I was in high school and studying fine art. I thought I hated theatre based on some unfortunate elementary school field trips, so I had to be dragged into drama club by a friend who wanted me to help paint sets. I fell in love with the whole process very quickly and soon I was the resident scenic designer, occasional props artisan, and a frequent make-up artist. At that point, I only helped with costumes peripherally. Costuming found me in college. Oddly, it never occurred to me that I should change paths from fine art until an old drama coach suggested it to me. At that moment I began researching conservatory style college programs without a doubt in my mind, and ended up at Carnegie Mellon University. Now I find it hard to imagine life without theatre.
Why New York? How did you make your way to the city?
Even as a kid I felt connected to New York City, and I knew I would live here someday. My parents would bring us to New York on day trips and I loved the energy here. I planned to move here as soon as I graduated from CMU. As it turned out, I ended up spending a year on a little theatre adventure in Alaska, then made my way back to N.Y.C. I've lived here now since 2006 and I love it. There's probably no place I love more than Brooklyn.
How do you negotiate artistic need and limited resources? Is there an artistic difference between how you approach an indie show versus a show with plenty of time, money etc?
For me, the artistic need is the same for every show. I don't want people to be able to tell the difference between a $500 budget and a $5000 budget. I design the show, then try to figure out how best to accomplish my design, no matter the time or money. I begin every project with the same 2 things: visual research and an explicitly detailed costume budget/piece list. The most important thing to do when you start a show is to bring the rest of the production team into your headspace. For directors and producers, this means great visuals and specific numbers. Once you give people those things, you can begin to adjust as needed. Of course, if you pay me enough, you'll get beautiful sketches to boot.
What's exciting for you about doing an indie show? What makes you cringe?
So many exciting things! Seeing a new show come to life for the first time, the challenge of making costumes look awesome with next to nothing, and the zany, off-beat productions that you would never see on a Broadway stage. I spend much of my time working on big Broadway shows and very little that I've seen up there compares to the fun and originality of indie theater. WILD is my 5th production of a Crystal Skillman show and they have all been amazingly different. I wish you could see that kind of variety on Broadway. It makes me cringe to go to a big expensive show and see the resources poured into something with no soul. I go back to whatever little indie show I'm working on, and I'm reminded what I love about theatre.
What could the indie community do to make things easier for you as a designer? What would you like to ask of producers/artistic directors/general managers/production managers?
Most importantly when choosing a script, take 10 minutes to do some basic math. Figure out how many characters there are, then how many costume changes they each have, and add that up to begin to get a basic idea of costume budget. It happens more often than not that people budget for an ideal range, rather than considering what's laid out in the script. It's good to know what you're getting into. Also, hire designers as soon as you can. The more time you give me, the more beauty I give back.
Tell me about something you achieved recently that makes you feel really good:
The costume design for WILD! The show didn't have much money, but it looks pretty great, and the feedback I've received from the whole team has made me feel very appreciated. That's always the best reward. Come see WILD, everyone!
What's coming up for you that you’re excited about?
In the last couple of years, I've been doing a lot of personal styling. I have a bunch of clients lined up for the spring and I'm looking forward to those. It has been a lot of fun discovering this alternative outlet for my skills as a costumer. Dressing real people is a lot of fun! I also do closet edits which always makes people ask: "You mean, like that show, What not to Wear?" It is like that, but I won't tell anyone to throw away their favorite ratty sweatshirt. I believe in keeping a couple of things with history. Just don't try to pair that sweatshirt with anything other than pajama bottoms and slippers. I'm there to help, and clients are always so appreciative when you send them away with a beautiful new wardrobe. It just feels great! I'm also looking forward to another Crystal Skillman show coming up this summer!