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From sketch to stage

posted by Cari Turley on Wed, May 4, 2011
in Costume shop , Our shows

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This article first appeared in the Three Sisters program. The costume renderings are copyright of the artist.

  TScostumes--2904 Costume designer Ilona Somogyi and assistant designer Noah Marin discuss costume renderings for Three Sisters. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Maggi Yule is unflappable. As the director of Berkeley Rep’s costume shop, she’s handled an eclectic season of all-day marathons, puppet orchestras, and solo shows without breaking a sweat. Her latest challenge was to pull together a staggering 43 costumes for Sarah Ruhl’s new version of Three Sisters, a coproduction between Berkeley Rep and Yale Repertory Theatre. For mere mortals, this would be a daunting endeavor. For Maggi and the Berkeley Rep costume shop, it’s just another Tuesday.

At 9am, the costume shop is already bustling with activity. Although it’s only been a couple of months since the shop moved to Berkeley Rep’s new Harrison Street campus, it already feels cozy. Sketches and reference photos cover a whole wall from floor to ceiling, a small crowd of headless dress-forms gather around the sewing machines, and handmade hats perch on every available surface. It’s still early, so Kathy Kellner Griffith, staff tailor and honorary DJ, keeps the music low until everyone wakes up. (Sometimes in the afternoon, when the volume goes up, the departments upstairs get to rock out with the shop.)

The role of Berkeley Rep’s costume shop is to turn abstract ideas into tangible products, and Maggi and her tight-knit staff pull it off with aplomb. Most of the team has been working together for so long that the shop runs like a well-oiled machine. In fact, between the two of them, Kathy and draper Kitty Muntzel have worked in the costume shop for more than 50 years. Together with Maggi, Costume Fellow Amy Bobeda, and backstage support from Wardrobe Supervisor Barbara Blair, they’re turning sketches by Yale Rep costume designer Ilona Somogyi into one of the most ambitious wardrobes of the season.

Masha-act1-cmky Rendering for Masha.

Les Waters, Berkeley Rep’s associate artistic director, is staging Three Sisters. He worked with Ilona to create a relaxed, timeless style that felt lived in, not formal. When Ilona’s gorgeous sketches arrived, Amy arranged them into the “bible” — an enormous reference book with contact sheets, headshots, and measurements for every actor, as well as costume sketches and research photos for every character in the show. Once that was done, Maggi looked at the designs and figured out where the costumes would come from: what we already had, what needed to be rented or purchased, what could be altered to work, and what we needed to make from scratch.

Rendering for Olga.

Maggi is so good that even a massive order like this one doesn’t rattle her. She has an answer ready for everything I throw at her. “Where are you going to find that fur coat?” Without even hesitating, she replies, “Oh, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has one.” Maggi’s encyclopedic knowledge of past productions, both at Berkeley Rep and at other regional theatres, is amazing. And when she needs a little help, she need only look as far as her own staff. “If I need menswear, I look to Kathy,” she says. “Womenswear, I ask Kitty.” Maggi knows who has the best 1920s apparel, where to get turn-of-the-century Russian boots (“Dance supply stores have a really surprising selection”), and how to find the perfect sweater for a disaffected young woman in the Russian countryside: have Pat make it, of course.

Vershinin-act4-cmyk Rendering for Vershinin.

Pat Wheeler is Maggi’s go-to knitter when Berkeley Rep needs a custom piece. Although not a theatre artist by trade, Pat has knitted pieces for several Berkeley Rep shows including Heartbreak House and Passing Strange, and now she’s creating sweaters for Three Sisters. She’s not the only outside contractor working for the shop; when it’s crunch time, Maggi brings in extra hands to cut and stitch. But for most of the process, it’s just Maggi, Kitty, Kathy, and Amy.

Rendering for Irina.

Start to finish, it only takes about six weeks for the costume shop to go from sketch to stage. After the bible is done, Kitty drapes the muslin (an inexpensive cloth used to make rough drafts), and then the real costume is made in fashion fabric. As someone who can barely hem a pair of pants in six weeks, I can’t help but be impressed that it’s enough time for the shop to assemble every piece of clothing — including every coat, necklace, belt, and boot — that you see on stage. But for Berkeley Rep’s costume shop, turning ideas into reality is all in a day’s work.


Curious to see negatives… I didn't think they were being made any more.

Walt French | Fri, May 6, 2011

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