Sunday, June 22, 2008

It Couldn't Please Me More

I've discovered today that Director has trouble summarizing and doesn't believe in using complete sentences.  That would take way too much time.  He speaks of minutia not concept.  For example: 

Below.  Sketches.  No color.  Women.  Men.  Sex.  Nudity.  Cross-dressing.  Unfinished.  First stab.  Not quite right.  1920s.

I worked for a few days on these sketches, but at times it seems as though Director would rather someone with a dictaphone and no creative aspirations.

The drawings took some scrutiny, but I did manage to salvage some of my creative ideas.  

Although this gig is constantly degrading, I am excited about designing Cabaret.  Casting was dictated to me today as a recorded.  And once the stock is cleaned and sorted, it is actually quite extensive.  I found some perfect straight-silhouette fur coats, wide-leg mens pants, derbies, and bobbed wigs.  I gave my assistants a patterning lesson the other day, so hopefully they can apply it to some of the designs.  Aside from a few key custom-builds, I'm anticipating extensive trim application and alterations.


After 4 full days in town company manager finally lets me see "storage," which is actually decades of costumes in plastic bins covered by a tent structure and tarp.  A storm had damaged storage months ago and nothing was moved.  

Our poor mannequins have definitely seen better days.  I hope they go to mannequin heaven.
Mold has gotten the better of some bins.  

As Quirky Assistant #3 cleaned out a box of storage today she screamed suddenly at the sight of a mouse in with batting and hair supplies.  It turned out to be a whole family of mice.  In the heat of the moment, I forgot to take a picture.  They sure were cute though.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Open Shop

On May 20th 2008, I approach the director and artistic director about my design ideas for Cats.  They are true to the era of T.S. Elliots Practical Cats, but I was hoping create a cleaner, more contemporary look, without so much cattiness.  In the original, every Cat has every line of a Tabby, Spotted, or Calico, and, frankly, everyone who has not seen this Cats in theater has seen them on a poster or in the newspaper.    (Not that Designer, John Napier, wasn't brilliant, and he most certainly deserved his tony).  I do think rentals are effective and often times relieve a designer from summer stock's rushed schedule.  And from a global-ecological perspective, the less costumes built, the less resources wasted.  I'm certainly not interested in wasting resources but I'm also not interested in re-inventing the wheel.  

On May 25th this is what the Cats director sends me:

I look forward to working with you.  I really want to make sure that if we rent some of the costumes and build the rest that they look like a complete production.  I do not want to have a gap in the quality or design of the production.  It seems that anytime we try to rent some and build the rest it never quite gets to where we want it.  I do not want leotards and tights when body suits are what is needed and what the rest of the production is wearing.  I understand the reason that you may want to design certain elements but I really think we need to bring in as much of the finished costumes as budget will allow.  I have already cut down the cast size and do not want to have to worry about the costumes which can also put a strain on the cast as well as the production team as was the case last year.  The reason for renting is that I want to focus on building Cabaret and not to have to worry about Cats and the specifics of getting the production up and realized.  We do not have the resources to get the quality that we may want.  In 15 years the location and getting materials and resources has always been a hurdle that we only have been able to overcome by bringing in as much of a certain production already finished as possible.  

Just a warning,


Hello?  Doesn't he know that I work for a professional ballet company?  Does he know that it is basically my job to blend new costumes into an existing production by painting, dyeing, shopping, fitting, patterning, and directing a staff to help?  It's one thing to criticize or change a designer's original vision during planning phases but it is quite another to assume that their design standard and quality control sucks before you meet them or see their work.  Upon receiving this, I think, "I can not go, I still have options, jobs I can take in Chicago or elsewhere, I have my own projects I've been dreaming up for years.  Oh, I see, they just post a job listing as costume designer when reallyits a wardrobe schlepper they are looking for.  Another sherpa with a fancy title.  Great, I take a giant pay cut and trek my ass across the U.S. to learn nothing."  

At least last year when I spent a good chunk of my savings on a humanitarian volunteer trip to Tajikistan in the third world, I learned about real stories, real struggle, and met truly sincere and intelligent people.  I learned about China's current influence on the rest of Asia and the contemporary issues concerning the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the effects of the failure of the dream of communism.

Before I write a scathing return-email, I sleep on it.  The next day I reply:

Mr. Director,

Sure.  This sounds good.  Since there is much uncertainty about our resources lets just rent the whole of cats.  If there is still time and if the programs aren't printed, please change my credit from designer to coordinator.  

Thank You,


I was way too nice.  I bent over and took it.  

Over the next few days, I talk to some friends and mentors about it, and decide that "Yes, maybe a month is too short to build/collage a Cats.  At least now, I can focus on Cabaret."

Over the next few weeks I question myself relentlessly.  Did I not approach the director early enough with my ideas?  Why am I going to the middle of nowhere to do this with people I don't even know?  Has he seen my work and doesn't like it?  Cats is the reason I took this job.  I am one of those designers who lives to do animal/fantasy, ultra creative work.  One of the reasons I pursued costume instead of fashion.  

