It was five days before opening night when Louisville Ballet costume designer Alex Ludwig got an email that her fabric order had been canceled.
Artistic and creative directorRobert Curran had insisted on a very specific linen for the dancers to match the ballet’s Cambodian setting. Ludwig had been planning to custom dye the white and metallic gold ordered fabric black so the metallic weave would shine through and pick up the stage lights. Five days before curtain, with 12 new costumes on the line, there was no time for a new order.
Ludwig started to panic. Then she took a breath, went to Joann Fabrics and bought every bolt of black linen the fabric and craft store had in stock. Time for plan B.
“I arranged all my work tables end to end, and I stayed until midnight for the rest of the week hand-painting this bronze crosshatch thing across 50 yards of fabric,” Ludwig said. “I just kept having to say ‘trust me, this will be great once it dries.’”
And she was right.
Resourcefulness, quick thinking and problem-solving are much-needed qualities in many creative fields, from acting to singing and painting. But theater costuming is a little bit different: If these designers are doing their jobs correctly — and costumes aren’t a primary character in the show, like Broadway’s version of Disney’s “The Lion King” — you shouldn’t notice them.
Sometimes there’s a miracle find at a thrift store, like a $6 Talbot’s dress that passed for a 1967-style for Kentucky Shakespeare‘s recent radio production of “Night of the Living Dead.” But more often than not, being a costume designer in Louisville is intense, deadline-driven work handledby a small team with a limited budget.
They make most costumes from scratch with cleverly hidden inches and closures sewn into the back to fit multiple actors. After all, many of these costumes have to last through months of shows and survive for multiple seasons.
The inside of the individual costume rooms might look like chaos, but everything has its place. Each costume shop is packed with notions, trims, fabrics and accessories, organized neatly in labeled drawers.
Kentucky Shakespeare’s costume rooms hold storage containers filled with helmets and racks of swords stacked against walls. At the Louisville Ballet, preparations for “The Nutcracker” mean rows of snarling mouse heads lined up on tables, with rows of hairpieces on styrofoam wig heads behind them. Actors Theatre has the largest amount of build space at its downtown Louisville office at 316 W. Main St., complete with six work stations, thousands of shoes organized on ceiling-high shelves and a whole wall of bolts of fabric stored upright.
Each costume room is unique, and each theater goes through different materials more than others — upholstery for Elizabethan doublets for Shakesperean actors, yards and yards of stretch nude mesh for ballet builds, and carefully stitched lace and silk for aristocratic opera characters.
Sometimes prep for a new show might look like 12 ballet dancers banging new pointe shoes against brick walls to soften them up, or a costume designer lighting bras on fire in a back alley to see how they would explode for a Humana Festival of New American Plays production.
Sometimes dressers will drill quick-changes with actors just like a sports team’s scrimmage, trying to get their times nailed down. Each change must be spot-on lest the illusion is shattered for the viewer.
Sometimes, they just figure it out as they go.
With such a small circle, most of the designers in Louisville know each other. At the Louisville Ballet, the team consists of Ludwig and three assistants. At Kentucky Shakespeare Company, Donna Downs, who has designed more than 360 shows in 25 years, runs the show with two assistants. StageOne Family Theatre’s costuming department is run by Allison Anderson, who briefly left to work at Actors Theatre and then returned.
The Kentucky Opera is led by Josette Miles, a 37-year veteran seamstress who doesn’t mince her words when fitting actors. After all, it’s her job to make everything look seamless.
“If a costume is well made, and fits the performer well, then the performer feels great and gives a better performance,” Miles said. “They are not worried about what they are wearing, they can focus on a stellar performance. So it is our job to make sure the construction of the costume is the best it can be — no tape, no safety pins.”
Actors Theatre is the only local theater that has a full-time costuming staff, led by costume director Mike Floyd and a team of up to 18, depending on the size of a given production. Actors Theatre shows like “Fifth Third Bank’s Dracula” can command 80 to 100 costumes each, not to mention the work that goes into the annual Humana Festival, which stages a handful of world premieres each year.
“The work on stage looks effortless, which really speaks to the skill of the people that work here,” Floyd said.
The action backstage is anything but effortless. During a show, you might find five people watching timers then racing to the wings to assist an actor through a quick-change. It’s organized chaos, run by the behind-the-scenes magicians that are the wardrobe team, wig team and costuming assistants. After each show, they stay late to run laundry and make sure each costume piece gets returned to its spot before the next show.
“There are tons of quick changes, and they always get the actors to where they need to be on time, wearing the same thing every night,” Floyd said. “Our two wig people manage 40 wigs by themselves. It’s a crazy amount of work.”
The wardrobe and wig teams at Actors Theatre work out of small offices underneath the stage. The wig room looks like a high-tech salon, with drawers of styling products, mirrors and labeled wig heads perched carefully on shelves, while the wardrobe team has corkboards hung up above computers with endless Excel spreadsheets listing every item every actor wears and when they change. There’s an entire shelf of makeup wipes, first-aid items and safety pins, too, just in case.
