Today marks the one week-iversary of the British Invasion at Berkeley Rep. After only six days spent with our friends from across the pond, I have begun to understand Paul Revere’s panic. Why, you might ask? Because we were vastly unprepared for their impeccable, edgy sense of fashion, and of course their ridiculously confusing costume vocabulary.
So, today, let’s play catch-up and learn to dress for the queen.
To dress like a character of The Wild Bride, one will require:
Now that you’ve been moved to tears and choked your way through fits of laughter with the Cain family’s submission to the Bible in Bill Cain’s How to Write A New Book For the Bible, it's time to get hip and get some Cain family attire of your own. Whether you’re a peachy pastel man like Pete Cain, sport comfy robes like Mary, stark serious duds like teacher Paul, or a man of the cloth like our hero, Bill, your resident costume shop is here to help you dress like the most “functional” family in town.
Clearly, the most important gear you likely don’t have on hand is your alb and stole. For those unhip with the clerical lingo, the alb is the white robe with the large collar worn when (SPOILER ALERT) Bill speaks at his father’s funeral, while the stole is worn around his neck over the robe.
Mustaches are in vogue. Mustache mugs. Mustache T-shirts. The mustache on my father. After years, they are all finally cool, which makes my niche profession of mustache-making cool. You may remember my mustaches from such Berkeley Rep productions as The Great Game: Afghanistan, Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead, and my personal favorite mustache was a minor plot point in last season’s Three Sisters.
In the production departments, we have to learn to let go of our work. Many artisans at Berkeley Rep are artists outside the gates of our Harrison St. and Addison St. campuses, but here, as artisans we have to embrace what most artists fear: our hard work may never see the light of day. Some departments are used to this; the scenic painting folks work tirelessly to paint the steel framing on the backside of scenery that will never be seen by anyone beyond stage crew.
Change is particularly common on world premieres of shows that have had limited workshop time. Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup is a perfect example.
When the costume shop began production, we began reconstructing a beautiful black-and-white gown for a rumba number. It was a snow storm of rhinestones, spandex, and about 30 yards of sheer and opaque black-and-white taffeta ruffles. Needless to say, it was, as many of our garments are, a challenging by enjoyable execution process.
Alas, no Berkeley Rep audience member will ever gaze upon the rumba dress, because the number was cut from the show.
Many people may read this and think “OMG weren’t you guys mad!? You made so many ruffles!” But here is the kicker: we are just here to make the beautiful things, it isn’t up to us what happens with them next, and there is something incredibly freeing about that feeling.
Personally, I loved the rumba dress. It was sparkly. It was outrageous. It looked darn good on Ms. Moreno, and hopefully its ruffles will one day be seen by eyes other than those of the costume department. Am I sad to see it go? Sure. But, the beautiful thing about costumes is that one day, the rumba dress will come out of the closet again.
This article first appeared in the Three Sisters program. The costume renderings are copyright of the artist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the fire, Fedotik loses everything. In reality, after they apply their firefighter makeup for the disastrous Act III of Three Sisters, actors David Abrams (Fedotik), Bruce McKenzie (Vershinin), Sam Breslin Wright (Solyony), and James Carpenter (Chebutykin) lose only the ability to perform simple tasks like opening pickle jars and answering text messages without a helping hand. So, for the folks back home, David and I have prepared a little behind-the-scenes, how-to Chekhovian firefighter makeup tutorial.
David prepares. The process is neither fast nor simple, so David downs a quick cup of water before we begin.
The secret to quick removal: stage soot can be a beast to wash off, especially in the short amount of time between exits in Act III and entrances in Act IV, so the men slather themselves in cocoa butter gel (found at your local CVS) that smells delightfully of German chocolate cake.
Sooting up. The soot is mixed from a top-secret formulation of powdered charcoal makeup and cocoa butter lotion, for easy, lung-friendly application. The actor strategically dabs it on and smears. David begins with his calves and works up.
The face, obviously, is the most important. A balance between too little and the inevitable Uncle Tom’s Cabin jokes is achieved through a gradient scale of light and dark smudges, and lots of room around the eyes for maximum expression.
Blood is key. Each man has a signature wound. Bruce loves his bleeding ear. Sam is committed to his forehead gash that resulted from Solyony saving a baby in the fire. Jim focuses on hands and knuckles, while David’s focus is on his calf gash and bloody nose. His theory is that when close to a fire for a prolonged period of time, one’s nose would most certainly dry up. Attention to detail is paid as they all trail fake blood from their wounds onto their clothing.
Sweat. While most would do anything they can to hide embarrassing pit stains, we enhance them for the audience’s viewing pleasure. A spray bottle full of water hits the pits, chest, and back, followed by a second coat of cocoa butter oil to the face for a sexy, glossy sheen, and a dousing and tousle of the hair to complete the look.
The finale. Smelling of cake, these hot messes of men are armed and ready to break hearts and (spoiler alert) clocks, just in time to ship off to Poland.
The new version of Three Sisters by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Les Waters, continues through May 22. Reserve your seats now.
Hey, have you heard we're having a huge warehouse sale on April 15 and 16? Here's what you might find:
I have a borderline OCD recollection of every pair of shoes I have ever purchased, and where they came from. Be it the moccasins I got in Taos NM, or the cowboy boots from the streets of New York, I have a serious memory and knack for shoe buying, which is exactly why the bulk of my work on Three Sisters revolves around shoes.
