A step-by-step guide to costuming your theatrical production
Whether this is your first or your hundred and first show, there are certain steps that you must always take - in a certain order to be most efficient and effective, and to make your show as spectacular as you can.
Every theatre or theatre group has their own requirements based on type - an equity house, summer stock, university, community theatre or professional group. Each type will have its own rules of conduct and levels of expectation. Hopefully, within each group there will be a method of passing on the expectations, the methods of getting from beginning to end in the process and the rules & how best to abide by them.
Our planner will guide you through the journey from discovery -as you read the script for the first time, through final dress rehearsal - when your work should be completed. It lists the major universal steps that must be taken order to achieve the goal of costuming the show. The way in which each of these steps is conducted will vary with the type of group - all are essential to a greater or lesser degree in every milieux in which theatre is produced.
Costuming a show can be the most rewarding experience in the world - or it can be a nightmare... either way, it is a lot of work.
Follow our steps - don’t skip any, don’t rush through, and your costuming experience can be the best challenge you’ve ever met.
- READ • ANALYZE • ENVISION
- COLLABORATE • SCHEDULE • EXPLORE
- MEASURE • ORDER/FIND • FIT
- PUT IT ALL TOGETHER FOR DRESS REHEARSAL
Do this step by yourself. It is the essential first step of preparing yourself for all the other steps in the process. This is the time when you sit back & create - in your own mind and then on paper - your vision for the characters in the show.
Read the script...
Read the script again...
this time with a yellow marker (or a pencil if the script isn’t yours to mark up)
Highlight all references to costume (and any other items you may be responsible for, like props)
Then... READ THE SCRIPT...
this time with pad & pencil to make notes as you get to know the characters.
Formulate ideas about what each character would wear at each point in the story where there needs to be a change.
Determine costume changes needed to indicate time of day, passage of time, and/or change of location
Our Tracy Theatre Originals ShowPlots™ and Show Starters™ are developed based on this process and our collective 165 years of experience in the industry. Request a show plot from Tracy Theatre Originals - it will guide you as you plan your needs. Even if your creative team chooses a unique setting for an “old chestnut”, with our extensive inventory, we can probably help you costume your show.
Determine where the fast changes or other special changing needs are, and work with actor and technicians to determine how best to accomplish them
If an actor needs the help of a dresser backstage, be sure to schedule someone early for all the rehearsals & performances
Start with the time period of the show & the nature of the vehicle -are the characters wealthy or poor, is this a musical comedy requiring bright colors & round shapes or is it a drama or thriller, requiring subdued colors and angular shapes
Now you’re ready to make your detailed list of the costumes you will need
Once you have done your “homework”, you are ready to do this step with others on the production team
Engage in conversations with director & designers to learn their vision & share yours
Don’t be afraid to offer your ideas - even if they are modified or discarded along the way, a free-flowing discussion is an essential part of the process that creates your unique production
Meet with set & lighting designers to determine color palates so that costumes and sets compliment each other
The goal is for all visions to eventually be in concert with each other
Meet with producer to determine your costume responsibilities and budget. Be certain that you understand what is included (eg: shoes, wigs, makeup, hand props) and what has a separate person responsible and separate budget allotted.
Meet with director & producer to review their production schedule & set times for actor measurements, fittings, dress parade, photo calls & dress rehearsals. Find out what costumes may be needed early for publicity photos & when that will happen.
At TTO, our first costume rental week is ten days long. You receive your costumes on or before the Friday of the weekend before your first performance weekend to give you plenty of time to unpack, check in, confirm the fit, and have your dress parade in a timely manner before dress rehearsal. If you need two or three costumes early for publicity photos, please let us know and we will do our best to accommodate.
EXPLORE YOUR RESOURCES
Using your list of costumes and our show plot to help you, determine which costumes you will construct, which you will rent, and which you will try to find
Order a hat or a whole show; there’s never a minimum order at Tracy Theatre Originals
Explore local organizations from which you can borrow or rent - decide what garments you want to build, and get the fabric, notions, patterns, and assistance early in the process
The wise costumer deals with the top & bottom of each actor first - ie; wigs, hats, & shoes. They can be the most difficult to obtain, especially if you wait till the last minute. If an actor says he has his own shoes, make sure you see them, and preferably take them (and make them available for rehearsals if possible) so that you have them at performance time.
