The costumes for a play are a very important part of the visual effect. In addition to the scenery, the costumes tell the audience a wealth of information about the characters who wear them. This stems from a particular social quality in Western civilization, and possibly the entire world. We often form opinions of others based on first impressions, and as a result, clothing is a significant part of that first impression – often even before seeing any facial details or hearing someone else speak. That’s why we often hear the phrase, “The Clothes Make the Man.” The kinds of information that our clothing tells others about us include the following:
Clothes show us:
Position & status – clothes can reveal our status within society and reveal elements of wealth, social position (i.e. boss, laborer, teacher, student, etc.)
Gender – men’s and women’s clothing is often dictated by society. They have different cuts and styles. Men will rarely wear “women’s” clothing, though women often wear styles and cuts usually considered “male”
Occupation – many occupations have distinctive uniforms or marking on clothing to indicate association with a particular business or level of employment within a business
Flamboyance or modesty clothing can reveal our desire to “show off” through the use of vibrant colors or revealing styles, but on the other hand we can try to show our desire to not be seen by wearing very modest, “blend into the background” styles and colors of clothing
Independence or regimentation – while military uniforms are clearly regimental in nature (all the same) there are even more subtle examples of regimentation – wearing clothing that matches each other instead of the more independent look that goes against the social norms or group identities
Occasion (work, leisure, special event) – our clothing often reflects what we are going to do. for example, beachwear is not likely to be worn in church, and formal event will not require the same clothes as a casual event. Work clothes and leisure clothes are also usually different, though not always.
Costume Designer objectives
As a designer, the Costumer is going to create a set of designs based on certain needs of the production. Under the guidance and consultation with the director, the costume designer will attempt to meet these basic objectives for the costumes in the show (these will each be discussed in more detail):
Help set tone & style
Indicate historical period & locale
Indicate nature of characters (status & personality)
Show relationships between characters
Create symbolic/nonhuman characters (when appropriate)
Meet the needs (movement) of the actors
Maintain consistency with the overall production
Tone & Style
The costumer will work to ensure that the costumes match the thematic elements of the play as determined by the director. For example, if the play is set in outer space, the costumes will reflect a futuristic style. In a tragedy, the costumer might help to set the tone of the play by using mostly serious and formal types of clothing with dark or neutral colors, but in a comedy, he or she might use humorous, mismatched, ill-fitting, brightly colored clothing.
Time & Place
The “when” and the “where” of the play, as determined by the director, is usually reflected in the costumer’s designs as well. If the play has a historical setting, the costumes will be made to match the period elements of the play/production. This will be in terms of the location, since many locations have a particular style of clothing that fits that place. For example, a play set in the American Old West would likely have cowboy costumes.
It will also be in terms of the historical period that the play may represent, which helps the audience “place” the play in the appropriate time frame based on the kind of costumes being used. For example, a play set in ancient Rome might use togas, or a play set in the 1920s might have flapper dresses.
When we think of how costumes can indicate status, it really all goes back to the concept of the “clothes make the man.” Our clothing, and thus costumes on characters, can indicate a nobleman or a poor man, just by their appearance.
Clothing can also indicate a character’s profession. However, on stage the costumes usually are more specific, with sometimes not-so-subtle hints to indicate a profession to the audience without having potential confusion. For example, a stage doctor might have on scrubs, but adding a stethoscope and a hospital insignia will distinguish that character from other professions that might dress in scrubs.
Costumes can also be used to give the audience some clues as to the personality of a character. For example, a shy character might be costumed in plain, neutral colored clothing so as not to attract attention to him or herself. Whereas a flamboyant character, or one who is outgoing and extroverted, might be clothed in very bright colors, and wild or extravagant style choices – sometimes tending even to the extreme and ridiculous.
There is a special case involved with indicating personality. That includes the costuming choices that come with the age of a character. For example, if a character is supposed to be old, but the actor is not, the costumer can use “old” styles and colors and can use makeup choices to indicate age.
