- Embracing the ChaosCreating Costumes for Devised Work
Typically, crucial aspects of successfully creating costume designs and producing realized versions of those designs for theatrical practice include in-depth script analysis, careful study of characters, and detailed planning of materials and labor budgets. However, when the costumer is tasked with designing and creating costumes for a project that begins with no script, no characters, and sometimes even an amorphous cast, the wisest course of action is to embrace the chaos. The term "devised theatre" is used to describe a number of different types of production processes. In traditional theatre, the process usually starts with a team of people assembling around a script that specifies the plot, setting, and characters of the piece. In devised theatre, the team assembles, yet they often have no written text to use as a blueprint to guide the production journey. In some cases of devised theatre, there is written text, yet that text does not specify which character says which line, or who the characters are, or where they are, or what they are doing.
Another facet of the growing world of devised theatre is site-specific immersive theatre. Companies like Punchdrunk, Dream Think Speak, Third Rail Projects, and Speakeasy Dollhouse are creating new theatrical forms, in which traditional processes of costume design and production need to adapt in order to be successful. For example, on Punchdrunk's production of Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death," the costume designer worked with the team to create the atmosphere and the experience:
Combining the classic tales of Edgar Allan Poe with the buried Victorian origins of Battersea Old Town Hall, The Masque Of The Red Death lured audiences into a macabre world of mystery and the supernatural. [End Page 58]
Exploring some of Poe's most disturbing themes and obsessions and populated by a large cast of bizarre characters, The Masque Of The Red Death played for a 7-month sold out run and was seen by over 40,000 people.1
The process for creating the costumes for this large cast of bizarre characters began with a stockpile of researched, period-appropriate costume pieces that were then fit to the actors. Performers were given costumes to use in rehearsals; they then had the opportunity to improvise ideas about how those costume pieces could express character before they went back to the costume team to be adjusted and completed.2 In a piece where the characters are clearly described by the script, designers and actors do not have the same amount of freedom to improvise and make adjustments to whom the characters are.
It can be a challenge for the costume department to plan, organize, and assemble items for performers to wear while the entire shape of the piece is constantly changing. Clothing for the stage is inextricably linked to the expression of character. Numerous sources offer guidance on how to create costumes for characters already defined in a script, yet few resources are available to guide the theatre artist through the journey of creating costumes as the characters are also being simultaneously created.
Two recent devised theatre projects serve as useful examples of how to proceed with costuming for devised theatre. As costume designer, cutter/draper, and costume shop manager for Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin's Savage/Love and Caryl Churchill's Love and Information, I was able to participate in all aspects of the theatrical costume process, from inventing underlying meanings to ensuring that costume pieces appropriately fit the performers' bodies. Characters grew to shape the costumes, and costumes influenced the establishment of characters. Instead of shaping characters around information given in a script, actors could mold characters around the garments they wore.
The accepted design process for costuming follows seven basic steps: commitment, analysis, research, incubation, selection, implementation, and evaluation.3 In traditional production processes, these steps are followed in mostly sequential order. In devised theatre, these steps need to occur sometimes simultaneously and sometimes in a seemingly random order, depending on the needs of the particular production. For designers trained in the text-based method, shaking up the process can be frightening. For actors...