Geva is thrilled to present the world premiere of Other Than Honorable, written by Jamie Pachino and directed by Kimberly Senior, running April 25-May 21! As our team plunges into tech rehearsals, we’re offering a behind-the-scenes series on how Geva constructs a new play for the Wilson Stage:
On Friday, April 21st, I sat down with Nan Zabriskie, the costume and makeup designer on Other Than Honorable, to talk about her research and design process. Nan offered some wonderful insights about the costumes that we’ve included in our lobby display case, including how she designed the military regalia in the show, and how she orchestrated costume changes for a protagonist who almost never leaves the stage. Be sure to check out the display when you come see the show!
In the meantime, here are some additional memorable quotes from Nan, which give more of an overarching view of how she approaches designs for a modern-dress show:
A Costume Designer’s Process:
The biggest point Nan wanted to drive home was the amount of research, charting character arcs, and planning that drives her design process before she ever gets to see her costumed characters in front of her onstage:
Even though I have not seen the show onstage yet, my fellow designers and I still pretty much know what the show looks like. We know the show because we’ve lived with it for months, and we’ve lived with the rhythm of how it has to flow. Certainly, there are always changes and adjustments you make when you see it onstage and in time, but most of the time you can catch a mistake before it happens. Just today, we were shopping for a new sweater for a quick change after I realized that I put a character in grey two scenes in a row! But I caught that before I even saw it onstage, because I had it in my brain. I think that that’s the thing that a lot of people don’t think about with costumes—they don’t “just happen.” A ton of work and pre-planning goes into figuring out who wears what, when, and why.
So, what does all that pre-planning look like for a costume designer? Nan then walked me through the script analysis, research, and paperwork she completes in each phase of her process:
First I make an overall plot, which lists every character in the context of each scene with rough ideas for costume changes, like “Hector changes here,” or “This character is in full uniform all the way through the play,” or “This is the most powerful Alvina is in this scene.”
I also make PowerPoint slides with image research and initial ideas for what pieces of clothing a character might wear in each scene. I bring these into the first day of rehearsals to say, “This is the world of the wardrobe we are thinking.” And that’s to help the actor get immediately into that world. I try to find examples or pictures of modern people in a similar life situation, wearing clothes that would work for the character, with notes to annotate and explain what we’re going for in the design.
Then I have “piece lists,” which catalogue each individual item a character is wearing in each scene of the play. But you can’t make these lists until you’ve had enough fittings with your actors to know what pieces make up the costume.
All of these elements are constantly changing, especially with a new play. If a scene is added or cut, that means a lot of late-night texts between director Kimberly Pachino and me deciding how the new arc of the story will affect what a character’s wearing. I have to keep track of it for myself through a lot of physical charting, and my paperwork also helps me communicate with the shops when something changes. And Amanda Doherty (Geva’s costume shop manager) and the shop have been wonderful about being flexible with changes in the costume design!
Making Creative Decisions:
Nan also emphasized that there is a lot of flexibility in her creative process. In addition to adjusting designs to suit the constant script changes on a new play, she also wants to incorporate new discoveries actors make about their characters into her initial design ideas:
My design presentation to the company on the first day of rehearsals is about, “This is what we think coming into this.” Kimberly and I come into the rehearsal process with an overview of how all the costumes look in the show, and the journeys the characters undertake. Then we still have to have the flexibility to change that overview as the company discovers new things about the characters in rehearsal.
I really love working with actors too, to find the subtleties of their stories. And I’ll always have an opinion on who I think the characters are, but I think part of the fun of it is taking my opinion and blending it with the actors’ analysis of their characters. Of course, my opinion is always approved by the director first. Kimberly and I have such a good language now, and we know what we’re doing from looking at all the Pinterest boards we create to visually explore each character. We’ve developed a good shorthand when it comes to talking about changes in the design.
Costuming a Show in Modern Dress:
Even though costumers are often lauded for designing intricate Elizabethan gowns or authentic 1940s flips, Nan pointed out that designing for contemporary characters can have its own set of challenges and opportunities:
The challenge of costuming a period dress show is that specific details that once communicated a lot about a character (class, sense of style, etc.) get lost in translation in front of a modern audience. Say a show is set in the 1920s, for example: Today, we don’t know the “language,” the unwritten social rules of the time of who would or wouldn’t wear a skirt of a certain style, which we would have known then. Now, we can look at contemporary clothing, and everybody has a relationship to those clothes; everybody has an opinion of what that piece of clothing says about a character based on their perspective of what people should wear. So as a designer on a modern dress show in particular, I really make a deliberate choice to tell a story, a very specific story about who this character is down to the smallest details of their outfits.
For example, below are Nan’s research images for Brenda. As the character in the play with the most distance from the military, Brenda has more opportunities to wear clothes civilian audiences would see in their everyday lives. We can develop a very specific idea of who Brenda is based on the clothing we recognize on her…What ideas do you get about Brenda’s key character traits from the images below?