Costume designers bring life to Shakespeare characters, from Falstaff to the 'Tavern Tarts'

B. Modern describes her SSC costume studio as a "busy, happy hive." Here, from left, are costume interns Melinda Hare and Jessica Tran; costume design assistant Amy Bobeda; and B. Modern, costume designer.
Here are a few of B. Modern's costume design concepts, including the "Tavern Tarts" featured in a scene from Henry IV, Part One. 
Here, from left, is  Deena Hashem, the SSC costume intern for Comedy of Errors and a 2011 grad of the UCSC art program; costume designer and UCSC associate professor Brandin Barón; and costume design assistant Christina Dinkel, a 2010 UCSC graduate in theater arts.
These are a few of the design concepts and costume renderings for The Comedy of Errors. (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)

'The soul of this man is in his clothes'

As the 30th anniversary season approaches, Shakespeare Santa Cruz's costume designers imagine and create what the Bard's characters might have worn. 

Sir John Falstaff is a boozer, a braggart, and a womanizing slob. He claims he can fight 50 men at a time, but flees from any hint of danger. He says his waistline was once as slender as an eagle's talon. Now his stomach threatens to pop out of his shirt. Still, he's very fond of himself.

Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's richest characters, but the great playwright had surprisingly little to say about his costume, or the clothes of any other character.

How would such a vain and dissipated man dress himself? What would those clothes say about Falstaff's past, his view of himself, and how he wants others to see him?

Such questions drive costume designer B. Modern as she puts together the clothes for Shakespeare Santa Cruz's upcoming production of Henry IV, Part One, which opens August 5 at the Mainstage Theater on campus.

This summer, Modern--and Brandin Barón, costume designer for Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of The Comedy of Errors, which opens July 22 in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen--shared a few secrets about the craft of costume design, an art form that can change the way an audience experiences a Shakespeare play.

The director, the set designers, and the technicians all color the way the crowd experiences one of the Bard's plays, but costume designers may have the upper hand. A good designer can increase the impact of any character, from a dramatic lead to a walk-on.

With help from a great designer, an actor can suggest a character's background, insecurities, pretensions, and ambitions. They can make a character speak volumes without even opening his mouth.

The power of dressing up

B. Modern makes a memorable first impression in a brick-red terry-cloth jacket, a rainbow-colored scarf she knitted herself, checkerboard-patterned vinyl shoes with black-cat faces on the toes, red valentine socks, and a pair of hoop earrings. A bee-shaped button completes the effect.

Her studio on campus looks like the best consignment shop you've ever seen, with mounds of period hats, capes, ribbons, and stackable crates labeled "Ecru," "Florals," "Plaids and Checks," and "Brocade." Here, she conjures clothes that 25 performers will wear on stage.

In this case, Modern is not making clothes from scratch; she is repurposing clothes she's created for previous productions. In most cases, mixing, matching, and accessorizing does the trick.

Along the way, she seeks input from the actors, and the production’s director, Scott Wentworth. In creating Falstaff's costume, she aims to build the past into his clothes. His greatcoat, like Falstaff, is a ruin. The elbows are worn straight through. His top hat slouches.

"It looks like the seams have been let out and patched and let out again as Falstaff got fatter,'' she said. "When he turns around, I want the coat to billow around him.''

Other characters wear a mash-up of styles. The ornery Hotspur wears Confederate rebel garb. The hero, Prince Hal, is decked out in contemporary leatherwear. Douglas, "the biggest bad-ass in the play," looks like a samurai. She's dressing a group of "tavern tarts" in corsets,  punky hairdos, and, by her own estimation, "five centuries' worth of underwear. You'll see more styles of underwear than you can imagine!''

Modern--who is also designing the costumes for SSC’s production of The Three Musketeers, directed by Art Manke--starts out with artist renderings, but she knows the styles will change over time. "I am painstaking,'' she said with a shrug. "It takes me a long time. I wish I was more gestural sometimes, but I get so involved. I love to put in time and detail. Sometimes it's hard for me to nail it down and get it just right."

Sometimes she alters the costumes after the first preview. "The last show I did, I had to change two major characters after the second dress rehearsal. A lot of times, you just don't see the whole picture until you have all the actors together in state."

Borrowing from silent movies

Just outside Brandin Barón's studio, costume design assistant Christina Dinkel walked down the hall, holding a pair of prop handcuffs that will be used in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, directed by Danny Scheie. "The actors felt that they were a little scratchy," Dinkel said. "I'm putting a little moleskin on them."

Barón is accustomed to troubleshooting. Costume design is fluid. If an actor can't work with a prop or piece of clothing, it must be changed. If actors wear clothes that look too similar, or don't fit their characters, they must be altered or replaced. Sometimes, there is little connection between Baron's first-draft artistic renderings and the costumes that appear in the final production.

Like Modern, Barón gave himself some license. The play takes place in ancient Greece, but Barón wanted to avoid "tropes." In many productions, costume designers use spear-holding Amazons and people prancing around in armor.

Instead of going that route, the director, Danny Scheie, has been using references to classic American comedies. Barón added his own perspective to Scheie's concept. He dresses up Egeon, the imprisoned father of identical twins, striped jail outfit, complete with a ball and chain. Barón has already changed the way he will dress Solinus. The dapper dandy in a top hat and tuxedo now looks jaunty and nautical, "more like the Skipper in Gilligan's Island." Another character, the Abbess, is wearing an oversized, winged hat that references the one Sally Field wore in her late-60s TV series The Flying Nun.

Barón sometimes changes his designs based on audience reactions. He says his artistic process is "very much a dictatorship, but if you laugh harder, you get a lot of favor. We like to bring in new people into the rehearsals and see how they react."

"In Santa Cruz," he said, "not a lot of people will question you if you go against convention."

See the full schedule for Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 2011 season.