The Art of Transformation - A Little Exaggeration, A Touch of the Dramatic, and the Show Goes On
It’s the art of transformation. Taking a person from regular everyday and transforming them, say into a scantily clad dancer, a wicked witch or even a wolf, that arch nemesis of Little Red Riding Hood.
When those characters, no matter the genre, whether Broadway, literary or the big screen, take the stage, months of preparation have gone into achieving those transformations to stay true to the production.
It’s a lot of sewing, yards upon yards of fabric, miles of thread, numerous fittings, make-up trials and lessons all mixed with a little dramatic to create those characters that grace the stage when the curtain rises.
“It’s not as easy as people think it is,” points out Melissa Mitchell, costume designer for Into the Woods, Keyano Theatre’s most recent production.
“The basics of sewing is simple, but to create the clothing and the art that we put on stage takes a lot of time and energy and love. It’s not that we just bought it or whipped it up in an hour. There’s a lot of care that goes into our stuff.”
The costume design room where Mitchell can often be found working overflows with fabrics, wigs, costumes in various stages of construction, shoes and spools of thread amidst irons, the serger and sewing machines.
The creation of a character’s costume typically begins about four or five months before the show opens. For Into the Woods, the wardrobe process began in October 2015 for the February 2016 performance. The sooner the better, states Mitchell, and sometimes, the tape measure comes out immediately after parts are cast.
“Then you can have more time to shop.”
Once the measurements are taken, those all-important inches are sent off to the production designer such as Mitchell.
“Then we can start shopping and buying fabric. Those are essential to anything because of all the patterns needed.”
Some costumes are created from scratch while others come from the theatre’s wardrobe stockroom, a space down the hall from the design room. It overflows with racks and racks of coats, jackets, shirts, pants, skirts, hats and so on of all styles, even some angel wings floating around.
“It’s about 50-50.
“You try to build some just to improve your stock,” explains Mitchell. “If you have a specific style, you usually can’t find it so you have to build it. For more modern shows they usually just buy or pull from stock.
With Into the Woods styled after the 18th century, some 90 per cent of the needed outfits had to be created from scratch then whatever suitable shirts and skirts were already available were pulled from the wardrobe stockroom.
Mitchell says she usually has three or four costumes on the go at the same time; each in varying stages of completion, some maybe waiting for special buttons to arrive or for a fitting.
The number of costumes needed depends on the production. Mitchell admits a toss up between Into the Woods and Cabaret when reflecting on which production she has created the most costumes for.
With Cabaret, it was a lot of lingerie, she chuckles. But the final count was not yet in for the costumes needs for Into the Woods.
With a cast of more than 100 people, some with multiple costumes, Hometown was the largest production she worked on as head of wardrobe.
“We filled all the dressing rooms and we filled the rehearsal hall with people and costumes.”
Mitchell points to finding needed pieces for a period show as one of the toughest challenges a designer can face when assembling a wardrobe, especially when working with a small budget.
“It’s really hard to find period shoes and period tops and all of that, so sourcing that can be very difficult.”
Another challenge is “when you have a design in your head and then you see the actor and they just don’t work together.”
A successor’s size and stature can also return a designer to the drawing board when an actor is replaced with someone else after measurements have been taken and the costuming process already underway.
Fittings don’t usually begin until about a month before a production opens.
“But usually a couple of weeks before we open for sure, and we come in and they will put on their full costume and we’ll pin and we’ll hem and we’ll tuck and we’ll do all that sort of that stuff.”
A needle and thread aren’t a designer’s only tools. Mitchell, for instance, can also be found behind the makeup brushes and sponges creating looks befitting of many characters, even a witch.
Mitchell will be the make-up artist for an actor for the first couple of shows, teaching along the way, then the job is handed off to someone else, including the actor, to look after for the rest of the show’s performance dates.
She points to Into the Woods as the production requiring the most extreme make-up during her time at Keyano Theatre.
“We’re doing the witch with the big nose and really aged, and the wolf is going to have tipped ears and a nose, and is going to have a whole brow piece that we have to blend in, and make it part of him, but still have that high theatrical feel to it.”
When Mitchell sees the before and after appearance of a character, she admits it leaves her in a bit of awe, especially knowing the transformation is a result of her work.
“It’s like ‘Wow. I did that.’”
The intricacy of makeup dictates how early an actor needs to show up before a production to get into character.
For regular stage make-up, which still needs to be exaggerated to avoid being washed out under the harsh stage lights, an actor needs to be before the mirror about half an hour to 45 minutes before warm-up, which is half an hour before the curtain goes up.
Prosthetics increases that time to an hour before.
When Mitchell settles back to watch a production’s dress rehearsal, she says it’s a wonderful feeling seeing the characters come to life on stage.
“Because at that point you can’t go back. It’s completed and all the hems are right; all the fits are right, and when it all comes together like that it’s beautiful and it’s wonderful. It fills you with a sense of pride and a sense that you accomplished something as a team. You can be proud of your own work and you can be proud of, say, Roger’s set design. It’s an overwhelming feeling of happiness. I created art and people are going to see it and appreciate it. It’s a great feeling.”
She does sigh, however, that yes, there have been times when she has heard that unmistakable sound of fabric ripping coming from the stage.
“There’s been multiple pant rips in my career here that you hear and you see, and you’re like ‘Aaaaww shit,” she laughs.
“You just have to roll with it; basically grab them once they come off stage and ask ‘When do you go back on? Take your pants off,’ and then you’ll fix it whatever way possible. If you have time you can run back to the shop or if you have a needle and thread on you, you can fix right there. Staplers are wonderful things; they can fix it. Gaffers tape can fix it too. You just kind of have to MacGyver it till you have time to fix it properly.”
Quick costume changes can be called for in some productions. Mitchell estimates the fastest she has had to deal with was 30 seconds; taking an actor from breeches, jacket, shirt and shoes into a tuxedo.
Costuming can be created where pieces are held together with Velcro for those quick-change scenes. She admits Velcro can be a designer’s best friend. Elastic too.
“It becomes a dance between you and the actor because you have to have it very routine so you don’t mess the actors up because any little bit can throw them off.”
And while some performers have occasionally teased Mitchell, pretending to sneak a favoured piece from the wardrobe into their bags and out the door, nothing has yet disappeared under her watch.
“I’m pretty strict about that,” she chuckles. If anyone expresses an interest in a particular piece, “you just kind of mentally keep an extra eye on that piece, especially final night.”
Lyndsay Dolanky, Head of Wardrobe, in the wardrobe stockroom.
Val Gondek being transformed by Melissa Mitchell into a witch for Into the Woods. (4 pictures)
Melissa Mitchell putting some stitches into one of the costumes for Into the Woods.