Putting Design into the Hands of the Actor: The Omni Garment

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When dealing with a director who feels strongly that the actors should develop their interpretation of the role during rehearsal, making changes right up to and including performance times, it is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to conceive of traditional style costumes to fit that director’s production. Mostly, when I work with a director like this I steer him towards embracing the idea of anti-costumes (neutral costumes of non-period shape), which are at least not a liability towards an actor in flux.

For the costumes for Much Ado About Nothing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, however, the director, Tom Riccio, wanted elaborate Renaissance looking dress, with a masquerade ball feel to the show. He also wanted to double cast, put women in some men’s roles, have violently athletic movement, (aerobics-Shakespeare he called it) and allow performers to develop their interpretations of their characters, without dictation, up to the end of the rehearsal period. This last item particularly created a need for flexible costuming, since the costume department could not know which “tack” each performer would take until it was too late to change the character interpretation of the costume. The number of interpretations an actor might produce for the character Dogberry alone is positively hair raising in this context, particularly when one considers that the show needed to be designed prior to it’s even being cast.

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I found it necessary to find a way to fulfill the director’s wish for a period-looking show, while still allowing the actors to move and alter their costumes at will. This was a challenge I had been secretly waiting for. Odd to say, I have always thought that actors knew far more about choosing proper costumes than even they realize, and much, much more than they are given credit for. I had tried for some time to cater to actor’s costume requests, but I had never set out to do a whole show where the actors could actually determine much of the design for their roles.

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To take care of the “aerobic” movement problem, I concluded that it would be possible to embellish unitards with paint and sleeve puffs to create a kind of Ballet version of Renaissance dress to allow for “aerobic” action, but this still didn’t allow costumes to change from role to role. To do this I still needed some other way to change the basic garment.

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I then found an unusual garment at a craft fair called a Cameleon. The Cameleon is a strange invention that makes up into ten different things from a purse to a cape to a pair of pants. The Cameleon is made from a large hexagon of fabric, with a gathered tube in the center. The tube has a zipper and three drawstring casings, and the hem is also bordered with a drawstring. I couldn’t use the Cameleon directly, since all the 10 garments look more hippie-ish than Renaissance.

However, seeing the Cameleon inspired me to try to invent a simple garment that could convert into multiple variations.

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muchdiagram Basic concept for the Omnigarment

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Working from the basis of a masquerade mask, I developed a series of fabric squares attached to the mask on elastic bands that I called the Omnigarment: a single article of clothing that can be arranged by the actor into three different types of skirts, two types of breeches, seven types of tunics, five types of capes, and three types of wimple as well as a few other things. In addition, the garment could be worn as a mask for the masked ball scene of Shakespeare’s play. The pattern, while radically different from the Cameleon, was simple to sew and make, and was capable of more “period”-looking variations than the other garment.

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I then took a single black and white outline design of a unitard with “period” sleeves attached, and a flat design of the omnigarment and Xeroxed 60 of them, a pair for each performer. I then embellished each pair with the “rainbow sherbet” colors the director had requested as suitable for a comedy. On the day the play was cast, I presented the designs to the actors by laying them out on the floor and asking that they chose one with a color scheme for themselves. Interestingly, the double cast actors, (the two Benedicts, Heros, Beatrices, and Claudios,) picked nearly identical color schemes as each other, despite not consulting their counterparts. All of the actors miraculously chose the colors I would have chosen for them myself, so, while giving the performers a strong sense of control, I lost nothing in my sense of the quality of the design. (As I said, most actors’ costume good sense is badly underrated.)

muchado5 muchado6 muchado7 a few renderings

After construction of the omnigarments I then made a home video demonstrating twenty-five ways to wear the garment. I showed the video to the actors prior to first dress, and then handed the garments over to the actors. They discovered three more ways to wear it within ten minutes. This thing is a great toy both for the actors and costumers.

Then, in addition to the masks on the Omnigarments, we made about 10 extra masks to tie the design together and underline the play’s obsession with disguise and mistaken identity. These were attached to assorted body parts depending on the preference of the performers. False faces peered out at the audience from every imaginable body part: A pregnant woman decided to wear a mask over her belly, a “lewd fellow” (played by a woman) wore his on his crotch as a codpiece, the dunder headed constable Dogberry wore his on his hat, and a swift-running messenger boy chose two faces for knee-pads. All the masks were made out of light, washable Veriform (aka Hexelite) thermoplastic mesh.

