Costume Design, Theatre Production, and Stage Management

The stage manager is responsible for an endless array of interrelated tasks for putting on a play. From pyrotechnics to communicating and corralling actors, from coordinating between backstage production and the A/V booth to organizing every single prop and costume garment. And then during the production, everything must be like clockwork in a choregraphed list of precisely timed actions that frequently feel like chaos but which somehow comes off as meticulous on stage. When things are working like they should.

As part of our series on New Orleans Theatre, we wanted to create a space to discuss the intersection between costume design, production costs, casting, and stage management. For most plays and certainly for major theater companies, the stage manager oversees an entire stage management team, including at least one assistant stage manager who works with costuming. Costume design is a tremendously important aspect of theatre production, but it’s also one of the most visible and recognized parts of theatre. Costume production and management is its own specialty.

Decisions related to costume production extend all the way back to casting in many cases. In lower budget productions, the director and casting director may be restricted to casting leads and understudies of roughly the same physical size so that multiple costumes of a more intricate nature aren’t required. In major theatre productions, the exact opposite may be the case in which a large and varied cast require a virtual endless wardrobe of multiple costumes for the same role.

Local Connection to New Orleans Theatre

While this is true for many traveling shows, Hamilton is a great example. (Hamilton is playing at Broadway in New Orleans from March 12th-31st 2019.) Known for its diverse casting as inseparable from the play’s central theme, Hamilton often has different actors in various roles from one production to the next and even one night to the next within the same production series. And with a looser adherence to a character’s physical appearance, even more costumes are often needed. It’s difficult to alter and reuse a costume when one actor is 5’9” and 165 lbs and another actor for the same role is 6’3” and 215 lbs. “It’s the story about America then, told by America now,” as director Tommy Kail told USA Today.

Tips and Resources for Costume Management

Personalized costume design isn’t something you can just fudge and hope to get away with. A costume that’s two sizes or even a single size too large or too small, and it won’t look right. Willing suspension of disbelief only extends so far, but even more importantly, it’s an aesthetic distraction when not intended. If something looks off about the costume, it will be predominantly viewed as a costuming choice that’s meant to reflect on the nature of the character. This is an issue as much about costume and stage management as it is costume production. If there’s a wardrobe rack of similar costumes and the wrong one is handed to the wrong actor during a scene change, the results can be awkward and off-putting on stage, whether it’s the result of a mis-sized costume or a delay in the action.

As part of a behind-the-scenes interview, Katie Dezern discusses this topic and her time as a costume shop assistant at the College of William and Mary Theatre and Dance. “We have to have the actors come in for fittings because we need to make sure the costume pieces fit them, won’t fall off and can stand up to some of the movements they are doing,” Dezern says. “The costume designer depends on the actors somewhat for knowing about their characters, and knowing how their characters react and their personalities, so she can accurately design.”

Our best tip is to understand every costume change inside and out and then deploy a relentless system of labels, tags, and signs to reinforce this process and every decision point along the chain. So, for most productions, it’s necessary to have personalized costumes. Of course, it’s not just matching the right costume with the right actor. In more complex, multi-act plays, you’ll also need to be worried about matching the right costume with the right actor with the right scene. For this purpose, we recommend hangtags, but specifically ones that are part of the hanger or rack, rather than the costume. Or else it’s included as part of the sewn in label. Avoid exterior snap on tags. Given enough chances, you’ll inevitably miss one and let an actor go on stage with this clothing tag still attached.

Finally, we recommend whole-rack wardrobe labels or even basic signage, especially when using portable wardrobe rollers. In the last minutes before the production is to begin, we’ve seen cases where entire wardrobe racks have gone missing. Interns, volunteers, and other stage assistants are more likely to remember mistakenly moving this wardrobe to other side of the venue warehouse if the wardrobe is clearly signed. Stay diligent, follow these tips, and develop your own tricks during pre-production. The show will go on.