Costumes help make the character on stage

Great stage costumes help establish a character’s status and aspirations, they help a performer inhabit a role and complement his movement, whether he is sword fighting in “Romeo and Juliet” or gliding across the stage in “Paradise Interrupted.”

The costumes Jennifer Wen Ma and Melissa Kirgan developed for “Paradise Interrupted” were nearly finalized last December, but after performing two excerpts from the Huang Ruo opera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March, Ma decided to make changes.

“Melissa had to really rethink the final ink dress, decipher how it would work and what kind of message we wanted to give with that character,” the production’s designer and director said of her costumer. “The idea didn’t change. It was a dress that had the ink going up, but before she was in a much tighter corseted dress. As beautiful as that would have been, I just felt that final character (had) developed more flowiness to her body, and (the dress) restricted the flow. That was a major change.”

Ma and Kirgan, who have collaborated on womenswear for the fashion label Eko-Lab, started working on the costumes for “Paradise Interrupted” two years ago. Once funding was secured, Kirgan presented Ma with concepts and inspiration boards. The actors, including the opera’s star Qian Yi, were also given the opportunity to give feedback on their costumes.

“There was a lot of back and forth between Qian Yi and the designer, because Qian Yi has to be totally comfortable and feel that the dresses support her character as well as the wigs,” Ma said.

Qian Yi first appears onstage in a noticeably unadorned bias-cut white-sheath dress, which because the eye has nowhere else to travel, highlights Kirgan’s talent for construction.

The singer reappears in a white fringed gown, with hanging sleeves, that has enough heft to serve as a visual counterweight to the men’s architectural robes with geometric shoulders strong enough to lance. The ink-stained finale dress returns to the beautiful simplicity of the first dress but now it has been enriched by the black ink of self-realization that permeates the blank skirt.

Qian Yi’s grace as a performer was also factored into the design of her second gown.

“Jennifer said that she wanted the wind to move through her and all around her, so we immediately gravitated towards fringe,” Kirgan said. “We wanted to make that a garment that would transcend the elements. We added paillettes to the bottom to create movement when she does that really amazing kind of reverse moon walk,” she said referring to the spangles scattered around the hem.

Creating movement was also crucial to The Scottish Ballet’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” with sets and costumes by Niki Turner.

“For Blanche, we’ve got one layer of cotton and one layer of silk chiffon on the top so it gives her plenty of freedom,” Head of Wardrobe Caro Harkness said. “She did start off with about 30 meters of fabric, but when the designer and the choreographer saw it they decided to remove a lot of it so it ended up being just two layers on the skirt, which gave it that ethereal feeling.”

The design process began roughly a year before the premiere and the costumes were ready about nine months before, allowing for alterations based on the dancer’s movements, according to Harkness.

“Sometimes you have to make little changes so that they can actually work correctly,” Harkness said.

Another significant challenge in costume design is that performers frequently have to move out of one costume into another in as little as 90 seconds. Helping performers be quick-change artists was a major consideration for the designers of the costumes for Romeo and Juliet. Matt Doherty who plays Tybalt, Paris, Montague and Peter, was able to make a fast switch between characters, because he kept the 1930s base costume of high-waisted wide-leg trousers, braces and a simple white shirt on throughout the production. He flung different costumes over the base layer.

These costumes highlight the character’s wealth and position, which helped Doherty get into each of his different roles.

“The fit and the hold of the different costumes almost makes you embody a different type of persona,” Doherty said. “Paris’ jerkin and cloak are very fitted and rigid, so the posture is much better than Tybalt’s would be.”

Doherty is not the only artist who took on multiple roles at Spoleto. Ugo Nespoli designed the costumes for the new production of “Veremonda” — as well as the sets and the festival’s poster. There is a collection of Nespoli’s design sketches for “Veremonda” in the Wadsworth Room on the scond floor of the Dock Street Theatre.

Blair Sylvester is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.