Look through the Tracy Finishing Touches Catalogue of makeup, wigs, and costume accessories. You’ll find out how easy it can be to put your whole shopping list on our order form and relax!
Do this step with the actors and your helpers. Be sure to allow enough time in the fitting room with each actor to instruct them in the importance of respecting the costume and using it to enhance their performance.
Download the measurement forms and “How to Measure...” from the Tracy Theatre Originals web site and follow all our “How to Measure ...” guidelines carefully, beginning with “have one responsible adult take all the measurements” to ensure well-fitting costumes. Be sure to find out if an actor has any allergies or conditions that will impact the costumes
WAIST NOT... a special set of notes!
It is becoming very necessary to instruct young actors of both sexes about their waist - that they have one, where it is, and the role it has historically played in the wearing of garments (except for ladies in the early 1800’s, but that’s another story!)
This instruction begins during measuring, and continues through costume fitting and rehearsal. In today’s world, young men and women tend to wear their waistbands at the low hipline. Be sure to measure the actor’s ACTUAL WAIST - it lies midway between the bottom of the ribs and the top of the hipbone, and used to be the smallest part of the human torso
Find the natural waist of each of your actors and, unless you are doing a completely contemporary play, instruct them to wear their costume waist at their own natural waist. This may feel very unnatural to them!
At Tracy, we always allow more ease for costumes being worn by singers & dancers than those in a straight play where there is more restricted activity, so your costumes will fit the show as well as the actors!
The easiest way to a great looking show is to “find” all your costumes on the Tracy show plot, & order them! Our plots are formatted as a work sheet, so that you can easily mark off which ones or how many of a particular costume you want to order.
Remember our reward discounts for ordering early and ordering in quantity. Taking advantage of both will give you time to deal with the details, save you money, and let us do our best work in preparing your order. It’s a win-win for all of us!
Instruct your actors to wear proper undergarments
- women - well fitting bra, panties & stockings or tights
- men - boxers or briefs, and clean socks - an undershirt is preferred
- and either the actual show shoes or ones that are similar in style and heel height
Understand how period costumes are worn, so that you can instruct the inexperienced actor in posture, sitting, standing, and general demeanor
Post a copy of our Dressing Room Do’s and Don’ts in your fitting room & review with the actors
As you near the completion of your work, it’s time to look at the whole picture of each character as they appear, and add your finishing touches...
Consider each character and each costume they wear - determine what would finish the look of each change. Would this character be wearing a hat, does he need a cane, spats, gloves; does she need jewelry, parasol, fan; do this in concert with the director and actor
Have all accessories for each actor at least by dress rehearsal. Ideally, actors will have either the actual hand props and accessories for the rehearsal period, or “do-fer’s” that will serve as substitutes, so they can get used to handling and dealing with their props.
Our Finishing Touches catalogue lists accessories for purchase that will make your costume presentation look “finished” and complete, and they’re easy to order - even at the last minute! We do our best to inventory what we list so we can do same day shipping most of the time.
ORGANIZE THE DRESSING ROOM AND MAKEUP AREAS
Designate a space for each actor - ideally where the costumes, accessories and makeup can be near at hand for changes throughout the course of the play
Use fabric tape for individual name tags in garments - use indelible ink & safety pin tape into each costume piece. Remove the names when the show is over
Costume changes will be smoother if you provide a hanger per costume piece, and hang costumes in the order they will be worn.
Provide an adequate “first aid” kit for sewing emergencies, and instruct your backstage helpers how to deal with a stuck zipper, pulled off button, and other such events.
FINAL DRESS REHEARSAL
Be prepared to sit through the dress rehearsal from the audience, ready to make your own notes and receive notes from the director. If you’ve done your homework, your planning, finding, fitting, and finishing work, the notes you receive will probably be minor tweaking to make the show as perfect as it can be for opening night.
You should then be prepared to receive accolades from everyone: the actors - because you have helped them “find their character”, and to feel good and comfortable in their costumes and the director & other designers - because you have helped them realize their vision.
If you’re doing a spectacular musical the costumes are to be noticed, and commented on, but if you’re doing a drama, and the acting is superb, the audience may not notice the clothes, the lighting, the sound or sometimes even the set - if it all blends together to tell the story seamlessly - your hard work will support the play - and that will be the ultimate reward.