I think that lots of people fall into theatre design rather than seeking it out. How did costume design happen to you?
I did theater and was an actor in high school. And then I realized that there was no way I was going to make money and survive so I went to school to be an English teacher. And I hated it. There was this idea in the English department that everyone had to like the same things and that if I didn't like something that everyone else liked that I was wrong, or I had bad taste. I remember sitting in a class and we were discussing a writer and I had an opinion about the writer that went against the norm and everyone told me I was wrong. It was horrible. I couldn't do it. So I switched my major to acting... And I hated that as well. But I was doing hours in the costume shop, and I loved it and I loved discovering the vintage clothes. So I thought that I should try costume design out. I was the only student interested in costume design so for two years I designed every show in the department. I found my niche. I think a lot of people start that way. Everyone tries to be an actor first.
So I went to graduate school immediately after undergrad because I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing. And then I left grad school early to come and work in New York. At that point I did feel like I knew what I was doing. But I did finish grad school through the mail.
What brought you to New York? How did that happen?
So I was at Boston University and in your third year you do an internship with a designer. I'd already been doing theater in Boston so I wanted to try something new. I knew that New York was where I wanted to end up, so I went into my advisors office and found all of the designers that I wanted to work with in her Rolodex, and I just emailed them. I said "Hi, I'd love to work with you. I got your email address from my advisor. I'm going to be in New York in a few days and I'd love to just meet with you."
So I met with some designers and Jess Goldstein had three shows coming up and needed an assistant and he told me that I could do it. So I came to New York and I never left. I kept working with Jess. I also started working with other designers and designing my own stuff. It's interesting, before I went to grad school I never thought that I would end up in New York. I thought that I would be teaching in Omaha Nebraska. I came to New York on a Fung Wah bus, a Chinatown bus, with a suitcase and a pillow and a zebra print blanket from my place in Boston. I got off the bus in Chinatown and had to find my way to the J train to get to the place where I was staying in Bushwick. It's the classic New York story. I got to my apartment and it was in a not so great part of Bushwick, and there was a homeless man in our entryway, passed out in front of the door. These are my first experiences in New York, I had only visited twice before. It's probably not as dramatic as I remember it but it felt very dramatic at the time.
How did you start designing your own stuff?
I had designed a lot of professional stuff in Boston so I had a substantial portfolio. At first I just applied for things. I would look on Playbill and apply for every costume design job. Also I got a lot of jobs through word-of-mouth. Sometimes an associate that I was working with would get offered a job and wasn't available and so they would give the production my name. And that just started building and building. For example I met Daniel Talbott through my friend Chloe who was an associate that I was working with with Jess. She did Slipping at the Rattlestick and wasn't available for Daniel's next show at Theater for the New City so I did that show and have been working with Daniel for four years. I had to fit in all of those things while still assisting. Sometimes I had to sneak away from assisting jobs to do my own fittings and I got yelled at about that a few times. But I felt like it was so important to design my own stuff. I felt like I would never get noticed if I didn't. Assistants never get noticed. Even if you do great work you get no recognition. So I would figure out ways to fit in my own stuff and I would do things like shopping for my own shows while shopping for bigger shows.
What is your strategy for designing a downtown show with a small budget?
Well I don't want to give away all my secrets. It stinks because all the great stores like Daffys and Syms are closed now. You could find amazing eclectic things there for super cheap. It used to be easy to find an entire outfit for $75. But you just make it work. Obviously we use actors own clothing for downtown shows, and go to places like Necessary Clothing downtown where you can get a shirt for like $14. And I never go to places like Forever 21 where you can't make returns. You just get used to making it work. And I always have a good sense of what things will cost so I can talk to producers about realistically how much money we're going to have to spend. It's important to be open and make sure that everybody is on the same page about how much things are going to cost.
I also do a lot of sponsorship shows. That's a great way to approach an indie production that needs to have a more sophisticated level of clothing. A lot of times I get sponsored by stores, or independent fashion designers, that donate the clothing for the show in exchange for advertising. And I have continued relationships with some of those sponsors. That's actually a really big thing commercially now. Levi's did Hair and American Idiot and Varsity Sports donated the cheerleading uniforms to Bring It On. So I brought that idea downtown and for Tribes I found a local doctor who donated $6000 worth of hearing equipment to the production.
There are always ways to get clothes. Clothes are everywhere. Most clothing isn't cheap but you can find thins for cheap. And it's also about being creative. Maybe the pants aren't cut exactly right but you make up for that with the shirt or with other pieces. But I really miss Daffys.
Talk to me about some of the Indie designs that you feel really good about. Von Macramé comes to mind.