Costumes can reflect social relationships. As noted earlier, a costumer can indicate a character’s social status through the use of appropriate clothing choices, but he or she can also indicate social connections. If two characters appear together, but one is wearing fine clothes and the other somewhat plain clothing, we can see social relationships between them. Often, just by looking at the costumes, we can determine which characters are meant to be the “well-to-do” and which are meant to be the “servants.”
We can see from costume choices how characters might fit together in groups or organizations. For example, in the musical Grease, we can see how the male characters fit together by the fact that they are usually dressed in similar leather jackets. We can also tell when the lead female character, Sandy, is making an attempt to fit in with the male characters when she dresses in black and leather near the end of the show. She has changed from the traditional high school garb of the 1950s into a costume that matches the Greasers’ black leather jackets, which they wear to show they belong together.
Costume design can be very versatile. In fact, costumers can give an actor the ability to play almost anything, including non-human or symbolic characters. This usually refers to the idea of abstract characters. That is, characters who represent something or an idea that is not real, or not human. Some examples of these include the following:
Meet Performer’s Needs
One key challenge for the costume designer is to meet the movement needs of the actors when designing and building the costumes. Basically, that means that the necessary movements of the actors as their characters need to be accommodated with the costumes. They need to be roomy enough or fit well enough to let the actor run, or hop, or conduct stage combat if necessary.
The costumes also need to be designed for quick changes, if needed, for a given actor. For example, the character may leave the stage at the end of a scene and then need to enter the next scene in a complete change of costume. These can sometimes be very quick changes indeed, on the order of under a minute. Imagine changing a complete set of clothing and be ready to perform all the actions required of the character in under a minute. These quick changes sometimes call for costumes with Velcro seams or zippers instead of buttons. Some actors even need the assistance of costume dressers to help speed up the shift of costumes.
For some shows, multiple copies of a costume might be needed. For example, if a character has a main actor playing the role, but an understudy (someone who learns the part as a backup to the main actor) a different size of that character’s costumes would be needed for the understudy to be prepared to go on stage in a moment. Another example might be when there are several characters who are dressed alike, like the soldiers or guards who dress alike, but are all different sizes. The design would be the same, but there would need to be different copies of the design to fit each actor who wears the costume.
The final challenge that the costumer needs to be prepared for to meet the actors’ needs is to be ready to make on the spot repairs of broken or torn costumes or similar events. Buttons fall off, zippers stick or jam, ornamentation falls off, jewelry breaks. All of those things need to be taken care of quickly enough to allow the actor to make the needed entrances and other actions of the characters in the play.
The last objective of the costume designer is to maintain consistency in the costumes. That is, the costumer wants to be sure to match all of the costumes in terms of style, period, and appropriateness for the characters, etc. The costumes should all look as if they fit in the world created by the scenery and that they all seem t work together to support the Director’s Concept for the play.
Where do costumes come from
Once designed by the costume designer, the costumes are then ready to be created. There are actually three methods of creating costumes. They can be pulled, bought/modified, or built (that is, made from scratch).
This refers to selecting costumes or pieces of costumes from already existing costumes that were made for previous shows that can be adapted to the sizes needed for the actors in the shows, and that will serve the other character needs and the director’s concept.
Sometimes, instead of pulling from the theatre’s own stock of existing costumes, the costumer may explore the rental of costumes through one of the many theatrical costume companies around the country. Most major Regional Theatre hubs have a rental company or two that maintain a stock of used but adaptable costumes for rental for a show.
Sometimes, costumes are of recent enough historical style or can be adapted from current styles. In those cases, the costume designer may purchase existing clothing manufactured for the public and available in the retail market and either use it as purchased or modify it to fit the specific needs of the character and the director’s wishes.
The costumer may opt to create new costumes or parts of costumes from fabric, etc. in a costume shop. Once the design is approved, the costumer coordinates the building (the theatre term for making a costume) of the costume to match the design. This will include locating and purchasing necessary material and sundries to make the article of clothing.