The costuming department outgrew its office and moved to a larger upstairs space in the mid-’90s. Now, it takes up about half a floor, and bright light illuminates work stations and dress forms. In the back corner, three long racks of costumes pinned with notes wait for stitches to make fit adjustments for the cast of Fifth Third Bank’s “A Christmas Carol.”
You might guess that the 44th annual “A Christmas Carol,” which opens Nov. 23, is the most intense show in terms of costuming. And while the classic Charles Dickens tale does feature about 80 costumes, including a collection of fancy party gowns, a Puss in Boots and a Robinson Crusoe, it’s definitely not the most complex production that Actors runs. That honor goes to “Dracula.”
“Even though ‘Dracula’ has a smaller cast than ‘Carol,’ because of the blood, special effects, and two-month run, we have to triple everything we make in the show,” Floyd said. “We have upwards of 100 costumes for ‘Dracula’ even though you only see about 20.”
One set of “Dracula” costumes will go out for a matinee, Floyd said, then return to be washed, scrubbed and air-dried while another set is prepped for the evening performance. Whoever plays the lead female character, Mina, has to shower several times during the course of the show because she and her costumes get covered in so much fake blood.
Even with several sets of costumes, it’s challenging for the costume crew to keep up with it all. So, they started making other adjustments.
“We’ve started switching to polyester fabrics because blood comes out of it better,” Floyd said. “Even for men’s suits, we’re pushing toward polyester wool blends because you can throw them in a washing machine and they survive.”
Even though many of the costumes are made with polyester fabrics, they have to look like they’re made with natural blends to fit period accuracy. They also have to look like they have period-accurate closures, like lacing and rows of buttons.
But in theater, there isn’t time for tightening laces and fidgeting with buttons. Kentucky Shakespeare costumes often feature zippers hidden by fake lacing panels, while Actors Theatre costumes often close with what Floyd calls giant “Whopper-Popper snaps.”
It’s a completely different game when it comes to costuming for the Louisville Ballet.
“In the ballets, we have to use 20 hooks and bars up the back, because it’s the only thing that won’t pop off when the dancers are on stage, moving and breathing so much,” Ludwig said. “Zippers are also a nightmare because if a zipper pops, you’re done, and you can’t do anything about it.”
All the costume designers agree on one thing, though: velcro is never to be used on an actor with a mic. There’s nothing like a loud, modern ripping sound to break a story’s illusion.
No matter the trim or closure, chances are these costume rooms have it in stock somewhere. They keep almost everything, especially if it can be creatively re-used.
Despite the glamour of a finished show, the costume teams still operate with tight budgets and slim margins. It’s expensive to store finished costumes, so old stock has been trimmed down. It’s partly why the teams work so hard to make the magic happen with what they have.
“I focus most work on the top half of the costume, where people are looking anyway,” Downs said. “You don’t want to cheat the audience, and you want to be respectful of the work, but my job is to give the director what the director wants and not kill my actor. Those are the first rules.”
Because many of the Kentucky Shakespeare shows are performed outside in parks during sweltering summers, wigs and heavy makeup are kept to a minimum. The layers of upholstery fabric needed to make Shakespeare garments are heavy enough. And solid historical boots are a must because of stunt fighting and movement on rougher terrain.
“When I do a period show and the budget is skimpy, I have to sprinkle the look throughout the show,” Downs said. “Not all the money goes to one person’s look. A lot of the budget goes to shoes, and the rest of it is making sure the fabric choice is proper for the period. Sometimes just one or two choices for detail can make something happen.”
That’s the final piece of the costume magic: what does it look like to the audience? Deep reds, furs and gold say “royalty.” Lace and silks say “rich.” The trick is to create those themes without spending the money that real velvet, furs and gold would cost, Downs said.
“You could do any show you wanted to do with no costumes and the world is not going to come grinding to a halt,” Downs said. “But it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.”
By the Numbers
- Largest show: 90+ costumes for four full casts of “The Brown-Forman Nutcracker”
- Most challenging: Finding skilled craftspeople, sourcing materials
- Material most used: nude stretch mesh
- Go to design: hooks and bars, stretch fabrics
Actors Theatre of Louisville
- Largest show: 100+ costumes for 18 actors in ‘Fifth Third Bank’s Dracula’
- Most challenging: Balancing the logistics of working on several shows at once
- Material most used: underclothing like socks, undershirts, pantyhose and tights
- Go to design: snap closures, polyester fabrics for machine washing
- Largest Show: 32 costumes for 14-16 actors in “King Lear”
- Most challenging: Creating full Shakespeare works on a budget
- Material most used: patterned upholstery and home-dec fabric
- Go to design: zippers hidden under fake lacing
- Largest show: 215+ costumes for 54 singers in “Carmen”
- Most challenging: Altering rented costumes to fit each singer
- Material most used: Antique lace and silk for period pieces
- Go-to design: depends on the period of the show