Well I was nominated for a Henry Hewes award for The House of Von Macramé as well as a New York Innovative Theater award, a little self promotion there. But that show was amazing and it had a really small budget. It's was at the Bushwick Starr and had about 175 costumes. We had $3000 to do all of it. Which is not a lot and there were a lot of things in the show that were very specific. There were fashion collections inspired by things like body secretions and things like 'Pilgrim Realness' where the actors were dressed in fashionable Pilgrim costumes. So we approached it like any other show. We did research and created sketches. We got a sponsorship. We had a trim shop in Pennsylvania donate all of these wacky and interesting trims and fabrics for the costumes. We did a lot of cheap Brooklyn Knickerbocker kind of stuff. We also worked with a great special effects designer, Waldo Warshaw. He does all of these amazing things with stage blood. He created these special blood packs that we integrated into the clothing. In the play people get shot and stabbed and there's blood everywhere. It was a small show but not a small show. I learned a lot about effects. There were these pressurized canons that we hid inside the dresses that exploded. There was also a scalping so we had to figure out how to do that. With $3000. So it was a lot of Ricky's wigs and we found that a sea sponge cut in half looks like brains. And we had to find stage blood that was compatible with the clothes so we used six different kinds of stage blood. And we also had to deal with continuity in terms of the blood so that was another level of complication.
It's interesting, I teach these kids at Pace University and they have no idea how complicated it can be. Costume design is not just about painting pretty pictures and going shopping.
When you're in the middle of it you're thinking "How is this all going to happen?", but when you're done it's there and people enjoy it. And the show got a lot of press. The New York Times loved the shoes. Little things like that are exciting, you feel like people appreciate your work. It's like "Someone noticed!" and it was out in Brooklyn. On this sketchy street in Bushwick and there is this little electro synth 80's pop musical about a murderer that kills models for their blood happening in this tiny theater.
And, do a lot of contemporary clothing, and it's difficult, but I think I have a lot of tricks to do it well. So those shows that are not contemporary clothing are exciting, so Von Macramé was exciting because it wasn't strict contemporary clothing. And I love details. Things like cigarette burns in clothing. Tribes had cum stains on the clothes and the actor and I talked for 20 minutes about where they should be. I love character development and love having those conversations with actors. I think that should happen more and I think it doesn't happen at all in many places. Downtown is the perfect place for those kinds of artistic conversations.
How do you negotiate things, like when you read a script and know that a particular costume change isn't going to work, how do you approach that with the team?
I always approach it as if it IS going to work. That's my motto. I just design it and then we'll figure out how to make it work. But if a change is problematic then I always ask if we can add time with music or maybe add lines if it's a new work, or some actor business. It's really about making sure that everyone is aware of the specifics of the situation. I think it's about showing people. Theater is all about showing. As designers we are always guiding each other. We allow ourselves to be guided toward a solution and we guide others toward a solution that works for us.
What do you like about working downtown? How does it feel different from working off-Broadway or on Broadway?
I think that once you learn the business you can make great art downtown. Often people are frustrated with the budgetary limitations downtown, but I've worked on a lot of shows that looked amazing and were done with no money. I think that's because I work with people who understand. We know how to beg borrow and steal and we know how to approach our designs in a way that is practical and creative. It's all business and negotiation. This is our job and we have to do it well. And it takes time to get there.
Is there anything we can do to make indie theater better? To make it easier for us as designers?
We should all definitely make use of the resources that are available. I just went to Materials for the Arts for the first time and I thought I was going to die because of all the great stuff they had. For example I found a size 8 dress form, which is a very typical size, with an arm, for free. That is like a $1000 dress form. And I got white lobsters that I'm using to make a hat from a Tommy Hilfiger display.
And I know it stinks but I wish indie theater companies could keep stocks of clothing. There isn't space and I understand that. But lots of times when you're interviewing with an indie theater company they want to know if you have access to a stock and if you don't they won't hire you. Being able to keep a little bit of their own stock would be very helpful. As soon as a company can afford the space to keep stock they should and I don't mean cheap T-shirts, I mean interesting pieces like great jackets or cool shoes or hats. Theater for the New City has that costume stock downstairs that is amazing. There are beautiful vintage things down there.
I just did a show for New Georges, and they have a little office in Midtown, and they just turned their closet into storage, and they just have some bins of clothing and every piece that I don't have to buy allows more money for more important things. And I often think that people assume that actors will just have things. They assume that actors will have black shoes but they don't. Do you have a black belt? No. Do you have a brown belt? No. I don't wear belts. You can't rely on actors to have those things.
And I think we should keep in mind that phrase about 'fast' 'cheap' and 'good'. You can only ever have two of those at one time.
So looking to the future what do you want your career to look like in the next few years?
It's interesting, I've worked on Broadway as an associate and designed off-Broadway but I'm still really interested in doing small downtown shows. I think those small shows keep you really grounded. I mean, there is something really beautiful about walking into a room with Daniel Talbott, even if he drives you crazy sometimes. But in that space you feel like you can say anything. In larger theaters there is so much more money at stake. Downtown you always wish for more time and more money and more support but not having those things really allows you to do the work that you want, without feeling beholden to the money people. So I definitely want to keep working downtown. That's where all of the new exciting things are happening. Downtown you can spend an hour talking about a character in a fitting. You can't really do that anywhere else. And while I'm doing more commercial productions I still want to work everywhere. I just want to be stable enough to have my juice every day, and Mexican food a lot and I'll be fine. I always say that once my job feels like work I should stop doing it. This is my nerdiness showing and all the guys should swarm towards me because of it but I love working in tiny gritty theaters, and I love exploring new little strange theaters. So I just want to be everywhere. I want to work everywhere.