The process of crafting or building a costume includes the following steps:
Design the costume based on input and consultation with the director
Mock-up a rough version of the design to check the sewing pattern and establish the basic size needed
First fitting is when the actor tries on the mock-up version of the costume to ensure the sizes and fit are accurate and what is needed for the actor
After the first fitting the mock-up is disassembled and used as the pattern to cut the first assembly using the actual materials for the finished costume
After the initial cutting of the fabric, there will be a fitting with the actor to check again that the costume fits and is capable of meeting the performer’s needs
In the final sewing phase, the costume is altered based on the fitting session (if needed) and then sewn into its final form
After the final sewing, the costume is fitted on the actor for the last time before placing it in the costume rack for the performance. If new adjustments need to be made, the last few steps are repeated until the costume is ready for performance.
Elements of Costume Design
Like the scenery designer, the costume designer is an artist, and several of the artist’s elements come into play with the costume design. However, there are a couple of elements that are unique to the medium of costuming because the costumes are made of fabric instead of paint or other structural media. The costumer’s artistic elements include the following:
Line, Shape, Silhouette – similar to the scenic designer, the costume designer is concerned with the line of the garment, and the shape and silhouette of the garment closely parallel the ideas of Mass and Composition for the scenic designer.
Color – color is also a consideration for the costume designer for many of the same reasons that it is important in scene design. Color, like music, can both influence and reflect our human feelings.
Fabric – this is one of the unique considerations for the costumer. Since costume garments are usually made of fabric, the costume designer must be very familiar with the qualities of the fabrics that may be appropriate to the time period of the style of the play and the characteristics that may reflect certain character traits or emphasize those traits in a character. For example, denim and silk have very different texture and weights. They drape differently, too. That is, they hang from the body and its curves differently. Denim is fairly stiff, but silk is much more flowing. That means the designer has to consider the drape, texture, movement (how it moves when worn and moved in) of fabrics.
Accessories – the costumer also takes charge of the accessories for a character’s costume(s). This may include items such as handbags, jewelry, hats, gloves, belts, shoes, socks/stockings/tights. It can also mean character-related costume props – such as a cane, or badges, medals, or other sorts of character specific items that are worn on or with the costume to help denote the character for the audience.
In addition to the clothing that a character wears, the costume designer is directly involved with several associated areas. Essentially, if the actor wears it or it is placed on the actor’s body, the costume designer is responsible for it. This includes associated areas such as the following:
Hats, accessories, crafts (such as beadwork or embroidery)
Lighting the stage
One of the most important, but often overlooked, technical elements of theatre is the lighting of the stage. Without lights, the audience would not be able to see the action of the characters on stage. However, modern lighting is much more than just illuminating the stage so the audience can see what is going on. In fact, theatrical lighting today is an integral part of the overall visual element of theatre.
Briefly, lighting has come a long way across the centuries of theatre. In ancient Greece, plays were performed outdoors using sunlight to illuminate the performance. This continued throughout much of the first 1000 years, or so, of theatre. In the Middle Ages, when some theatre spaces began to move inside, candles were used to light the performance. Very large candelabras were used, and they provided light for the stage and for the audience. Later, oil lamps, which had been in use in homes and other indoor spaces for millennia, found their way into the theatre. Oil lamps offered some very useful abilities. There was a little bit of control over the intensity of the lamps and with polished reflectors there was some ability to provide directionality of the lighting. As gas replaced oil in lighting instruments, it was also brought into theatre lighting. Control of the intensity was improved, as was directionality, and they discovered a way to put colored glass in front of the flames to create some degree of variability in the hue of the lighting effects. However, both oil and gas have one serious drawback – they use flames to create the light. This resulted in many mishaps across the decades, but generally fewer than there could have been. Finally, electric lighting was introduced to the world, and it very quickly found its way into the theatre, too. This kind of lighting has been in use for just over a century, but the newer controls (computer driven) and types of lighting instruments constantly improve the possibilities for lighting the stage. This supplement will focus on the modern uses of lighting. The historical uses will be revisited as we explore the history of theatre developments in future supplements.
Objectives of the Lighting Designer
Like the Scene Designer and the Costume Designer who we have already discussed, the Lighting Designer works for and in consultation with the Director to achieve the necessary lighting for the play. The objectives that the Lighting Designer needs to achieve are the following:
Visibility – the most important objective is to light the stage sufficiently that the actors and the scenery can be seen by the audience. However, there is also sometimes a need to NOT light something so that it remains unseen by the audience.
