Costume Design For Community Theater Series: Part 1

Working as a costume designer part oneHello dear readers!

If you have ever read my About Me page you may know that I was trained in fashion design and worked as a costumer for film and theater in LA  when I graduated from design school, before I became a stay at home mom. It was a very interesting  job with lots of odd responsibilities, one of which had me taking Sylvester Stallone’s measurements in his Tighty whities…. LOL!

I’m lucky enough to have a very good community theater nearby, which puts on high quality productions. I work there part time as their costume designer. I love this job! However, it’s hard work. The research, collaborating with the director, producer, and actors about what looks would be perfect to bring to life the characters and then having to either hunt and peck for the needed items or in the case of most of the plays I work on, build from scratch. But the end result is always so rewarding, seeing your vision up on the stage and brought to life by the actors.

I thought writing a series on my duties as costume designer might interest some of you. Over the next few weeks I will be writing about my experiences there.

The production I’m currently working on is called The Seagull and was written by the legendary Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The setting is Russia in the 1890’s. It is a very well known play in theater circles and has a cast of 12. The setting is a country estate. Now Chekhov is hardly uplifting. I chuckled as I read this letter he wrote to a friend after he wrote his play in 1895,

” All I wanted to say honestly to people: ” Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are” I shall go on saying to people again and again and again, “Please understand that your life is bad and dreary!”  Thank you for clarifying that Mr. Chekhov…… To read more about the plot and history of The Seagull, you can visit this Wikipedia page.The-Seagull-as-Nina-romola-garai-6905129-304-400Ian Mckellan as Sorin and Romola Garai as Nina in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London Production, 2007

I wish I had the time, assistants, and resources to create costumes like this. But I have a very limited budget to work with, and only myself to do it. However, I will try!

Working as a costume designer for community theater Part One:

  • Agree to a costumers fee with the producer . In community theater there isn’t a lot of negotiating room, and the fee is never really enough for the amount of work that will need to be done.  Costuming for the theater is almost a labor of love, unless you are lucky enough to find union work in one of the larger cities that has a costume department. Where I work the only costumer is me. Occasionally I can hire an assistant, but not often.
  • Discuss the costume budget with the producer who will write a check for it. receipts must be kept for everything purchased or rented.
  • Scan the script and take notes. I do initial research on the period, looking up websites on costume history and researching pattern companies I may use. I start a Pinterest board for the play.
  • Meet with the director and take lots of notes about his vision for the characters. For instance, does he or she want a literal interpretation of the costumes if it’s an historical piece, or does he only want to hint at the period? Or does he or she not want to even set it in the period the play is set in? What colors does the director envision for specific scenes? Colors are important on stage for lighting , mood , etc. How many costume changes will be needed? Are there any specific standout pieces he or she envisions? After I hear the directors vision I run a few of my own ideas by him or her and leave.
  • Before I decide what I will make, I go through the wardrobe rooms and pull anything that is even remotely close to our vision for the play. I also look through the fabrics there. If I can use some of those, we will save money. Then I may go through some of my own costumes and fabrics and if I do use some fabrics from my own large collection, I figure out how I will decide on a fair price to charge for giving those up for the play. Once I make the costumes, they will belong to the theater. Unless I don’t charge for the materials. Then I can keep them.

So this is where I am now in the process.theatreIn the wardrobe room .

Up next will be taking actors measurements, trying things on them we already had, then deciding what pieces will need to be sewed. Today< I go back to the theater and look through the wardrobe again . After meeting with the director, I am getting a clearer vision of what will be needed. Stay tuned!




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  1. Fashionista says

    Thank you for this insight, I look forward to reading your future posts. I harbour fantasies that when I grow up & get a proper job I would like that job to be a costume designer. Janie Bryant and Marion Boyce (Australian who costumes Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries) are my current favourites. Edith Head is the Queen (even though I know she is deeply flawed). I watch movies/TV/theater specifically for the costumes, often I can’t relate the plot but I can tell you who wore what in what scene!

    Have a lovely weekend.

  2. says

    How timely! I’ve been giving serious thought to using my sewing skills to volunteer at a local community theater in my spare time! Wonderful, thank you for sharing!

  3. Patti says

    Exciting to get your perspective as a costume designer. I fell into the job as costume designer for my church after volunteering to make a few repairs to some costumes. The next thing I knew I had completed 3 Magi costumes and possed for pictures with them after the show. A month later I was asked to sew new costumes for the entire Easter show. In the past they had used many cottons that were affordable and home sewable. They gave me free license and asked for a more natural color palette with texture. I love it! Making rustic worn stuff is fun. I am currently designing my 7th production and am on the payroll as Stage Manager and Costume Designer. I know, that sounds crazy, thank God I have assistants who dress the actors during rehearsals and the show. Our productions are broadcast on international TV. Some days I don’t know what I’m doing since I have no formal training in this field. Organization seems to be key, but creative moments are never totally organizable!