The Story Behind the Theatre; The Set and the Costume Director
But New York City the theater capital of the world Riverside radio WRP your brings you the story behind the theater. When the curtain rises on a theater production. The audience sees as well as hears a blend of many talents. Today's story behind the theater is told by those who translate the written word into a visual form by means of the set the lights and the costumes. Today the set designer and the costume designer Lyle dye Jr. managing director of the Equity Library theater talks with Will Stephen Armstrong set designer for Carnival and gentian and Mary McKinley costume designer for Broadway's calculated risk. Here was our backstage host Lyle Di Jr..
The visual aspects of any theatrical production have always of course been of vital importance. Even back in the 18th century when audiences were perhaps seated on the stage they were surrounded by elaborate perspective sets and lavish costumes. Then the follow on realistic scenic atmosphere began to be created by David Blass co Max Rinehart's productions thrived on spectacle advance theories on the use of light and space. And then of course there have been many other creative designers and directors such as Gordon Craig Robert Edmund Jones Meyer hold Brecht barrow and they've all made their definitive contributions in creating some kind of style or form for the stage was either pleasing or stimulating or occasionally perhaps just different to the eye. But in terms of the New York Theatre of today the prominence of designers can't be denied. Whether production is as overwhelming as say Camelot or is delightfully imaginative and simple as the Fantastics. But first to bring the roles of the costume and set designers together Mary and will before you begin going
on your separate ways and working on the show. How closely must designers costume and set designers work during pre-production planning in terms of colors style fabrics what have you how closely Mary do you as a costume designer work with the set designer. In the months before a show goes into rehearsal. Well I think it's terribly important to work closely with the set designer and have at least two or three production meetings and find out what you're both thinking along the same lines and that you're even just as basic things your colors coordinating. I'm happy to say the scenery is a first consideration before costumes generally just in the order of sequence of time. Generally you have to conceive of how you're doing that how you're doing the production. In some sense get a visual keynote to go and so that the set designer is always just a little bit
ahead of the costume designer in terms of concept in terms of color in terms of well for instance working on Gentian. It is a show which has 11 scenes and some of the scenes are only three pages long. Some of them are five pages long. Most of the scenes are very sure. Well it becomes really a physical problem for the costumer too to cope with that. But you know that Miss Leighton cannot change her dress for the first three scenes she will not physically have time. You know so this is another and how you get around not having her appear to be in the same costume for three Sainz this is something that that has to be gotten around after that one meets with the costume designer after you have something to kind of present so that you the custom designer will always of course work on her own as you work on your own
and then you come together and you compare. I think the best thing about coordination is that. You meet frequently and you try and meet before things are so set in both your minds that that it becomes a question of one person saying yeah I see it this way and it's got to be this way. If you can avoid ever having this direct conflict it's always much better this goes for every aspect of love using very subtle terms to like compare and coordination. I'm sure it has to be on one exam to the other and this goes for all of us. Well also will don't you think it very much depends on the production if it's a big musical and or any kind of a period show or an important production where well not all productions are important but yeah I mean the sort of thing where our visual aspect is so very important. Then ideally the set designer and costume designer and producer and director and everybody gets together and.
Decides on a point of view but frequently lights can albums be the set also right away and how so. How closely do you or do you at all work with a light designer. I think the light designer must always know what the colors are. I think other than that it's not really possible to come to think on terms of the costume. Yes if you want for lights are going to do because so many different things can be done that if you say will this under a green you know red in your green light would do such and such. You go absolutely insane. So you don't try to you know worry about that. Now you have to go by their face value the color that you are actually using and assume that it's going to look like that under lights. Well to begin right at the beginning with the sketches or renderings or what you will. Are you allowed to to actually make sketches and renderings before you're signed to do a show or is it all just talk until it's decided you're the designer and you've signed
a contract then you do actual drawings. In other words your first contact let's say with a producer sent you the script you read the script and he's interested in you're designing the show and you just talk it. Tell him colors and are you allowed to do designs is really before you're signed you know. You know there's your union that you want allow you to do this. This is very hard then on young designers on your side. Because your work is not known what your trademark is what your kind of what you have to give to a production so that what happens is one must try in a sense to do as much work as possible in terms of. A portfolio of some kind so that at least a director or producer. In addition because some antics you know I say read then Mary thinks of one color and you think of another color and red means something to me or
you know in terms of this play Red would mean something. This particular thing or in terms of this musical red is another color. So that this is all this is all very problematic if thats the right way. I think it is and I think this is why I ask I think would be terribly difficult to in words say what you're going to be doing that is really as it is. I think what I occasionally find it helpful in the beginning process you know after you're assigned the sketch is not the first thing a sketch cannot be the first thing a sketch is really in my book. The last yes. Well I want to ask about the sketches or the renderings aside from say giving the director and the actors a picture of what they'll be working on. Are these renderings. Absolutely correct in finished or are they a jumping off place but you say if the sketch is the last thing then they are finished but your initial sketches that you'll show a director an actor do those change much from the drawing board onto the stage.