Reveal shapes & forms – using the natural quality of light to cast shadows when blocked by a physical object, the lighting plan needs to account for those and to use the shadows as well as the light to let the audience see the stage in a way that makes sense for the style of the play and to allow the actors to appear as realistically as possible (unless the style requires something else).
Provide focus & visual composition – using the ability of light to be focused and shaped, the lighting plan can direct the audience’s attention to a particular point on the stage, and by leaving other areas dark it can direct the audience’s attention away from those.
Create mood & Reinforce style – using lighting, the Lighting Designer can influence the mood of the audience by using varying intensity and even colored lighting to suggest a wide variety of feelings to support the action of the characters. Lighting can also impact the style of a play by using appropriate techniques and elements to affect the visibility of the action on stage.
Establish time & place – since electric lighting can be used to mimic almost any kind of historical lighting source, the stage can be lit effectively while still appearing s to be lit by historical devices. Lighting can also mimic natural sunlight, moonlight, or any other kind of natural lighting source to suggest time of day or even an outdoor location
Establish rhythm of visual movement – by using the controlled dimming and intensifying of light, and shifts between areas of lit areas on the stage, the lighting plan can be used to add a degree of movement and rhythm to the action on stage, independent of the actors themselves
Reinforce central visual image, establish visual information – using the various elements of lighting can supplement the scenic design visual elements to add focus to or even to help create the visual image associated with the Director’s Concept. Shaped light can even be the primary way that a visual representation of the concept metaphor can be incorporated into the visual component of the production.
Elements of Stage Lighting
We have mentioned the elements of lighting in several places already, so now we will explore just what that means. Lighting, as used on stage, has several qualities that can be used in varying ways to create a wide variety of effects, both overt and subtle, to influence how the audience reacts to what they are seeing on the stage during performance.
When we think about our normal experience with light in our day to day lives, we realize that light generally originates above us. Outdoors, the sun provides our light from overhead. Indoors, most of our lighting either comes from ceiling mounted lights or from high on the wall. That allows our indoor light to mimic the natural lighting that we are used to throughout our entire lives. Regardless of whether we are indoors or out, the light originates above us, but is reflected from many surfaces to create a relatively even level of lighting from nearly all directions. However, on stage, lighting can do many more things than just provide a relatively even level of lighting.
The elements of lighting that we can control in the theatre include the following:
Intensity (brightness, darkness) with the power of modern lighting instruments and the degree of control provided through computers, this can range from barely visible dim lighting to very intense, almost blindingly bright lighting
Color (hue – red, blue, green, etc.) mixing color into the light beam coming from a lighting instrument can help to vary the emotional impact of lights. For example, red light suggests “heat” and blue light suggests “cool.”
Distribution in the theatre, lighting instruments can be placed at various points around the stage, depending on the configuration of the stage space. This allows mixing of lighting sources to create a mix of effects. Distribution includes the following concepts:
Direction (angle and height) light can come from overhead, from in front, the side, or even from behind the actor and the setting. The differences in the height of the lighting angle and the side to side angle of the lighting beam will cast different shadows and that changes how we “see” what is happening on stage
Form (shape – shutters, gobos) light beams can be shaped. Using shutters attached to the front of a lighting instrument, the edges of a beam of light can be squared off and shaped to keep the light from falling on something that should not be lit, such as the floor in front of the stage or the curtains. We can also use a gobo to add a detailed image to a light beam – more on gobos a little later in this supplement
Movement (strobe, follow spot, cross fading) there are several ways that a lighting instrument can be used to create movement on stage. Cross fading, that is dimming light in one area while simultaneously intensifying it in another, will lead the audience’s attention to move from one place to another on stage. A follow spot (a manually moved spotlight) can follow the action as it happens on stage to keep a particular character in the spotlight. A strobe, or a track strobe, can cause the light to create a sense of movement as it quickly flashes on and off, while the track strobe does the same thing but with a series of lights that strobe in sequence along a track to cause a “traveling” strobe
Part of understanding stage lighting is to understand the basic kinds of lighting instruments available to the Lighting Designer. A lot of the names that are used in modern theatre are actually brand names of specific kinds of instruments, but our discussion here will look exclusively at some basic lighting instrument types – though the details may vary from brand to brand.
