Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Room to breath

All the Single Ladies is blasting through the speakers on a bright sunny and already warm spring morning. Across a stage that has been made to look reminiscent of  a Shakespearean theater, a line of ten women in 1533 English court gowns glide in a circle as they shake their hand in the air. The audience is on their feet cheering and laughing. I am sitting clutching at the hand of the priest* next to me and throwing glances back at William Kemp** to see if he approves or not.

What? It is a typical weekend for me.

As I have mentioned more than a few times, I work for a renaissance festival. Quite technically I work at two different festivals, the Texas Renaissance Festival in the fall and Scarborough Renaissance Festival in the spring.

At the former I work in a shop selling jewelry and statuary while wearing 16th century like garb and speaking in a British accent. It is fun, but really it is more of a job considering I get paid for it. It is much less creative and a lot more running about trying to get things done in order to make money.

Now the latter is an entirely different beast. For Scarby I am a member of the performance company. What this means is I am a costumed performer who walks around in the streets portraying a member of the village or court or someone else from 1533. I get to be one of the people who try to make the experience a little more real for our patrons.

Photo by Donald Allen
Currently I am playing a gypsy at the festival, though in the past I have been a village messenger as well as a French noble woman. All of the roles have their own quirks and are fun to play for different reasons. I am personally  not a fan of playing court, but that might have to do with my dislike for walking in a hoop skirt.

Gypsies are fun and jinggly and a great community group to be in. The accent is a little harder to start but hard to lose once you get into it. The costuming is also much more involved than any other character. I seriously spend 45 minutes on my makeup and another 45 minutes getting dressed. I am pretty sure ten minutes is devoted to jewelry alone.

Performing is not my only responsibility at Scarby. You may have noticed in recent posts how I have been going on about being insanely stressed and doing a large amount of sewing. Well this all stems from being a member of the costuming staff for the SAPA ***.

Costuming falls under the Character department, so technically the head of Character is the head of costuming. That isn't me. I am one of the two costumers who works for the Character director. This is my third year in the position, and over the last three years we have been slowly moving the cast towards a certain look.

There is this strange balance that has to be maintained when it comes to costuming faire. For one thing we are dealing with the giant hurdle of historical accuracy. Our faire is set in 1533 England. That is a pretty specific time frame to work within. As much as the history geek in me would love for us to be as close to historically accurate as possible, we have other issues that prevent that.

The second challenge is the fact that this is in fact theater, and there are things we have to be able to do. A lot of our performers have to be able to do stage combat work that certain costuming will make impossible. We have modern physical limitations that require us to cut certain corners.

Then there is the fact that we perform in April and May in a cow pasture in north Texas. We experience everything from snow to 120 degree heat. There is a need to make our costumes as light as possible while still being durable. I am constantly having to think of ways to vent costumes or make them detachable so that when the oppressing heat sets in, I don't have actors falling out from heat stroke. 

Now I also don't design every individual costume. There are roughly 120 performers and I don't have enough time for that sort of thing. I have individually designed a few of the costumes, such as my own, the husbeasts, and the kids, as well as a few random peasants and the like. For the most part though the designs come from the actors themselves. They know their characters, and they know what they want them to look like.

What I do is more helping define the overall look we are trying to achieve with the cast as a whole as well as the individual groups that make up the cast. My partner and I get to approve color choices, material choices, basic designs, trims, and all of the other details that go into making a costume a costume. We help steer the actors within the lines we have set for them. This is a lot of work.

Ive been getting official emails since January on costuming. Once orientation happened at the beginning of February things really took off. Since then I have been in the thick of it. Not only was I making a complete new costume for the husbeast, doing maintenance on my own costume, and making a few shirts for a friend, I have been fielding questions, putting out fires, and problem solving like crazy.

Ive pretty much spent the past two months staring at 120 or so actors trying to make sure they look right and that their complicated costuming would be completed on time. The deadline was technically two weeks ago. We always get them to finish a week before the big reveal so that we can have any alterations done before we hit the run.

This year everyone was running further behind than they should have been. Health issues, deaths, unemployment, and other unexpected disasters had put my core group of seamstresses somewhat off their game.  I spent the majority of my last week in a mild state of panic as to whether or not my cast would be in functioning costumes for the reveal and preview event.

The whole costuming process culminates with a Costume Parade. This is a lot of fun for the cast, and a lot of nail biting for us. We separate everyone into their visual groups, pick some silly fun music, and let them dance around on stage. Honestly there is something incredibly entertaining about watching the clergy dance to Born this Way, and peasants meandering about to Red Solo Cup. All the while my counterpart and I sit with the director and discuss what we think of the way the cast looks as a whole.

I always feel like I need to have a flask on hand to get through this event. Everyone else is laughing and cheering and having a good time. Meanwhile I am sweating and trying not to panic. We sit and listen to him pick at small details. We preempt several of his comments telling him we already know of some problems and they are already being remedied.

Finally the king and queens are traipsing off the stage to get their pictures taken for our records and the show is over. Our director was incredibly pleased. He had lots of detail notes to give us, but nothing that was really major. If all of my notes include hoop bones showing and some missing trim work I am a happy camper. There was no one that was a disaster and all of our groups looked cohesive. We also had several looks that could be considered iconic.All in all, they look beautiful.

My job as costumer never really ends, but the hard part is over now. Everyone is dressed and everyone looks damn good. Now all I have to do is maintenance over the next two months and focus on being a performer myself. It is so much stress, but in the end, as I look out at my beautiful cast, it is so worth it.

We are the pretty faire, and I helped make it that way.

*My other costuming person plays the village priest.
**Our director plays the actor William Kemp.
*** Scarborough Academy for the Performing Arts.


  1. That costume is fantastic!

  2. Thank you! That is actually last years, which is pretty much the same as this years except for the bodice which you can barely see for the bolero. I lost like 40 pounds in the last year so I had to have a new one made. I made everything I am wearing except the bodice, mostly because I hate working with boning. 

  3. My goodness that sounds like a lot of work. This sounds like a real labour of love.

  4. That sounds like so much fun and your costume is just beautiful!!

  5. You know it really is. Every time I think it is too much stress I remember how much I love it and am good with it again. 

  6. Thank you. It is really the best time in the world.