The initial sketches. And I want you mean well it was a rough sketch as perhaps some people and I have on some productions done a series of rough sketches and shown them to a director and then you might say oh yes that that's the sort of thing I'm looking for all know that isn't and then by further discussing it go on and do finish sketches now there is no always time for that. But you say if you're finishing touches are the last thing then you may want your costumes. They don't actually know what they are until a summer lile nothing is the last thing to you actually see it a sketch can't be the very last thing but a sketch should be as close to what it should be a real working drawing and it should be as close to what is going to finally come out as you can put on paper this will include color and fabric. Yes it's a little more difficult and uncertain right because you're you're dealing in terms of the whole stage you're not dealing with something as specific as a person.
So that you will do a sketch of an impression of the set and it will be as you will try to make it as capture as much of it's not simply a picture of the scenery so much as it is a picture of the mood of a scene a picture of the lighting as well as the scenery and how it you know it's it's a terribly complicated business I think the advantage is as Mary works and I think we work at about the same way. It is the designer's job to visualize it. You often work with people and this is the great. This is the great challenge of working in the theatre of being an artist in the theatre is that it is not it. This is my I said this time and I get it. This is not a private world of creation. If I'm Robert Frost or Andrew I go and I paint and I say if you don't like it nobody
asked you. I am expressing myself and I don't need anybody else. The theater is creation sort of in public in a sense because you're not wrestling with your own soul to to express something you are wrestling with your own soul and the soul of the director and the CEO and the producer and so that the way of gradually tackling a problem gradually coming to grips as Mary says. If you do a rough sketch of a costume before you become terribly attached to it and have have come unaided and said finally in your own mind this is it. You have given the arc the director the opportunity to say your thinking is not coordinated with my thinking on this particular point. Another thing is it's always better if you can gradually condition the person who is perhaps whose job is not essentially visual. Gradually to come over to your way
of looking at the production and to apply his mind and his critical facilities to the same line of thinking that you are using in approaching the production. That's the advantage of keeping the production fluid of not nailing it down very early in the strike at the beginning. Don't you find frequently that as a designer you can if the director has an open enough mind you can give him almost a different concept of the play in terms of a physical concept and you can show him how he can have three more acting areas this way. Or do you usually find the director in your initial conferences says this is the kind of thing I want. I would say that the worst thing that a director could do initially when he meets a designer is to say well I don't need a I need business in this business and I want to here and here and here and here and so that what you're doing is he's put in the dots and you're drawing the lines between the bad and I think it's it's most
unfortunate when a director feels that he has that prerogative. If you do not regard the person you work with. As a fellow artist and worker in the theater if you have cited yourself as the king pen and you during and this other guy who's There is just there to do what you want I think you're in bad trouble. Well Mary you as a costume designer probably have a little more freedom and will in terms of dealing with these people don't you it seems to me they want to be so so more specific about what they wanted in terms of sets rather than costumes. No I don't think that's necessarily true. Of course the added element that you get in doing costumes is the the individual performers so that you not only know you know you know. How do you know you're sir.
