Idea Stealing

IDEA STEALING: Ideas rarely, if ever, flow spontaneously forth in original brilliance from a mind untouched by outside influences. God does not, in costume design, tap lightly on your shoulder and tell you the All New Perfect And Inspired Way to design Miss Julie for your graduate design seminar. Some people’s designs may look like She did, but She didn’t. Design is a process that works out of, and through, many pieces of information, from costume history, to cultural perceptions of color, to actor’s body proportions, to budget realities, and more. Trying to design costumes without being influenced by outside factors is therefore, pointless.

ORIGINALITY: Originality in costume design, therefore, is much more a case of finding the right idea than originating it. Thought must mainly be expended in the looking for, and in the adapting of, ideas suitable for the purpose. Original thought is needed to arrange these ideas in new ,different, and above all, appropriate ways for each show. But. ideas can, and should, be drawn from everywhere, and it is the unoriginal designer who won’t bother to look for ideas outside of her own limited brain. “Idea stealing” is a matter of being open to all the ideas, colors, and textures the world has to offer, and using them in one’s art. There are an incredible number of places that you can look for ideas that are worth”stealing,” and your research for a show should not begin and end with only costume history and the script to guide you.

ASK THE DIRECTOR: First and foremost,you need to know what your director is doing, what she wants, and what opinions she has on the costumes. Some directors are designers themselves and have valuable and interesting ideas for the visuals of a show. Some may be unable to do a pencil sketch, but still need your designs to coordinate with their concept. Rarely do they send you off without ideas. Tom Riccio, a director I work with in Alaska, is the sort costumers are sometimes inclined to write off: he can’t draw and he’s color blind. However, he has consistently given me the best ideas for shows: a full length coronation cape of giant Xeroxed dollar bills for Ubu Roi, a flown-in stage covering “entanglement” costume of vines and garbage for The Eagle’s Gift, and masks that “magically” adhered to the face without strings for Qayaq: The Magical Man.

ASK THE ACTORS: Whenever possible, talk to actors about character. This is what actors do. It’s what they know about. All that stuff I talked about in Chapter 2 about Twenty Questions, Walk this Way, and so forth, is stuff actors do to get into character. In addition to designing the show as a whole, you also need to design each individual character’s costume. Getting to know what the actors know about their characters is usually helpful in deciding what to do. Actors frequently come into the costume shop during the build of a show to ask questions about the designs, and to offer suggestions. Treating this as normal, even helpful behavior, instead of an annoyance, not only is politic, but practical.

VISIONS FROM DRUMMING: Each year at UAF for example, we do an Alaska Native show. The actors, many of whom are Eskimos and Indians from rural towns, come into speak to me about their roles. These roles are often built out of Alaskan legends, rural experiences, and visions from group drumming induced trances, that these students are far more familiar with than I am myself. It would be sheer idiocy of me to pretend I know more than they do about what elders in the bush wear now, or to turn down a request to wear Grandpa’s polar bear skin boots to portray a great Shaman/hunter character. Creating an atmosphere of openness gets actors to come bring you their good ideas, so you don’t have to think of everything. It also doesn’t hurt to join rehearsals and group work occasionally if you have the inclination, or to try out drumming and trances along with them. Whatever works.

 Ruth Grant And Evelyn Alexander in Naam.

BE OPEN TO SUGGESTIONS: The key is communication. The other folks working on a production are not the enemy. The other students in design class are not your competition. Sit, and talk, and think, and look, and listen. Ask for everybody’s suggestions. There are no awards in design for thinking it all up yourself. Steal ideas liberally from anyone who gives you good ones. Get to know people who give you good ones. Ideally you will create a group in your theatre of people who get together and swap ideas. This is why folks have design and production meetings, it’s what they are for.

