costume shop behind the scenes

This weekend I had the super cool opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the costume shop at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater! Although most of what I talk about on the blog is fashion for every day life, I have a long history as a theater geek and costuming has always fascinated me – I know some of you feel the same way, so follow me after the jump for a peek into the workings of a professional costume department as they prepare for two upcoming productions.

Here is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: even though we associate a sense of wonder/discovery with being a child, I feel like one of the things that has delighted me most as I’ve gotten older is the constant realization that there are So Many Jobs that I never had any idea existed. Like, there are all these things that my mind just skipped over and was like “well that happens somehow, I guess” but those things are someone’s entire livelihood! How amazing is that? I was super having that feeling visiting the Rep’s costume shop. I knew, of course, that making theatrical costumes was a profession, but there’s so many fascinating details that go into it. We’re lucky to have a super talented costume shop staff at the Rep – a lot of regional theaters don’t have a department like this, and the costumes that the Rep produces get rented out to other theaters all over the country!

Scrap fabric storage

Things were especially interesting in the costume shop this weekend because the team is currently working on costumes for Animal Farm and figuring out how to depict each animal in an authentic, interesting way that supports the actors. One of the things we talked about was that idea of the costume serving as a tool that helps the actor do their job instead of getting in their way, getting into the right mindset as well as presenting a cohesive world for the audience, which I loved. Great costuming can really make a huge difference in how fully you get pulled into the reality of the piece as an audience member.

It was fascinating to watch the team work! There are a lot of elements that are more like puppetry than traditional costumes in this show, and everything is being built with a “found object” aesthetic, using a lot of wire and textured fabrics. I loved hearing about the different backgrounds of the shop employees…you really do need to have a diverse range of skills to work as a costumer. There are positions that specialize in draping patterns, tailoring, in the actual production of garments, in the crafting and engineering of crazy crowns that involve lights AND fans inside them…

(Fun Fact: one of the costume staff had a random piece of fabric sewn into his armpit…turns out that the fabric changes color while being wet cleaned, so they needed to figure out if an actor’s sweat on stage would be enough to mess up the color. Science!)

One of the coolest parts for me was getting to talk to the Rep’s wig master, Lara Leigh Dalbey. She was demonstrating hand-tying this wig for us and it was like magic. Here, she’s tying in a new hairline on a commercial wig, and by the time she gets to the bottom of the lace she’ll be doing just one or two strands of hair at a time! We also got to see an entirely hand-tied wig she made. I had no idea how many actors were wearing wigs during shows at the Rep – they’re that good! As a devoted drag queen fan, I’ve seen some amazing wigs in my day, and Lara gave us so many awesome wig facts that only made me more impressed by my favorite queens…and now I understand why a Serious Business quality wig is so expensive.

Something that Lara talked about that really struck me was how so many of the arts that are part of a costume shop have changed very little over the centuries, and how it important it is to keep those arts alive. I’m sure that a lot of my fellow vintage-loving folk understand that feeling; there’s something beautiful and powerful about honoring the techniques and creations of the past, giving them a new purpose as part of our everyday lives. I definitely appreciate the comforts of the modern age, of course, but I think that our goal with new technology should really be to streamline our lives to the point that there’s more time for focusing on these delicate, artful things that a machine will never be able to do. I’ve always been a big supporter of the theatrical arts, but I didn’t fully realize until now how much art really goes into each piece of theater. I know I’ll definitely never watch a show the same way again.

I know this is a little off the beaten path for me, but I hope you enjoyed coming with me to the costume shop! If you are in the Milwaukee area, Animal Farm opens January 9, and I really can’t wait to see all these costumes in action.


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