Throw and Beam
The first idea that we need to understand about lighting instrument are the concept of throw and beam. These are references to certain aspects of the beam of light projected by a lighting instrument. Throw refers to the distance the light will travel from the instrument and still have sufficient intensity to light an object. A long throw means that an instrument can be used further away from an object or an area of the stage and still have sufficient intensity to be effective. Long throw instruments are usually in the 45-50 feet throw range. A short throw instrument is usually only effective about 25 feet away from its lit object. The Beam of an instrument refers to the width of the beam at its furthest throw - its “footprint” at the object being illuminated. A wide beam is usually in the neighborhood of 50 feet wide at about 50 feet from the instrument, but a narrow beam would be more likely to be about 10 feet in diameter at 50 feet from the instrument.
Types of Stage Lights
Ellipsoidal Reflector Spot
The first instrument to be looked at is one that is very versatile and is widely used in most theatres. It is known as the Ellipsoidal Reflector Spot, but is sometimes referred to as an “Ellipse.” In many theatres, these lighting instruments are simply called by the name of the manufacturer of the instruments actually installed in the theatre. For example, Leko is a manufacturer of lighting instruments, so some theatres refer to their Ellipses as Lekos. This kind of lighting instrument uses an elliptical shaped reflector and a high-powered lamp (bulb). This results in a very focused column of light all travelling in the same direction. Further focus of the light beam is provided by a set of convex-convex lenses to focus light. The throw and beam of this kind of instrument are both adjustable – long or short throw / tight or wide beam – which is what makes quite versatile and popular.
The next type of instrument to be looked at is also a fairly widely used instrument. It is known as a Soft-edged/Fresnel Spot. Fresnel (freh nel’) is named after the French inventor of a particular type of stepped lens – originally designed for lighthouses. This lens has a ridged surface that helps to spread out the light and make it somewhat soft-focused.
In addition to the lens that gives the light a soft focus as it leaves the instrument, there is a fairly flat reflector (usually parabolic) that does not columnate the light but only directs it toward the lens.
Since the light column is not particularly focused, this type of instrument has a fairly wide beam and a short throw. As a result, Fresnel/Soft-edged spots are usually used for general lighting or “fill” lighting (to add lighting between areas lit by higher powered lighting instruments).
Floodlight (strip lights, border lights)
Another very common type of lighting that will take many different sizes and configurations is simply the Floodlight. This type of instrument does exactly what its name suggests. It floods a large area of space with a lot of unfocused light. Flood lights come in many forms (and they are often used in homes for lighting as well) in the theatre. In some theatres they are referred to as “scoops” because they look like large ice cream scoops! They can be fairly small to huge in size, or they can be used in groups, like strip lights or border lights (a row of fairly small floodlights lit together to provide a wash of light against a Cyclorama curtain or over a wider area than a single instrument can cover).
A theatrical floodlight is usually a medium to high power light with a simple parabolic shaped reflector, but with no focusing lens. This makes the light column coming from the instrument to be very unfocused, and it spreads out over a wide area. These instruments have a short throw and a very wide beam.
The last basic kind of lighting instrument in wide use in theatres today is a hybrid lighting instrument called an Automated/Moving Light. It is incredibly versatile because it is motorized and can be repositioned (in terms of focus, angle, and direction). It uses a computer-controlled interface, so it can be moved during the course of a play and thus eliminates the need for separate instruments for each location.
Many of these lights also have a selection of gobos (more on this below) and a color wheel installed so the light shape and color can be changed automatically as well. The actual lighting instrument is usually similar to the Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlight, and thus is quite versatile in its applications.
LED – Light Emitting Diode
Within the last 5-10 years, many of the lighting instruments in theatres have been changed out for LED instruments. The Light Emitting Diode lights, like those used in homes, but much more powerful and intense, are much more cost effective to operate, generate less heat, and allow for some incredible options that standard-lamped instruments can’t provide. These LED instruments often have built in color options, built in wireless computer inputs, and are overall lighter in weight than standard lighting instruments.
