Note: This is a cross-posting from PerformInk’s 3-part INSIDE series, where they’re taking readers behind the scenes of Lifeline’s production of Her Majesty’s Will through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.
As a ‘repeat offender’ designer at Lifeline, my biggest costuming challenge is usually the same: Lifeline plays have tons of characters…obscene amounts of characters. A cast of ten actors might be playing one hundred different characters. So, so many characters. When we produce an ambitious play with a small cast, distinguishing between multiple characters becomes a team challenge for the costume designer and the actor. When the additional obstacles of budget, space, blocking, and time are factored in, sometimes the only indication between one character and the next comes down to a single garment or costume prop. Sometimes the character shift can be as simple as a cape or as silly as a peg leg. Often the humble eye patch is the most elegant solution to this peculiar problem. But you can only get away with one eye patch in a show unless pirates are involved. Yarrr. So what to do?
Costume designer Rosemary Ingham likens designers to “crime scene detectives” searching for clues about characters which become the basis for the costume designs. Factoring in demands from countless sources, a costume designer fashions the external ‘body’ of a character; something that requires an impressive understanding of costume history, literature, art history, theatre, clothing construction, anthropology, human psychology, and the finer points of glue gun operation. I read the script, identify the problems to solve, and then come up with a plan that satisfies both the artistic goals and the logistical challenges for the production.
My strategy for costuming Her Majesty’s Will employs several tactics I have found successful in previous shows. The majority of the cast begins in a neutral ‘base’ costume: a poofy shirt, black breeches, and tall boots. This is the Elizabethan equivalent of ‘jeans and a t-shirt’. Upon this base costume, the actor can add pieces to indicate each specific character that he plays. This allows me to both focus my construction time and limited budget on creating a few specialized costume pieces for characters which require a more complete look and then allowing a ‘gesture’ of a costume to clue the audience in when the actor is playing another character.
In progress costume by designer Aly Renee Amidei
Since the actors who play Will and Kit aren’t playing other characters, their costumes can be detailed and complete. The only actress in the show also has more complete shifts between her roles because the nature of those characters required more juxtaposition for clarity. The base costumes on the ensemble will also provide contrast to Will and Kit. You can see this same technique work wonderfully in Paul Tazewell’s designs for Hamilton (maybe you’ve heard of that one?). The all-purpose uniforms of the chorus in Hamilton enables them to function as a cohesive visual unit and then nimbly transform into new characters, British soldiers, or patriots with the addition of a coat or accent piece.
There are certainly instances when an actor playing multiple roles needs substantial and/or complete costume changes. There is no scientific way to measure what is ‘enough’ when it comes to differing between these characters for the actor and the audience. One gets into Goldilocks territory: you won’t know what is “just right” until you see it on stage in action. This is because so many variables external to the costume and the actor actually dictate costume changes: blocking (do the actors ever leave the stage), transitions between scenes, props, scene changes, fight choreography, backstage space, distance to the dressing room, mic packs, etc. All these factors impact flow and successful storytelling. This means that I have to do a lot of ‘punting’ during the first day of tech and figure out the costume for each character through trial and error in consultation with the actor.
Oh right… the actor is crucial. The actor has to wear all this goofy stuff and make it seem effortless. There is NOTHING effortless about the Elizabethan era unless you find being dressed like an upholstered chair comfy. This is a tricky period to wear. I also think it is tricky to relate to as an audience member and looks plain silly to the modern eye. So I address that by editing and simplifying the period to work for our show’s aesthetic, for the action of the piece, and to aid the actors. So if you are a costume historian…sorry. Go to a museum instead.
This show will be all wrong without a codpiece in sight. Codpieces are just plain weird (Unless you are the lead singer of Cameo). If you want to see a sexy fun romp, come see our work. My hope is that you will discover and love what we all love about these characters: Kit and Will were real dudes. They lived and laughed and loved and… yes, wore silly pooftacular shirts too.