Welcome back to Backstage Blog; a blog series that goes behind the curtain and spotlights the key roles and responsibilities that make up a theatre production. Last time, we explored the role of the Director and how their artistic interpretation of a script is the key starting point for a production. This time, we’ll be looking at another key starting point: the Costume Designer.
Relationship with the Director
On the surface, the role of a Costume Designer is to successfully design and create costumes for each character. However, a lot more thought goes into this process than you might think.
A major factor for any production is the collaboration between the director and the Costume Designer. Together, they decide what each actor will be wearing onstage, ensuring that it fits the director’s vision, the character they’re playing and helps to create the world of the play. This often requires careful research into the time period in which the story is set and the use of the prevalent fashion styles of that time. The costume may also take into account details like the locations within the plot, and their weather to create the most realistic world possible. Designers also have to consider the practicalities and potential constraints of the venues they are working in and the budget they have been given.
A historically inaccurate or poorly designed set of costumes could ruin the whole illusion of a production, although of course designers often eschew historical accuracy to create a particular desired effect. A Costume Designer might prefer something more conceptual, which will channel the themes of the play, or make it more accessible to a contemporary audience (for example, Shakespeare in modern dress).
Once the needs and wants of the director and the performers are met, the nitty-gritty can begin. Designs can be hand-drawn, painted, or created digitally.
Upon approval, the designer will then start either making, or outsourcing, costumes, collecting what they need from different places. Designers often use colours to provide audiences with a visual guide to the characters’ relationships to one another. For example, having opposing characters wear contrasting colours or having a group, such as a family or gang, wear consistent colours.
Occasionally, due to budget constraints, the role of Costume Designer will be encompassed by the overall role of ‘Designer,’ meaning that one person takes charge of both set and costume, and in smaller scale productions, sometimes even sound and lighting too! However, larger organisations, like the RSC, have their own costume workshops, containing a wide selection of pieces from past productions ready for re-use and rental hire.
Relationship with the Performers
Once the aesthetics of the costumes have been mapped out with the director, a designer must consider how they will physically affect the actors’ performances. The designer needs to ensure that the actors are comfortable in their costumes and are not hindered by them. To do this, they must consider the weight of the costume, how warm it may be and how it may restrict movement.
The costumes are usually completed once the production is fully cast. Multiple fittings will then take place, allowing the designer to tweak the costume’s design based on the feedback given to them by the performers, and to take into account issues like allergies.
An example of a Costume Designer working in the industry today is Joanna Scotcher. In 2020, Scotcher won the Olivier Award for Best Costume Design for her work on Emilia. Scotcher trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company and has worked with Old Vic, Channel 4, the European Olympic Committee, Chichester Theatre Festival and the Royal Academy for Arts. In 2011, she received WhatsOnStage’s ‘Best Set Designer’ Award for The Railway Children, which also went on to win the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment.
Play to the Audience:
Costume plays a huge part in audience’s first impression of a character. It can be used to show power, class status and personality (especially if that character has little to no dialogue). Costume has the ability to invoke or evoke an instant reaction in theatre goers. Without the Costume Designer, it is harder for the director’s vision to be brought to life aesthetically and for the performers to settle effectively into their characters, and connect to their audiences. The Costume Designer plays as big a role as any in creating the many magical and unforgettable worlds within theatre.