Most people viewing the play never guessed that what appeared to be a variety of costumes on the performers, was in fact simply a series of very similar costumes (differentiated by color) worn in a variety of ways. Even the various long robes worn by the older characters in the play were simply longer versions of the same Omnigarment minus the mask: Leonato’s elegant robe, Friar Francis’ monk’s garment, and Dogberry’s paunch-highlighting gown were all cut from the same basic pattern, converted to long rectangles. Nearly all the actors devised their own costume arrangements, requiring very little guidance on the part of costume staff. Actors switched their styles as they switched roles for double casting, and some even switched styles from scene to scene.

Eventually, after the show ended, these costumes were rented to another company, without alteration, for Taming of the Shrew. They apparently suited the needs of that play so well that despite a tepid review of the acting, the costumes were still praised quite strongly.

Not all shows are suited to glittering gold masks and sherbet colored Renaissance sleeves. Naturally, I have fantasized about a number of other forms that might be useful for changeable actor-controlled costumes. Recently I have been working on designs made of slit ovals and rectangles of heavy knit, which I hope to eventually use in a more serios show than Much Ado. This form seems to wish to tie into Japanese and Medieval looking shapes that appear very solid and classical.

In the realm of ready-made costumes, obviously,the hippie-ish Cameleon would be great for earthy `60s style shows. The Cameleon company attests that their garments have been bought by theatres for production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Cameleon also has the advantage of being commercially available in a large number of colors, as well as plain muslin. It’s also very durable, suitable for ensemble building work.

Stretch knit multi-piece ensembles like the commercially available Units and Multiples also are capable of a huge variety of changes of silhouette, and are particularly good for dance and movement. Stretch and Sew produces a multi sized pattern for all the knit ensemble pieces for women for only $10, and sewing these things is mindlessly simple and fast. I watched a Women’s experimental theatre company a few years ago make fantastic use of the small stretch tubes in these sets, wrapping them around different parts of their anatomy during different moments in their piece, doing their transformations on stage. In fact it is the on stage transformative possibilities of omnigarments that make them most theatrically exciting.

Another less drastic alternative than making or buying a whole new set of costumes, is making up a box of already made stock costumes from old shows, with a variety of colors, textures and accessories, that actors can create full outfits with. This, however, requires more knowledgeable performers than the other methods, and requires a great deal of costumer assistance at rehearsals to help the actors. Generally I haven’t found this method effective with any but the most costume-experienced performers on the one extreme, or children on the other. Middle ground performers just don’t handle this well.

Finally, there is also the obvious possibility of your creating a new omnigarment, of a different shape. As I mentioned earlier, just the slight variation of the larger, rectangular version of the 4-square shape, without a mask, worn by the older characters, could convert into about a half-dozen different variations from the shorter masked original. Other shapes, I have pondered over include stretchable tubes and bags, circles, triangles with snap ends, assorted squares and rectangles, and a variety of stars and octagons. The secret seems to be in finding a shape that is neither too simple to be limiting or too complicated to be used by the actor.

The possibilities, though hardly endless, are at least varied enough to provide a large number of very distinct design looks, suitable to an equally large variety of non-naturalistic production styles. And while Omnigarments for costumes, are unsuitable for many plays, the advantages to including actors in the design process, are too obvious to require defending: Student performers can thereby develop an interest in design, as well as a sense of responsibility for their costume. It is no longer this outside imposed “thing”, but a product of their own creative imagination and ingenuity. The cast is drawn together by the shared experience of exploring the conversion possibilities if the garment, and assisting in any on stage changes. The costume becomes what it is supposed to be, an on stage tool for the actor. The costumer is surprised (I was) and pleased at discovering that actors do in fact have a latent design sense, and develops an improved respect for actors. Actors in turn are flattered to be trusted with important design decisions, and don’t get in an adversarial position with the designer. The designer retains control of the look of the show as a whole, while the actor gains greater control over the look of his individual character. And the audience, if it’s aware of the process (depending on the type of garment it may or may not be obvious) is fascinated. No redoing of costume construction to change the designs at the last minute, no actor/costumer wars, everybody wins.

Go on to Diagram,s for Making The Omni Garment

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