LED lighting instruments can take the place of all of the standard-lamped instruments discussed above.
Some special lighting components
Gobo (“Goes Before Optics”)
A gobo is a special tool for lighting that can give shape to the light beam. By using a metal or high-temperature glass insert placed in front of light to create shaped shadows. Many kinds of images can be created, such as windows, trees, clouds, streaked sunlight, dappled meadow light, etc.
They are usually used on ellipsoidal reflector spotlights.
Another type of special lighting instrument is the Follow Spot. It is a manually moved spotlight mounted on wheels and gimbals to allow it to move freely from side to side and up and down. It is used to “follow” action on stage, usually to highlight a single performer or very small scene that moves across the stage. They will frequently be used with musical theatre to highlight a soloist or in other uses such as concerts.
There are several ideas that you need to be familiar with in terms of lighting control. There is so much more to stage lighting than just turning them on and off like you might do in your home. However, even in homes now, we see more variety in controls, such as dimming or changing colors.
The light plot is a listing, and sometimes a graphic layout, of all lighting instruments available in a theatre, including the types of instrument each one is (and may include wattage or lumens – a measurement of the light intensity), and the channel it is plugged into in order to allow for quick selection, patching, and plotting of the lighting plan for a given show.
This refers to the actual changes in the lighting that occur during a given play. They will be organized on a Cue Sheet to allow the lighting operator to know what line or action happening on stage will prompt each particular change. If it is to be a slow shift, the duration will also be indicated.
A blackout is a specific kind of cue. It is a cue that tells the operator to take out all of the lights on stage as quickly as possible and all at once.
A fade is any cue that changes the intensity of the lights on stage either by dimming or by increasing the intensity. It is not usually a sudden change, rather it is one that changes over a period of time from a couple of seconds to 10 or more seconds. It can be used to lower light intensity on one area of the stage while it comes up on another part of the stage. That is called a cross fade. Fades are usually accomplished with the use of a dimmer. A dimmer is a sliding control that the lighting operator can slide up or down to change the intensity of a light gradually over the full range of the instrument.
Sound in Theatre
The last major component of modern theatre that we need to cover is the use of sound, and the role of the Sound Designer.
In today’s theatres, some of which are quite large, there are two basic purposes or objectives of the Sound Designer: Amplification and Sound Effects.
Amplification refers to ensuring that all voices, music, and necessary sounds can be heard by all of the audience. This is accomplished through a series of microphones on the actors, or over/on the stage to pick up the sounds, a set of amplifiers to boost the sound energy, and speakers to broadcast the sound into the auditorium.
Sound effects refers to the creation/generation of background sounds that support the action on stage – phones ringing, car horns, thunder, etc. These may be created live, on tape, or by using computer sound files to provide the input, and then those are fed into the sound amplification and broadcast system that is used for amplification.
Concepts of Theatre Sound design
Sound effects, also referred to as sound reproduction, can be either motivated or environmental.
Motivated sounds are those that come directly from the action of the play and that move the story forward. They are sounds of things relevant to the story of the play, that is, without these sounds the audience would lose some connection to the action of the play. For example, these sounds might include doorbells that announce entrances, phones ringing, guns being fired, sounds of cars off stage that announce the imminent arrival of a character.
Environmental sounds are those that are generated to establish an ambience or background noises to help establish location or time frame or other setting elements. If these sounds did not exist, the play would still be perfectly clear to the audience, but these sounds enhance the experience for the audience. For example, these might include street traffic in the city, or birds singing in the outdoors, or crowd sounds in a busy place, etc.
Amplification of sound is also referred to as sound reinforcement. As noted above, the sound designer uses microphones, amplifiers, and speakers for making sure that the actors and/or musicians can be heard clearly and effectively throughout the entire auditorium. This sound feed is also sometimes made available in the backstage areas so other actors can more easily hear what is going on in the scene and be prepared for entrances to happen on time.