Gustav Klimt [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

BORROWING CONCEPTS FROM OTHER MEDIA: One of the best ways to find good design ideas is to look at other media like film, painting, sculpture, etc. For example, nobody criticized film designer Eiko Ishioka for lifting her design for Dracula’s gold robe in Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the painting style of Gustav Klimt. On the contrary, she received an Academy Award for Costume Design for doing so, because to adapt that style to that use was an impressively appropriate new idea. Idea stealing, in this case, is unquestionably original thought. So, too was taking the musical City of Angels, about a screen writer and his on film alter ego, and costuming it like one of the 1940’s black and white movies that is the focus of the play. And, one need hardly explain that “borrowing” costumes from Seurat’s Sunday at la Grande Jatte, for Sunday in the Park With George, did nothing to reduce it’s originality.

PAINTINGS AND DECORATIVE ARTS: Artwork is a far richer resource than even an Art History class will indicate. Only those artists blessed by the art historians make it into those classes. There is also all the art made by the peoples of the Third World: masks, textiles, jewelry, carvings, painting. There is the art of “peasants” in the Old World, made of straw, and fiber and wood. Art by women, like quilts, tapestries, fiber arts, rugs, samplers. Art that art history passed by because it went out of fashion like 19th Century Historicism, Realism, Pre-Raphaelitism, or 20th Century Symbolism, Mysticism, and the “Ash-Can School”. There is art that “really isn’t art” or is “minor art” because it performs a decorative or useful function, like furniture, automobiles, china, jewelry, or toys. Or art that isn’t art because it is the product of modern technology,like photography, computer art, or items of mass production. There is art that is”bad art” because it was propaganda, or advertising, sponsored by Hitler or Stalin or the Philip Morris Co. There is art that is forgotten because it was popular, naive and sentimental like Victorian engravings, or 1930’s magazine illustrations. There is artwork everywhere you look, on food packages, in post offices, and all of it is fair game for adaptation.

USING LESSER KNOWN ART: For instance, it seems absurd to me to consider doing Of Mice and Men, withoutc onsidering the photography of Dorothea Lange who documented life in migrant farmer camps in the 1930’s. It also seems a big missed opportunity for idea stealing that Tchaikovsky’s contemporary, Symbolist painter Mikhail Vrubel did a painting called The Swan Queen that no one seems to have adapted for use in Swan Lake. And I don’t think anyone would complain about the designs for the film Edward Scissorhands, though the style is taken from decorative Kitsch of the 1960’s and 70’s, as well as sci-fi fantasy drawings. David Hockney scored a hit with designs for The Rake’s Progress, adapted from Hogarth engravings. I, myself once did designs for Marat/Sade, partly inspired by therapeutic drawings done by the insane.

LETTING YOUR AVAILABLE MATERIALS SUGGEST DESIGNS: Another good source for ideas is the material at hand. Every native culture in every land on the planet has managed to make art, and costumes out of the materials at hand. In Alaska, costumes were made out of fish skin, bird skin, and all sorts of fur bearing animals. Decorations were made from flattened porcupine quills, puffin beaks, and shark teeth. Almost anything can be made into costumes, and often the best idea comes when you only have a few things to work with. As an example, on Jesus Christ Superstar we had only enough money to costume all the actors in the show if fabric cost $1 a yard. The only fabric we could get at that price was tobacco cloth, a kind of extra strong cheese cloth in a sheer beige. When washed it forms into a sort of lumpy Fortuny pleating and takes dye well. So that was the idea. We just swathed everybody in pleats, and then spray dyed the pleats with RIT dye to look like drawings in Medieval gospels. The concept was a direct result of the budget requiring we use only this one fabric. Limitations of this kind actually make design decisions simple.
Close ups of Jesus Christ Superstar fabric painting.

NOTE ALL GOOD STEAL-ABLE IDEAS: Your notebooks, idea boxes, scrap books, Xeroxes and costume books which you were encouraged to save in the chapter on Faking Creativity come in handy here. Any idea that is worth stealing is worth writing down, drawing, or Xeroxing for later use.When you come upon a good idea at the library, in an art gallery, out in the world, or in the movies, you need to record it in some way so you can use it when you need it.

