Costuming Bright, Colorful Vaudeville

Costumes are not always designed to be seen.  Often costumes are meant to blend into the show and not stand out.  In fact they shouldn’t stand out. They are simply a part of the character.  Sometimes costumes are used to depict family connections, or a location.  Sometimes costumes are very obvious due to the time period being created, as they are for our production of Comedy of Errors.  Vaudeville: 1895.  What would you expect to see on the Vaudeville stage?  A strong man, a band leader, straight men, comedians, a ring master, a barker, beautiful women, and all bigger than life.

Tonight was the first night all the actors wore costumes.  It is always a challenging night.  You find out quickly what pieces won’t work, what changes are too fast, what colors just don’t cut it on stage under the lights, and so on.   Tonight, the magnets on the men’s collars didn’t hold; back to Velcro.   The zipper on an older dress decided it had zipped its last zip.  The wig I thought was going to look perfect, didn’t.  And the dress I had been recreating, well, I hated it.  I was scribbling furiously on my notepad as I watched rehearsal.  Notes to myself, notes to the actors.

As costume designer for Comedy of Errors, my biggest challenge has been creating costumes for 7 actors who happen to be playing 20 different characters!  In fact, there are several actors that have less than 15 seconds to change from one character to the next.  Yikes!

The concept for this production came after several conversations with the director, Lisa Formosa–Parmigiano.  Vaudeville is the theme, 1895, but with anachronistic moments.  The play is set in two different towns, Syracuse in the North and Ephesus in the South.  As costume designer I needed to differentiate between the two.  So Syracuse characters are in cool colors to depict the North and Ephesus characters are in warm colors, for the South.  However, each character has a touch of the opposite color just to make things interesting!

The next challenge came in the form of two actors, each playing a set of twins.  (I know, it’s so confusing!)  One twin is from Syracuse, the other from Ephesus so each actor had to have both cool and warm colors to show where the character was from.  The problem was that those actors didn’t have any time to fully change a costume from one twin to the other.  So how does the audience tell the two apart?  I chose the easiest form of costume changes possible.  A coat, a hat and a tie.  Sounds simple, but it truly is not!

There are also men playing women (typical Shakespeare) and women playing men.  What’s fun is that we are not trying to hide that.  The costume tells the audience what they are supposed to see even if the actor is not.  (a woman with a beard?  What?)  This is a bright, colorful production reminiscent of the Vaudeville stage, not to mention lots of fun to watch!