But you're sure you have the producer and director who may or may not let you go your own way pretty much were as Will says bring the best that you have to offer to the production. Employ your own creative ideas to achieve the final goal of the production. Or you may you know you may have a director that will not let you but on top of this you have always personalities to contend with now. A year I can't I can't read a lot of this cause that's right and I mean I just get a break and maybe she's well fattened boldness in the girdles the only thing that would help. But even you know a lot. Not even things as simple as that but performers if they are worried which naturally most of them are and as rehearsals go on I find that the first person to be picked. We decide like the poor picked upon person but I think the costume designer is the first person who gets my neck because there is an actress who perhaps. Isn't doing what she
would like to be doing in a room apart and is worried and nervous and the clothes are so close you know your clothes are so close to your body and so much a part of you that if you. Are worried about something that's happening the first thing you pick on is something that's right nearby. It seems like the two things that actors are are the most violent about or publicize the and costumes. The other thing I suppose that most directly affect them but will they get back to the act the actual physical history of a set design. What what is sort of the general order of business in terms of working drawings elevations then where does it go. Who builds it first. After your conferences are through this stage now you're actually doing the set. Is it actually blueprint kind of things that you send to a scene shop and it comes back go. It's that the fascinating thing and also I love that kind of very exacting thing about theater is that. You must fulfill the role as an architect
as as an interior direct decorator. You must in a sense function as a draftsman you must know electricity for the lighting in which you have to plant colors for lighter colors for sets you. You have to be a dressmaker or know that such and such a thing can be achieved you have to know no fabrics you have to know. It's fantastic when you get a production together when when you think of how many specialized roles you have rolled into one. In order to complete a production it is in terms of blueprints and blueprints and scenery as well as costumes are also charted out in a sense with color sketches with in some terms patterns if you if you're particularly adept at that you you can specify that this is the way you want this made to a costume. So they can if you have a particular thing in mind but it's done. There are contractors who bid on the basis of sketches and plans and
prints and all the talk in the world that you can do. But it's it's work just like you're building a house. One is on the job every day and I go at least once a day and generally for two hours. And when it's cost him with even more desperate because you really exist on the table in the costume shop for the whole time the one thing that you no matter how much how much money your production costs. The one thing that cannot be bought is interest in doing the job. So that's what my function generally is once a contract has been let is to in a sense impart to the guy who is now doing has my elevation and is now painting it on a huge piece of canvas to try and impart to him my enthusiasm for it as well as try to try and get him to feel that
he is making a contribution that he isn't simply a workman who is there. I can't do it you know and what a difference also man was in just now remarried will says it's even worse with costumes in that you are there supervising virtually every bit of sewing. Yes well it is not I mean even though you have I mean larger finisher runs something through they actually you know me my butt and hams and so forth but you must. Be able to do sketches and often do of every little bit of beading sequencing that goes on every little costume little things that seem so minute. But you would be amazed I've seen sketches handed in to a costume house when the designer wasn't around and seen the things that have come out and it's it's just incredible isn't it the people in the costume house are doing their best. Or it's an interpretation. You can look at one sketch you can be anything from a floating chiffon to have a velvet and it can be if
there's if you've sketched in some little wriggly something that they have to know is that beading you know is it supposed to sparkle or is that just a flat application of material just a mistake or a skank. You know that just a little shadow you meant to go in there and you come down too well on a big show. If you've done several hundred costumes that comes down to the detail that many costumes and the fittings are infinite I think that a point well made that is very important is what you impart to the people who are working on what you design. If it has nothing to do with saying necessarily I wouldn't do it that way. Oh no no it's just you know it's it's being there once a day you may never even say anything to them about what they're about the painting. But it's for the sewing but I remember you know doing costumes was just being there and walking around and just talking to the people who were doing it and being pleasant
and and in some way you're letting them know that you are interested. That's really the care you have yes you care. You haven't just handed it over and said See you around the camp you know. But Mary you mentioned previously a period show or a big show and I suppose most designers prefer period shows it's easy to assume what a set designer has to do for a modern show let's say but as a costume designer What do you do to cast a modern show except go out and shop. Well a lot of costuming a modern show is just that. That would be silly to pretend otherwise Ideally I think that a modern show as any other show should be completely designed and made because I think going to that any production in the theater is a heightened experience. You know old cliche but it's true. And if you were doing say you were doing a contemporary comedy and its modern dress and perhaps you have a girl who was a
floozy or anything in a in a floozy family a street walker. All right. It's possible that you can go down to a cheap watch store online. I have a gun. Just one of these places you know they do things they have these funny dresses they're all you know they're pretty funny for ordinary street wear but you put that thing up on the stage and all of a sudden it's not as funny as it looked in the street. You know in the store window now. Perhaps this perhaps would be just simply marvelous if this girl came out in a pink mink negligence. Well then by all means let's have a pink make a negligee I mean that that's on the pink that's a little off a little expensive and most producers who are doing a modern show are not willing to go along with that way of thinking. But ideally I think that a modern show should be costume just as carefully and he rated it appears that you know it has to be conceived yesterday has to be all designed.
Oh yes and one who hopes to be able to purchase would certainly from a financial angle youre almost always forced to buy a good deal of the show. You think of a of an actor wearing a costume. Three hours a night. If it's if it's a one costume character but you think of say say a character a play will have three costumes for an evening and you think find the three suits three dresses or something McGrattan will buy those five inside of two weeks. They wear and tear of a regular union made this is what I'm trying to store bought at a store by store but price is simply not calculated to stand up under the wear and tear of the demands of food. Well then Mary when the costumes wear out are the originals just automatically reproduced or re bought you know I'm sorry automatically if it's hopefully a long run let's say.
