“It’s just pastoral care,” one designer said to me when I started. “Costume design isn’t an art form, it’s babysitting actors.” This type of bleak analysis often comes after another common occurrence in the backstage world – the ritualistic telling of horror stories about actors. It’s a communal cleansing. We gather around a metaphorical campfire and swap diva moments, while shinning a torch on our faces: “And then, she cut up the wig and threw it in the dressing-room bin.”
Because actors are always difficult, right? They’re refusing to wear the costume because they want to look more attractive, or because it’s not expensive enough, or because they think you’re just a little girl who wasn’t cool enough for fashion school. They break your favourite prop because they’re big bullies who scream in your face, drag you around shopping centres for hours, and throw sandals at the back of your head while you run off stage crying on one of your first ever jobs… It’s all their fault.
Except we designers have our own moments too. We patronise the actors and try to trick them into wearing things. We pretend to make alterations and giggle when they mention how good the alteration is. That pin prick was deliberate. We’re always busy and therefore don’t know the script. And have you heard the one about the male designer yelling: “I don’t fucking care about your weight issues. On my stage you wear what I say” at a young actress? Yep. We are just as capable of being bully boys.
It’s a mutual prejudice born of post-traumatic stress. Offence seems like the best defence, and we’ve all been hurt. The few bad eggs in each discipline ruin it for the rest of us.
Most of the time, actors have a precision that is welcome in the wardrobe department. They spend more time with the character, they have an eye for detail, and know how their body carries clothes. They have a backstory, a brain and a belief in the reality of the character.
And, as designers, we need to allow them into our decision-making process. One actor’s costume is a single voice in a symphony of voices and sometimes changing a few notes throws off the harmonies. Colour palettes are complex and important. A jacket can tell a deep and rich story and actors should feel confident that we are telling stories, with every decision, even if it isn’t clear from one note.
So, I’m extending a hand to my collaborators. I’ll try to walk in fresh and focus on how much we both want to tell the story. Because when we work together, costume design absolutely is an art form.
And, if we can build an alliance, then together we can overthrow the directors and just get on with it.
Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart