The life of a costume designer can be mistaken for seamstress work. The reality is that Reba Senske, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s costume design extraordinaire, is not simply a seamstress, but an artist. Transforming a mere idea into a costume masterpiece is not an easy feat. Here, she explains the process of costume design:
Q: How do you go about designing costumes, from ideas and sketches to materials and sewing?
A: It always starts from the script – What is the story we’re telling? How are we telling it? Is it a “ slice of life” type of show where people just need to look “real”? Is it Alice in Wonderland where “real” has a markedly different meaning? First, establish parameters for the story you’re telling and talk to the director. The director is driving the bus and the designer is a steward…with a good seat. Once basic ideas are established, much attention needs to be paid to the nuts and bolts of making things work for the actor (and still for you, the director, and the audience). Many decisions hinge on which choice is more clear from 10 or 12 rows back, yet it still has to look and feel right for the actor wearing it.
Many of the shows we do at ETC use “real” clothes. My philosophy is that designers can be shortsighted by starting from sketches for this kind of show. You may collect some pictures – gather some ideas on what you think could be good for this character then definitely go to the first read through to utilize that golden opportunity to hear what your particular set of actors is going to sound like: What do they look like together, what have they been thinking about this character (remember the designer has focused on the show as a whole – the actor has zeroed in on one aspect). Then I go shopping – Shopping is from a variety of sources: pulling from stocks of theatres and going to retail stores appropriate to the show, from Macy’s to Snooty Fox to Goodwill. Trek this initial culling back to the theatre to have fittings with the actors.
During pre-production for a show, we have discussions with pictures and fabric swatches usually before the actors are actually on site, just because of time constraints. There will always be tweaks—a change that nobody realized, the sneaky piece that pulls focus like crazy, the skirt that seemed so cute and so right that now just doesn’t work for our needs, a snap that pops open—hopefully all small adjustments. After that, you’ve got the chance to really see the big picture on the set, with the lights on the actors in real time.
Q: What has been your favorite piece to create?
A: There have been so many favorite pieces over the years that it’s impossible to pick a favorite, but I do have a soft spot for whimsy. There are certainly pieces from the holiday fairy tale collection that still make me giggle. At the same time, I do love to have such a strong contemporary script that begs for the disappearing trick, and that would make the favorite piece some ratty old sport coat or robe.
Q: What has been your favorite show to design costumes for at ETC?
A: It’s cliché, but true that your favorite is the show you’re currently working on. It almost has to be. While you’re working on a play, your total focus is on giving it the best possible representation. You have to totally believe in the validity of the work, the reality of the characters, so each in its season is the favored one.
Q: What is the most challenging part about designing costumes?
A: The most challenging part is a challenge that is true at ETC and all the way up to really big budgets—the search for what’s perfect and achieving that within your allotted time and money. You are constantly playing “Let’s Make a Deal” with yourself and trying to balance your resources for the best product. Rehearsals aren’t getting any longer, so your work better be fast and pretty sure-footed. Time just runs away and everything takes longer than you think it will.
Q: How did you begin your career as a costume designer?
A: I began in art school with the idea that I loved painting and sculpture. I was in art school just as fine arts were coming into their own. Fiber/fabric was something I had always liked. I transferred to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to finish my schooling and happened on a course in the catalogue called “Costume.” Though it would be an interesting sidelight, I liked theatre and had been part of that world in high school. The day I walked into the shop, they discovered another tuition remission for someone to work their summer stock season… and so I really never left. There was so much that appealed to me about working within this art form.