Well then the custom designer is hopefully called and consulted about what the replacement will be say it has been something that has been purchased It's by the time it wears out. Well here the sort of belie what we've been saying but naturally everything's going to be done to make this cost you go for this dress go as far as it can so even if it's worn out in three weeks it it isn't if it's drawn out it lasts for six months you know. So by that time whatever it was bought for them. Before the actress is no longer on the market it can't be purchased anywhere so then comes that dreary task of finding another one because she loved that one now that she's gotten you know attached to it and so you know it just isn't the same thing and it isn't. You know you because you simply can't find it even if you could I dare say it wouldn't be the same and then you think you know what they are even if you even if it was a bad costume and you duplicate it. Yes it is still saying yes all the way. Well how how far into details do both of you get for instance will do you
choose everything like furniture and hand props and Mary do you go down do jewelry and handkerchiefs and how how many of these things do work on aside from you do the set you do the costumes. Then do you take care of all the other details that go along with set in costume. Yes you do. And hopefully your energy lasts through the last handkerchief of the last ashtray. Often it doesn't. And somewhere along the line you have to jack yourself up. But Tiny had props and stuff you have a preference about color perhaps or this and that and but the actual item itself may not make that much difference. But that's why you know that's why systems are higher. Yeah you have married her if your star walks on stage covering your costume with diamonds let's say it is up to you. It's your prerogative. Oh yes to say they look marvelous or I think perhaps you look ridiculous to me but yes but I do have you ever had the occasion Mary where an actor can't seem to wear a costume the costume
ends up wearing them and thereby lessening the effect of what you've done I suppose well the Nigerian Vikings certainly try to alleviate that problem in fittings. Oh yeah ideally if you could have see all the actors that were going to wear the costumes down as you're designing then. That would be just wonderful because you can tell maybe you've designed some magnificent great sweeping thing that with the train four five feet long but if an actor can't carry it and if it's going to you know inhibit him then it's ridiculous it just simply has to be. After that you have to compromise somewhere down the line and a lot of times back to your original question about the sketch is that the finished cast Now that's one of the best examples. Yeah here you may have a finished sketch and everybody thinks it's marvelous and it's been approved but you've got an actor in there was obviously so miserable that he just can't
stand you know the whole idea that it's just too exaggerated for him to carry off and you do you try you will ask him of is he able to move and you have to make him feel comfortable or you may have conceived a casting for a tall thin lips or like a short yeah fat lady on it that in that case you just simply have to redesign it. I'm afraid time has run out but thank you both for being with us and if you're both doing very well but if you don't continue as designers you can always be diplomats I'm sure. Thank you. The story behind the theater today the set designer and the costume designer. Lyle dye Jr. managing director of New York's Equity Library theater and our backstage host of these visits has been talking with Will Steven Armstrong set designer for the Broadway productions of Carnival and gentian and Mary McKinley costume designer for Broadway's calculated risk as they discussed how the written word is translated into a
visual for. Me. It. Was. That rehearsal piano and chorus in the background a reminder it's musical comedy in the spotlight. Next time when we'll revisit the theater for a talk with the musical comedy director and the choreographer Lyle Di Jr. managing director of the
Equity Library theater will meet us backstage Riverside radio WRVO Oregon brings you the story behind the theater. Produced and recorded by Riverside radio WRVA are in cooperation with the Equity Library theater under a grant in aid from the National Association of educational broadcasters WRVO R is the Metropolitan FM station of the Riverside Church in the city of New York. This is the Radio Network.
- The Story Behind the Theatre
- The Set and the Costume Director
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Series Description
- The Story Behind the Theatre is a twelve part program produced by WRVR Riverside Radio. Each week, Lyle Die Jr. of the Equity Library Theater addresses a specific aspect of theater production and interviews two people working in the New York City theater industry. The series seeks to explain the many factors involved in producing a piece of theater by talking with playwrights, producers, directors, and other industry professionals.
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- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 63-15-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “The Story Behind the Theatre; The Set and the Costume Director,” 1963-01-28, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 3, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-xk84pg90.
- MLA: “The Story Behind the Theatre; The Set and the Costume Director.” 1963-01-28. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 3, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-xk84pg90>.
- APA: The Story Behind the Theatre; The Set and the Costume Director. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-xk84pg90