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What she wore on stage
Carolyn Levy, left, and Mary Beth Gagner "Costumes can teach an actor, as well as the audience, about the role of women in other times and places and the conditions within which her character lived."
-- Mary Beth Gagner

by Carolyn Levy and Mary Beth Gagner

Mary Beth Gagner: What she wears tells us who a character is. Defines her times and place ...

Carolyn Levy: ... But more importantly, costumes tell us about the characters themselves.

MB: Clothes can be a shorthand to give clues to the audience about a character's relationships, idiosyncrasies and personality,

C: like her flamboyance,

MB: primness,

C: fastidiousness,

MB: her social status,

C: occupation and age.

MB: Costumes can teach an actor, as well as the audience, about the role of women in other times and places and the conditions within which her character lived. Garments like corsets or crinolines define movement possibilities (or impossibilities).

C: I was in "The Clandestine Marriage," an 18th-century comedy, all the women wore panniers, you know ...

MB: ... a collapsing cage crinoline - think wide hips.

C: Yes, but we each used them differently. The prim ingénue folded them delicately as she sat. I played the crazy, ranting aunt, jerking them up to my waist as I plunked myself into a seat.

MB: A character's costume grows out of the collaboration between director, designer and actor, and their interpretation of that role.

C: Each has input and each ones' thoughts inform the others' work. They need to listen to each other.

MB: Designing "Crimes of the Heart," the director and I created a "closet" of choices and each actor selected what to wear based on her particular understanding of her character.

C: When I directed "Hot L Baltimore," the designer and I gave each woman a purse or a backpack as part of her costume and asked the actor to fill it as her character might.

MB: Did the audience ever know these details?

C: Usually not, but this provided an exercise in which their characterizations deepened.

MB: When we worked together on "Trojan Women," we used a very contemporary translation, evoking modern war zones such as Bosnia, Darfur and Afghanistan. The audience was divided by gender, women facing the men, and the chorus sat among the women, functioning as a bridge through time and space.

C: We knew they needed to wear recognizable pieces that linked them to the audience members. What each woman wore grew from discussions and improvisations about the particular character she was creating and the role of women in war and the various places the play referenced. I loved coming into the costume shop and seeing your crew dirty the fabric and use cheese graters to distress the clothes to reflect the dire situation of the women.

C: The collaboration piece is what I love most ...

MB: ... It's why I do this work.

C: And why it's fun to work together!

Carolyn Levy is a freelance theater director and a professor at Hamline University. She is currently an artistic adviser for Theatre Unbound.

Mary Beth Gagner is a freelance costume designer and teaches and designs at Hamline University.

Carolyn's favorite theater writers: Anna Deavere Smith, Caryl Churchill, Ntozake Shange and Jill Dolan.

Mary Beth's book list:

The Costume Designer's Handbook by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey
The Magic Garment: Principles of Costume Design by Rebecca Cunningham
Survey of Historic Costume: A History of Western Dress by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eubank
I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections by Nora Ephron
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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