Learning the Art of Costume Design
Posted 06/07/2018 11:03AM

As part of her Sixth Form project, Emily Byrne spent a day shadowing a professional costume designer and learning the ins and outs of what goes on behind the scenes of a show. As a nine-time stage actor at the Abbey, Emily is familiar with staging, costuming, and the elements required for a production, but her day with Mrs. Marilyn Salvatore showed her just how much goes into planning every last detail. Below is Emily's journal of the day.

Marilyn measuring an actor

On November 20, I spent the entire day shadowing professional costume designer Mrs. Marilyn Salvatore as she designed the costumes for the Community College of Rhode Island's production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. She boasts an impressive professional resume as an artist: she received a B.F.A. in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island, and an M.F.A. in Costume Design from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is an assistant professor at CCRI and served as an adjunct professor at both the University of Rhode Island and Salve Regina University. She is a resident costume designer at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, RI, and from 1984 to 2004 she was one of the designers for Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI and worked on over 180 productions while there; and from 1988 to 2003 she was also the costume designer/coordinator for the Trinity Rep Conservatory (now the Trinity/Brown Consortium) also in Providence, where she worked on over 80 productions. Marilyn has also designed for independent films, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and two Disney films. She served as Lauren Bacall's personal assistant on the set of the movie Mr. North. Clearly she is an incredibly talented woman.

By the time I graduate from the Abbey I'll have acted in nine full-stage productions (the costumes for all of which except one were designed by Marilyn), and in the fall I'll be attending Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, where I plan to study theater, so I knew when I initially began planning my senior project I wanted it to be theater-oriented. Because I only have experience as an actress, I decided to take my project in the direction of learning about the behind-the-scenes aspects of the trade. I met Marilyn at 8:00 in the morning in the costume room at CCRI in Warwick. Marilyn had planned five costume fittings for me to witness, and I also got to meet her student Trey who plans on being a costume designer himself and who played Claudius in this show.

Costume notesWhen Marilyn (and any costume designer) starts imagining the costumes for a production, they read the script over and over again, perhaps even more in depth than the actors, to make sure they can get an precise idea of the characters they're bringing to life and how their costume choices can reflect that, for example Marilyn wanted there to be a clear distinction between Fortinbras and a Danish soldier. Marilyn's vision for this show was to dress Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two main characters, in bright colors while the rest of the cast was in greyscale, giving off a 70's rock/roll vibe. The first actor fitted was Victoria, who played Queen Gertrude. Marilyn was working on making a custom dyed-grey velvet dress for her using something called a "muslin fabric." She planned to top the look off with long opera gloves, tights, a half-slip, and a crown to give it a punk-rock feel.

The second actor was Francis, who played Rosencrantz. He was fitted into full costume which included a vest, coat, shirt, pants, and boots. The key for Francis' costume was to take note of what needed alterations, how well the color shades blended and the pattern mixtures. The third actor was Charee, who played Ophelia. She was fitted in a dress while Marilyn took note of costume pieces she needed to complete her look, such as proper flats and a better fitting slip (I picked the one that Charee ended up wearing for the show.) The fourth actor was Trey, who played Cladius as I mentioned earlier. He was fitted in full costume, observed for alterations, and costume pieces he needed (ascot with stick pin) were taken note of. The last actor was Katie, who played Guildenstern. She was also fitted in full costume and notes for alterations were taken, such as the need to extend her neckline so that she could button her shirt.

Costume boxesAlthough I spent most of my day learning from my observations and taking notes, I did get to have a hands-on piece in this. Marilyn asked me to help her find particular costume pieces from the collection of boxes in the costume room for Victoria's costume. I was asked to look for white opera gloves, grey tights, and a long 1/2 slip. Sorting through the boxes of costume pieces and choosing what I thought would look best gave me insight into what a costume designer does day in and day out. I was also asked to make the labels for the entire cast that would be pinned into each of their costumes.

I was only able to spend a day with Marilyn, but I'm sure that if I spent more time that I'd have learned even more than I already did. I gained a deeper appreciation for the technicality of the theater and how every detail has significance. This is true on the stage as well, as rehearsal times are spent re-working and practicing to make sure that the story is told in the most effective way possible, but I have gotten to see in better detail what other parts of the theater are like now.

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