The beauty and horror of costuming period shows is the specificity of shoes required. Some period shoes are made just like they were a hundred years ago -- take the men’s Stacy Adams boot featured on most of the men in the show -- and others don’t exist at all anymore, like the fancy pumps Natasha would have worn, so we have to get creative.
For instance, Natasha wears two pairs of ballroom dance shoes, and Olga’s Amish boots came from Amish boot makers that don’t have a website or accept credit cards. The men’s military boots are in fact authentic Russian military boots from a brusque Russian gentleman in Los Angeles. Andre has a hip pair of suede boots from Urban Outfitters -- the mix and match of old and new shoes is the most exciting part.
Perhaps the greatest shoe featured in our smorgasbord of footwear is the traditional Russian slipper, the valenki, sent with love and high shipping prices all the way from Russia. Valenkis have been a Russian staple for hundreds of years.
They are crafted from a thick, seamless lambswool felt in what looks like a cross between a crude Ugg boot and a loaf of bread. At first, they are roomy and awkward, like you have stuffed your feet into empty Kleenex boxes (which I did in fourth grade), but as they get moist from your sweat and the elements, they mold to your feet, creating a soft, warm, weatherproof shoe. They come complete with pop-on rubber galoshes so you can wear your valenki outdoors as well.
Now, being the shoe-obsessed costume fellow that I am, I’ve been eyeing a pair of valenkis for myself, so if you find yourself outside of Moscow in the near future, maybe, just maybe you’ll pick up a pair for the girl back home.
By Megan McClintock
It’s supposed to rain all week in Berkeley, but I don’t mind. I’ll be spending most of my week backstage running Ruined (we have nine shows in six days), and the Roda Theatre feels like the Congo these days. Did we pump up the heat? Not literally. The Ruined design team created this jungle atmosphere, and they have covered all the bases.
The jungle vibe starts the minute you walk into the lobby, where the sound designer has provided some great Congo tunes that are underscored by a collage of jungle sounds. The rustling of leaves, coos of birds, and calls of other exotic animals continue throughout the show.
Inside the theatre you can feast your eyes on the jungle itself. Though most of the play takes place inside Mama Nadi’s bar, the walls are indicated mostly by vertical posts and posters, behind which the jungle is lush and green. Tree trunks spring up amongst thick greenery, and the actors must rustle through the leaves in order to enter and exit the stage.
We even have a parrot onstage, which is written into the script. Our grey parrot is remote controlled -- parrot operator Janny Cote jokes that Rerun (as she has named him) is just one career step away from the Tiki Room. Rerun blinks, flaps his wings, moves his neck, snaps his beak, and even bites an actor on cue in the first scene. Rerun’s voice is provided by the sound department; he has a small speaker hidden right behind his cage so the sound is directionally correct. He is a little star -- he even has the last line of the play!
Even the smell backstage is jungle appropriate. I don’t know if it wafts into the audience much, but the scent of coconut fills the air. Why? Because coconut oil makes the cast look hot and sweaty. The glistening sweat is applied backstage, where warm coconut oil in spray bottles is applied liberally to exposed skin. To get an even sweatier look some cast members start with coconut oil then spritz water on top of it, creating a dripping-in-sweat look. Highly effective and simple, and this is the best-smelling cast I have ever worked with!
Since they have to tromp through the muddy jungle to get onstage, some cast members apply “mud” to their feet and hands. The mud and the coconut oil are both costume department tricks. The mud is simply a thick body lotion colored with powder foundation makeup. While most of the mud gets wiped off with baby wipes backstage, any that gets left behind just keeps the cast well moisturized.
So if you need an escape from the rain, it’s warm in the Congo and the tunes are groovin’. You can buy a Fanta from the café counter to round out your sense experience, and if you catch a whiff of coconut in the air, now you know why.
Many things come in boxes -- presents, shoes, refrigerators, a man named Jack, and (more often than not due to our current economic state) plays. I’m not quite sure who coined the term “show in a box,” but when Berkeley Rep does a coproduction (Compulsion, and the upcoming Ruined), remounts an old production (The Arabian Nights), or takes on a travelling show (The Great Game: Afghanistan) we send and receive the show literally “in a box”.
Receiving shows in a box is a little like Christmas when you think you know what your mother bought you, but you’re not quite sure. You’re nervous that it’s not quite the right thing, or was too expensive. You worry that Santa broke it as he tossed it down the chimney. However, you’re ecstatic to open the box.
Like any other production, shows in a box require some preparation. The marketing department plans the cocktail menu and produces the signage. The electrics department receives the light plots in advance so they can efficiently hang the lights. The production departments pour over paperwork from the shows’ previous locations (in the case of Ruined we have had many conversations with the Huntington Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse in preparation for the show’s arrival), but mostly, we wait with baited breath for the truck of boxes to arrive.
In the costume department, we receive giant wardrobe boxes full of clothing, and we begin to play the “who wears what” game. The advantage to a show in a box is that usually the same actors travel with the show and help us get up to speed while we help them settle into a new town.
Sometimes things arrive broken. Maybe a pair of socks is lost in transit. Perhaps the scenery needs some touch-ups from the paints department. Often staging evolves from one theatre to another.
While the show in a box isn’t quite as exciting as building a show from scratch, there is something magical about being one of the legs on a play’s journey.
One of the costume boxes for The Arabian Nights.
Check out costume fellow Amy Bobeda's blog.