Theatrical threads

By Brianna Wellen

Iconic looks from some of the most famous 20th Century plays performed in Chicago stood tall, displayed on dress forms for crowds to see up close and in person. Costume technicians hard at work, draping patterns, distressing jeans and rhythmically performing a series of quick changes surrounded the elegant room’s perimeter at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., on Nov. 13 for a cocktail-sipping crowd to see. Attendees of Steppenwolf Theatre’s second “Behind the Curtain” event were able to gauge the months of work that went into creating the looks of the season’s characters.

At first glance Steppenwolf Theatre’s uniquely modern repertoire lacks the intricacy of Shakespearean and period costumes. By holding an event in the “Behind the Curtain” series on the inner workings of Steppenwolf’s costume department, the subtleties of contemporary design and the decision to create avant-garde pieces are brought to light. Showing every step of the process from design inception to final curtain, Steppenwolf used this year’s program to bring a new appreciation to each look the characters wear.

Independent designers, both Chicago- and New York City-based, are commissioned for each show. An understanding of the storyline and the time period are necessary as well as the timing of scene-to-scene costume changes. Steppenwolf primarily performs 20th-Century works, so the look of most shows is decidedly modern. Intricacies for these pieces don’t come from the look of the clothes but rather the function, according to Steppenwolf’s wardrobe supervisor Jessica Stratton. Hidden snaps and zippers are added to the costumes to make them easier to get on and off between scenes. Working closely with the directors and the designers ensures costume changes go as smoothly as possible, Stratton said.

Erin Cook, Steppenwolf’s staff dresser, works at understanding every garment and being prepared for actors to jump from one look to the next. She learned her lesson on her first professional wardrobe job. A change that should have taken four minutes instead took 16 because she didn’t fully understand the rigging of the elaborate wedding dress the actress had to change into. Understanding the designer’s vision in early stages prevents these types of situations, she said.

“We will have discussions with the draper like, ‘We know they have 40 seconds to get out of that so we’re going to want to rig all of this,’” Stratton said. “We prefer zippers to buttons, we prefer hooks to zippers and snaps here and there. We try to get some of that stuff taken care of before we get into the tech process because it makes it a lot easier.”

Steppenwolf performs about six shows for each regular season from June to March, and new pieces are built for nearly every show. For “August: Osage County,” which had costumes exclusively bought when it was first performed in Chicago, workers designed new costumes to replicate the bought items when the show returned last year. The original costumes were being used in a London production at the time.

According to Steppenwolf’s costume technician and draper Myron Elliott, the simplest costumes go through a long process. The pattern is draped on the dress form in muslin; then a paper pattern is created from the muslin; a mock-up of the dress is sewn in a cheap fabric for custom fittings and finally the end product is fashioned. This process can take 40 to 60 hours for each piece, and productions often call for multiple items for each actor.

While drapers are heavily relied upon for clothing construction, crafters are called in to work on details such as distressing clothes and making all extra accessories, which range from hats and masks to armor and jewelry—everything that isn’t regular sewing. Elizabeth Flauto, an independent craft costumer, isn’t part of the full-time costume staff but is called in to help with extra details on Steppenwolf costumes. A recent Steppenwolf production of “The Tempest,” a Shakespeare play outside the theater’s typical 20th-Century works, called on the craft services to create intricate masks, a set of mechanical-looking wings and a detailed, painted star map lining the coat of one of the characters.

“On a typical Steppenwolf show I might [work] three days because it’s a fairly light load,” Flauto said. “I worked for about a month and a half straight for ‘The Tempest.’”

Craft costumers are on call for more intricate productions, and those who work in Steppenwolf’s costume shop—aiding in the costumes’ creation and maintenance—are as well. Erin Gallagher, a member of the costume shop team, was heavily involved in “The Tempest” production. Because shows vary in size and costume requirements, after the designer knows what is needed, the shop foreman, Kevin Peterson, will call in a crew.

“If Caryn [Klein] say, the designer wants this, then he’ll say we’ll need 20 people for that or we’ll need five people for that,” Gallagher said. “It kind of works hierarchically that way. There are a few staff members who are in the costume shop year-round. Then there is the middle ground [people], who are kind of like independent contractors. Then there’s over-hire, which is when we need more [people] than we have.”

Though the physical costume shop is spacious, according to Gallagher, it is not always used for intensive building or storage like a theater’s costume shop typically would be. During months when there are no productions, the shop takes on projects for places like the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, and Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., to keep everyone working. The lack of extravagant attire in the costume shop can sometimes leave people underwhelmed, Gallagher said. The costumes on hand are mostly suits, dress shirts and plain shoes because of the 1960s or later setting for most shows.

“There is some vintage stuff, but because a lot of this stuff is built, it’s all contemporary and often toted as sort of boring,” Gallagher said. “They did ‘David Copperfield,’ John Mahoney played King Lear, so there is some opportunity for a big costume item but there’s not a lot of call for it.”

Executing contemporary rather than period designs makes the costume department’s job harder, according to Caryn Klein, Steppenwolf’s costume director. The design must be more precise to accurately portray the character, and sometimes actors must be convinced the costume is suitable. When dressing in a period outfit, there isn’t usually an opinion of how a person looks because it feels more like the embodiment of a character, Klein said. Actors are more opinionated when it comes to modern clothing because it is more equated to how they look already.

“It’s also tricky to, in a subtle way, tell a story rather than in a big way,” Klein said. “You want to tell it like, ‘What do I know about you because you wear that necklace, the kind of glasses you wear?’ The choices are very particular.”

Whether the piece is subtle and modern or over-the-top and historical, it takes months of work and every aspect of Steppenwolf’s costume department is involved to bring its shows to life.

“The full responsibility is from the time the design is presented to us from the time they get on stage,” Klein said. “We’re responsible from the skin out—underwear, hats, the whole bit—to honor the design process and keep the standard of the theater.”