Oregon Shakespeare Festival Costumers don't Play Around

Spoiler alert - Book 3 in the Mata Morrow mystery series primarily takes place in Portland and in the Southern Oregon town of Ashland, home to the long-running Oregon Shakespeare Festival. When I contacted the folks at OSF to see if I might be able to get some face-time with someone in the costume shop (you see where this is going, right? Mata --> clothing design --> costume pros = giddy researcher), I was bowled over by the generosity of the team. Before I knew it, I was furiously scribbling notes over lunch at Standing Stone Brewery with Nancy, Alison and Betsy, three OSF Costume staffers well-versed in clothing creation from concept to final curtain. I had constructed my initial line of inquiry to ensure I understood (so to accurately portray) how our heroine and her book group, might find themselves enmeshed in a mystery that involves this particular aspect of the Festival. 

Couture methods are de rigger in the costume shop, dress forms are customized for each piece.

I've excerpted a bit of the Q&A that transpired prior to our interview in the piece below. Happily, Nancy, Alison and Betsy are all die-hard mystery fans, so their fact-filled answers to my prosaic questions were peppered with ways in which characters might meet his or her painful demise at the end of this or that sewing implement, might secret themselves in a large cupboard or small hidey-hole in the event of a chase scene. They were unable to help me come up with a motive for murder, but that's just as well, because then the surprise would be out!

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Elizabethan Theater seen from backstage

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Elizabethan Theater seen from backstage

A behind-the-scenes look at the various makers and artisans in Costume and Props made abundantly clear that this team is made up if the finest craftspeople, most accomplished in skills that only the very few now possess. Milliners and dyers, pattern makers and fabric specialists all work seamlessly (yes, I said that) to balance a gargantuan set of competing time demands in order to ensure that OSF's ambitious schedule is kept, the actors well-outfitted and the audience properly enrapt by all. If anyone supposes the costumes are created using Simplicity patterns and a bit of nip and tuck, this one answer should soon erase that notion.

Q: What are the steps in costume creation…from concept to sketch to draft to finished garment? How does this timeline mesh with that of the production?
A: All of our costume designers are brought in- contracted show by show to design for us. The selection of the designers is made over a year in advance of the show coming into the shop. Designers are selected by the artistic department- Artistic director and directors. We do not have resident costume designers. Designers will meet with their design team long before we meet with them- 6-9 months before the shop gets involved. The design team includes all of the designers- costume, lighting, scenery, music and the director. The designer has due dates to submit costume roughs to our costume department director- discussion happens about the number of costumes, what can be pulled from stock, what can be built, the complexity of the built items and so on. The designer then goes back and finalizes the sketches. The designer puts the show into the shop one to three months before fittings start. Putting the show into the shop consists of meeting with the show team and discussing every sketch in detail. Discussions include fullness of skirts, undergarments, fabrics, seam lines and placement, materials and so much more. There are separate meetings with the designer and assistant with the cutter/drapers, the crafts team, the dyer/painters and the wig team. Putting the show into the shop usually takes three-five days depending on the size of the show. Again, Alison can give you more specifics on this. A month to two weeks later the designer comes back into town for the first fittings. These usually are scheduled over one to two weeks. Fittings can take up to two hours and there are often five people in addition to the actor involved with the fitting. We have second fittings a couple of weeks after the first fittings where we finalize the fit of the costume in real fabric with real wigs and facial hair and real crafts pieces. On large shows it is possible to have three fitting sessions. After that, the designer is back in Ashland for the week of tech/dresses, costume dress rehearsals and preview performances. Designers are in and out of town for months. Designers do all of the sketching, research and fabric selection for the costumes. Costumes are built based on their sketches and research.
Simply amazing, yes? 

Simply amazing, yes?