MOTHER NATURE DIDN’T MAKE NO UGLY CHILDREN: Now the title at left is a perfect example of the above idea about noting things down. I don’t remember when or where I heard this statement, but I wrote it down as a catchy title to introduce an otherwise obvious idea: You can steal ideas from nature, not only plant and animal forms, but microscopic views of things, outer space, decay, sky, weather, fractals, rock formations, patterns in sand and sea, you name it. Regular contact with nature is also renewing to the spirit and psyche. I myself have been finding incredible inspirations in color, texture and shape lately from a study of mushrooms in the wild. Even fungus is incredibly beautiful when you really look at it closely.

EXPLORE TACKY CRAFTS STORES: Never underestimate the aesthetic possibilities of Kitsch and its building materials. Dimensional fabric paints were commonly used in designing tacky T-shirts long before costumers regularly used them. Ditto for metallic Friendly Plastic. Chenille yarn, often used to make sweaters and appalling stuffed toys, also makes excellent period Victorian chenille fringe. Costumers are a tiny, impoverished bunch, but amateur crafts people come in all incomes and cover the earth. As a consequence, companies rarely waste time making and marketing crafts materials for us, but shoot to the bigger market. So, in big craft emporiums like Ben Franklin Crafts, you can find hundreds of materials that, while they are usually put to dreadful use, can be made to do much more exciting things than usual. Wander through the aisles, look at the supplies closely, and try to imagine how they could be used in the costume shop.

Costumes for Alice in Wonderland decorated with flowers taken from tacky afghans.

HARDWARE STORES: Ditto the above for hardware stores. (Besides which it is incredible fun to stand in the aisles looking with intense keenness at dryer hoses and other hardware, trying them on the head, around the neck etc. as clerks and home handymen look at you like you just slipped your moorings.) Hardware stores too have a constant rotation of new, inspiring supplies. I should mention in a historical footnote, that hot glue was a little used carpentry supply adopted by theatre people in the late 60’s and early 70’s almost twenty years before they hit the craft stores. If costumers never went to hardware stores, they could have waited another twenty years for them to come to their attention.

ARTIST’S PAINTING STYLES & INTERIOR DESIGN BOOKS FOR COLOR PALATE: Color palate is one of the things I do least well on my own. My color sense tends towards the conventional and even cliché. This fortunately is not a problem. I simply steal them. One can take them from color swatches in interior design books, or do as I often do, take them from a painter with the appropriate mood. Of Mice and Men‘s colors I stole from dull 1930’s Sears Catalogs, Woyzeck‘s came from Paintings of Pietor Breugel the Elder, Frank’n’Stein‘s I stole from black and white movies, Qayaq, The Magical Man‘s came from Yupik masks, Cabaret‘s came from painter Otto Dix, and The Inspector General, AK‘s came from the Monopoly game. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. If you feel yourself falling into a color rut, jack yourself out with an infusion of an outside color scheme.
THE BEAUTY OF THE GARBAGE HEAP: My favorite place for stealing both ideas and materials, is of course, the waste basket. But why stop there? There is Salvation Army for the show with a budget, and the city garbage dump for the show without. The dump, in fact is an inspiring experience, not to be missed: shopping for free! And such materials! Curly metal shavings in all colors and sizes, dead packaging of all kinds, beautifully distressed textiles, strange broken objects of industrial and mechanical use, strips and sheets of metal and plastic punched out in different designs, dead doll and toy parts, crates of all sorts, plastics, papers, you name it. All free, and all looking for an idea to make them useful again.
WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR: More importantly, the garbage objects themselves are ideas, about color, texture, and material, and it is really just a case of identifying the idea you need. In all the above cases, artwork, crafts supplies, garbage, or whatever, you are simply sifting through preexisting ideas. Your job is then to find the appropriate one, or ones, for your show. The new idea, the one that you will have to produce, is how to adapt the old idea to the needs of your production. This is where idea stealing metamorphoses into original thought.