                                                    I do some free work for a performance artist in Chicago
who gets me an introduction with a puppeteer whom I really admire in Chicago and I reluctantly admit that I'll be gone all summer and very busy in the fall.  

After signing rental contracts, ordering makeup, and preparing a neat "costume-bible" of rental information for Cats, Director shows up to summer stock and calls a production meeting.  We spend 90 minutes on the set and lighting.  The set design is an intricate model recently made by an older male designer who is planning on having his crew build a safe and performable junkyard in 10 days.  He talks through smoke and lightning effects with the lighting designer.  I get quiet.  "Is everything ok with the costume rental?" he asks me.  "Yup," I answer, along with some more specifics.  Now I'm pissed.  I approached him over a month ago with my ideas and they are shunned but these designers are now just getting started and they get to collaborate, create and learn?  


I recall some advice from a designer I met at when I was a milliner at the Santa Fe Opera.  At the end of the season, this magical costume shop in the middle of the mountains lets its craftspeople give workshops and skill-shares.  This designer was giving a rendering workshop and he said, "I will not raise a generation of designers who bow down to directors."  Meaning that we should take ownership of our Design title, embrace it and blaze through our endeavors as artists.  I need to practice that.

Earlier this week and today:  Our shop isn't ready the first day.  This day we wash all the costumes I shopped on half-price day at Unique in Chicago. It hails nickel-sized hail.  Cool!  This is really a wonder of nature.  We have no tables, no chairs, no stock, just me and three wonderfully quirky, willing and able assistants rearing to go.  When our stock is finally revealed to us to load into the trailer, half of our stock was stored in a tent which collapsed over the winter.  The costumes grew sick with mold and became disposable.  I couldn't throw out a moldy Pierre Cardin vintage tail coat.  Why did they not store this indoors?  Don't they know that Pierre Cardin trained Jean Paul Gaultier who discovered Martin Margiela who discovered Anke Loh, who informs cutting edge design today in venues such as Centre Pompidou and the Art Institute of Chicago?  Could they not at least keep that inside, or donate it to somebody who could?  Four mannequins were covered in mold, crushed down to the side as though they were slaughtering a yoga posture.  "So how much'll it cost to get you sumora these guys?" Production Manager asks.  "Between 300 and 1000 each."  I reply.  "Can you borrow some from your school or your contacts or something?"  I called summer stock several times before I left Chicago asking what I could bring and nobody could tell me.  

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Road East

Determined to overcome all limitations, I pack
 the bulk of my studio into my Honda, remembering warnings like "There will be very few resources up North, it's best to have as much as possible before you arrive."  

The trek from Chicago is mostly wonderful. I take my boyfriend down memory lane at my alma mater and stop to smell the roses in a beautiful little nook of Boston while I still have a chance.  

Saying "See you soon," for two months to the love of my life is hard, but I put him on a train home.

I visit as many family members from my GIANT Irish-Catholic family as possible, including my healthy and witty Nana of 83 years!  "It's so liberal up here, you can go nude if you want," she tells me.
A mix of nostalgia and adventure develop along the drive North.  Rumaging through my Grandmothers basement, I find some old handwork and textile samples she's happy to pass along.  For the last part of my drive, I am accompanied by Laconia bikers, encountering signs reading "Bikers eat free in 4 miles" and "Gear down for barbeque."  I wish I were I biker.  I also encounter some stunning green architecture and extraordinary wildlife.   

1600 miles later at an average of $4.30 per gallon, I'm here.  I notice dancing statues in front of the theater and wait on Rt. 16 for another company member to greet me and show me my housing.  "We're not sure where we are putting you yet," the company manager informs, "Pretty much, we have a stock of about fifty costumes in large, plastic bins."  Just hang tight until we're ready to get your shop up.  The housing is a ski condo stocked with 400oz of maple syrup, many sizes of ski boots, and gators and fleeces folded neatly in my room as though a family of skiers would show up on a moments notice.  

I make my bed my home office.  I haggle with Rental Houses for a few hours and shop on the Internet for makeup and wigs.  Glamor.  

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

T minus 12 days and counting

It's a week and a half before I report to my summer costuming post.  Yes, dare I say, I'm off to be part of those two dirty words summer stock!  Every costume designer abhors it, yet they all do it.  

"New Hampshire?" my friend in Chicago says, "Is that in Vermont?"  

"Oh you're doing summer stock, like Judy Garland?" my dancer friend asks, who obviously has never had to do summer stock.

"Yes, I'm just like Judy Garland." I reply.


"Well you seem well-qualified for this position except for what seems like limited experience with stock." the artistic director warns before she hires me.

Three months before I am to start, I sign a contract and receive one script.

A month and a half before I start I find out programming.  Cats, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, and Baby.

One month before I start I find out who is directing.

So what if I have a limited experience in stock.  I've designed a dozen shows in the past year.  I've plenty of time, I arrive on June 16th, the first opening is on July 5, thats two weeks for each GIANT musical.  Slow panic sets in...