Soapbox - Moving Forward Together: Reflections on the Design Process

Article by Andrea Gross, costume designer

Local Costume Designer Andrea Gross is back this month (and look for her in December as well) with more thoughts on this thing we call theatre. This month, she builds on her previous essay, and talks about collaboration, communication, creativity and planning. In other words,, how to make a good design and a good show.

One of the unfortunate unwritten rules (probably of all design disciplines) is that the element requiring the most resources –physical, financial, intellectual— is the one mostly likely to be cut from the production.

Everyone who has been around for a while has a tale to tell; for instance, custom fit hands for the Wolf in Into the Woods, built from scratch with matching fur, latex palms and claws growing out of the nail bed cut before tech because the actor would not be able to manage the blocking and choreography while wearing them.  But how can it be avoided?

Here are some reflections on my process, with that in mind:

Careful analysis of and consideration for resources is an important starting point to my work as a costume designer. Please note:, I make no claims about being consistently successful at this…yet. But it remains the way I approach a job or a season in an attempt to hold fast to my integrity and produce work I’m proud of.

I try to be really clear with myself: if you produce that technically challenging element entirely from scratch, what other element will be sacrificed? If we rent an element (and adjust our expectations as to what we can get) what other resources does that free up?

As good as I may be at having this conversation with myself, I find what matters more is how I talk to others –particularly the director—about it. I try to avoid an ultimatum (ie.: you can have this, but only at the expense of these other things) because in my experience this quashes creativity and collaboration. Instead I try to come up with more than one solution and enumerate any problems with (or consequences of) these solutions. In essence, I’m trying to create multiple-choice answers, always remaining open to the fact that there are more potential solutions than I can come up with.

Throughout the research phase of a design process, regularly checking in with the whole production team about developing ideas and priorities keeps everyone informed. More importantly opens the conversation to other potential solutions. While the experience of too many cooks in the kitchen can be frustrating, as a professional I have based my career on collaboration and I thrive on the surprise solution. Besides, I prefer the story where another designer comes up with the idea and it works perfectly over the story where another designer offers what should have been the solution after the fact when my own solution is less successful.

I try to accomplish this with internal deadlines on a calendar: I need a certain amount of time to marinate  in a challenge, to share it with others, and to attempt a couple of solutions. Having time to send prototypes or ideas into rehearsal for feedback is key. Space to look at the whole picture (an argument for the archaic and usually academic dress parade) is also important.

But a date to pull the plug on an idea so that you can move forward with the rest of the project is maybe most important and most elusive.

An example of this was my work with Walking Shadow Theatre Company on after the quake, in which the character Frog appears mysteriously in the life of storyteller. He is described in the text as not a man in a frog suit, but rather a frog the size of a man. During several conversations with the director and production manager, we talked and thought about ways that this could be accomplished. The idea of an inflatable cravat rose to the top of the pile, and I began a research and development phase where I tried to figure out how a small, palmed hand pump could run up the sleeve of a suit jacket to inflate a whoopee cushion rigged behind a piece of neckwear on demand when Frog finished his sentences with a “ribbit.” Because the actor transformed into Frog on stage, it became clear that adding webbed-finger-gloves, neckwear, and possibly retrieving a pump out of the suit sleeve would be cumbersome, time-consuming, and ultimately detrimental to the storytelling. Eventually, we determined that the best solution was to get out of the actor’s way and let him accomplish the transformation with a change of glasses, the addition of green gloves, and a green wool hat. It was ultimately far more magical than any mechanical device would have been.

Walking Shadow Theatre Company, after the quake. Pictured: Brant Miller as Frog. Photo credit: Dan Norman. Director: Amy Rummenie, Costume design: Andrea Gross, Lighting design: Peter Mitchell, Scenic design: Steve Kath

Walking Shadow Theatre Company, after the quake. Pictured: Brant Miller as Frog. Photo credit: Dan Norman. Director: Amy Rummenie, Costume design: Andrea Gross, Lighting design: Peter Mitchell, Scenic design: Steve Kath