop up by themselves. You need to plant them with sensory input and multiply them by working on them. With enough ideas to work with,designing shows is fun, and carrying them out is simplified as well as economical.