MORE THAN MANY other backstage roles, costumers work very closely with actors. The job involves close physical contact, constant character discussions, and stressful late nights. Even if all the costumes are perfectly crafted, made of the best fabric, and showcase the freshest designs, they will be irrelevant if the costumer’s relationships with actors are not built upon one key value: trust.

In the six shows I have costumed as a student, including as head costume designer for Thespian Troupe 6271 at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada, Colorado, this mindset was invaluable. When beginning to work on a show, you may be consumed with ideas about script analysis, color palettes, and rental options. However, it is critical that you don’t waste the first few weeks of the rehearsal process when both you and the actors are deciding how to interpret characters. Taking time to consult actors about their preferences not only will infuse your designs with believability but also will communicate your respect for and desire to collaborate. These strategies are key to an effective design process.

Schedule a face-to-face meeting
Though it may seem as though making appointments with actors will create an extra strain on your time, it is simpler than you think. During the first few weeks of rehearsal, costumers typically go through their costume closets and select items for actors to try on. As you pull actors out of rehearsal for fittings, make it clear you need a few extra minutes for consultation. Being up front about the duration of the session shows actors you respect their time. During the fitting, ask questions about their interpretation of the character and take notes to use when making purchases and character sketches. When your physical depiction of the character matches their emotional depiction, the result is a story that reflects the bond of shared creative trust.

Add time during costume fittings for consultation with actors about their characters.

Listen to criticism
The most memorable comment an actor ever made to me regarding a costume choice was “If I wore this onstage, I would die of embarrassment.” Though it frustrated me at the time, when I considered the actor’s point of view, I realized the costume in question was not only unattractive but also out of character. Even though it set me back slightly, changing the costume based on feedback I received solidified not only the reality of the show but also my relationship with the actor. Although your first instinct when receiving harsh feedback might be to defend your vision, ultimately, actors have the same fundamental job as you: interpreting characters. Listening to criticism highlights nuances in the character and convinces actors of your respect for their interpretation.

Communicating effectively with actors is not limited to the design process. As performances draw near and rehearsals go late, it is common for tempers to flare on both sides. To avoid derailing critical rehearsal time with unnecessary conflict, focus on what you can control: your response to and respect for the actors’ needs.

Be a calming presence backstage
According to Thespian Madeleine Roch, student costume designer at Aliso Niguel High School in Aliso Viejo, California, costumers should “remain calm so the actors can remain calm.” Though you may be facing intense stress, blaming actors will only result in more tension. Try taking a break or stepping away for a few minutes to breathe. By calming yourself down, you will clear your mind and equip yourself to handle the actors’ stress. When actors trust that you will respond to them calmly, they will be more responsive to your leadership and direction.

The author's costume sketches for a production of In the Heights. Images courtesy of Dylan Malloy.

Acknowledge needs
The more you acknowledge the actors’ needs, the more they will acknowledge yours, resulting in greater cooperation backstage and in dressing rooms. “One strategy I have learned … [is] talking to actors to see what is most comfortable and what I can help with [during a] quick change,” said Emma Albert, student costume designer at Ralston Valley High School. Though considering actors’ comfort will take up more time when you outline quick changes, the result ― being seen by actors as a respectful, trustworthy collaborator ― is worth it.

Explain problems immediately
My sophomore year, I was the lead costume designer for my school’s production of Big Fish, which required more than 150 costumes. Some costumes had to be ordered online, and shipping was delayed during tech week. Actors asked me daily about the status of their costumes, panicking over the possibility of not having clothes to wear onstage. I realized I had to address the situation or risk losing their trust. When the actors were assembled after a run-through, I told them I had always been able to provide every actor with the costumes they needed in the past, and I needed them to trust in my ability to do the same for this show.

Giving this speech didn’t magically fix the costume crisis. It did reaffirm to the actors that I understood their needs and would meet them. Of course, a public address isn’t required to make actors feel this way. Challenging yourself to meet all deadlines within your control, making good on promises to mend broken costumes, and following up with actors about their concerns will help you assert your capability and trustworthiness as a leader.

As you gain more experience, focus as much on establishing your trustworthiness as you do on your sewing skills. By doing your part to create a calm and caring environment, you free yourself and your actors to do your best work.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Cosplay Creations

    Cosplay Creations

    Build your own costumes in five easy steps

    Oct 30, 2019

    Building Your First Sewing Kit

    Building Your First Sewing Kit

    Essential tools of the costuming trade

    Sep 03, 2019

    Honoring the (Re)Vision

    Honoring the (Re)Vision

    Catherine Zuber on adaptability in costume design

    Apr 08, 2019