Date: December 4, 2013
Days Spent on Project: 291
Location: Apartment, Washington Heights, NYC
Person I would have sent it to: James S.
That first season at Actors Theatre of Louisville, after the epic production of Floyd Collins that we undertook, I had a few “slower months” where I only worked on the annual holiday productions- Dracula and A Christmas Carol. That meant I spent my time assisting people on coordinating previous designs (bringing old costumes out of storage, fitting them on new actors, freshening things up as needed); it was a fair amount of work (Dracula being heavy into the blood and special effects and Christmas Carol being somewhat mammoth). But I didn’t get the chance to assist another visiting designer until January 2002, when the Siti Company came in for their production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever.
The costume designer they worked with primarily (and still do, I believe?) was James.
Assisting him was a great counter-balance to the experience I had just had with Tracy on Floyd Collins. He couldn’t have been more different.
First of all, if I loved the evocative and meticulous period feel of Tracy’s sketches (and how they were prepared to be displayed), I was shocked to see how “fast and loose” James’ sketches were. I got the impression they were done on copy paper. They were small. They were “sketchy” with a lot of the “thinking” lines of a quick draw still visible. But, even with that quality, the sketches gave you a very specific clue into the character. The sketches had character radiating from them.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had just seen the difference between an NYU MFA grad (Tracy) and a Yale School of Drama grad (James).
It was great to work with James. First of all, he was a guy and it was good to see another male costume designer (difficult to believe there was a time in my life when the only costumers I knew were women). Secondly, he was confident in his choices. I also learned the importance of details when shopping with him, especially on a modern dress show (Yes, this production of Hay Fever was modern… and it was fantastic; I still think it’s one of the most fun productions I’ve seen).
A year later, when applying to Yale, I mentioned in my statement of purpose the process of shopping for James. Learning that the details really do make a character, even if no one in the audience (or even the actor) knows about them. For instance: choosing to buy a pair of tuxedo trousers from a rental store for one character versus going to a more upscale store for another. Of course, that one is made of a poly-wool blend and has one of those tell-tale “waist extenders” at the waist tells us LOADS of information about who that person on stage is… Especially if he’s standing next to someone wearing a wool tuxedo trouser that has been purchased from Brooks Brothers. I distinctly remember seeing the difference in the fitting, on the actor, in the performance. I’m not sure if James was consciously making the choice to do that (who am I kidding, of course he did), but it’s still a visible memory that I have and think about often when I shop for clothes for productions I now design.
A year or two ago, I did see James in the garment district- at Rosen and Chadick, shopping for wool. I didn’t get the chance to say hi, which I’m really kicking myself for not doing.
Music I listened to while sewing: I’ve got my Spotify “Chill Out” playlist on this morning. I’m looking for new music.
Thoughts/Feelings behind the block: It’s appropriate to thank James today, and think about those sketches from his production of Hay Fever. Yesterday, I had about an hour to re-draw my sketches for a production that I’m working on (Miss Julie).
It was decided that the show no longer wanted to be period, but something “Victorian Inspired,” maybe even Steampunk.
I consider Steampunk a Dirty Design word; I’m learning that some (some, not all) people use it to describe visions of women with corsets and bodices, short skirts, tights and boots standing next to men in vests and suits. Imagine lots of metallic hardware. The color palette is usually “earthy” (i.e. browns). People have made it a shorthand design idea based on images they’ve seen in Halloween stores or online. People rarely think about how the Steampunk aesthetic evolved and what it’s referencing. Most people don’t want to take into account the genesis of it. In my snarky opinion, they really just don’t want to commit fully to period, but they think modern clothes are boring. Somehow, Steampunk is “edgy” and “provocative.”
If you do it well, yes. If you find the right production where the Steampunk World makes sense, great. But I don’t believe it works for EVERY SHOW. If you make that choice, you have to be smart and consistent about all the details! It isn’t just about goggles and metal buttons and browns.
Okay, off my designer soap box.
Anyway, after hearing that I needed to re-draw the show to reflect this new idea, I gave myself an hour to research and sketch it. I’m not sure what’s going on with this new thought, but I should at the very least just send out ideas and see if they want to commit.
And so I did. I researched and sketched a show in an hour. I drew them on 8.5 x 11 paper, no measurements or croquis to help. I just did it. Investing time and energy and angst into the drawing process wasn’t worth it, at this stage in the design process. Just get it done. And I do think the sketches look good; the ball is now in their court again.
I learned something from James all those years ago.