Friday, August 22, 2014

Costuming: Dressing the Characters of Anatevka

By Molly Roy

Theater has delighted audiences since the times of Ancient Greece. Of all the elements that catch our imaginations--the sounds, the stories, the songs--one of the most important has always been the visual element. From the way the actors move to the expressions on their faces, from the set designs to the clothes they wear, the visual elements bring aspects of theater to life in a way no other element can match.

One of the most important features of the visual element is costumes. Four types of costumes are used for theatrical performances: modern, dance, historical, and fantastical. For Fiddler on the Roof, the costumes are historical. For help, director Paula Thompson turned to Sally Ann Buras to design costumes suited for commoners and Orthodox Jews in early 20th Century tsarist Russia.
“In general, the costume along with the stage sets, convey the mood of the play,” says Sally Ann. “Dark costumes may equate to ‘doom and gloom’ or poverty.  Lighter costumes: joy and frivolity. The costumes are the catalyst by which the playwright helps create the message of the play.”   

Sally Ann grew up in a family where playing dress up and costuming for Mardi Gras was a way of life.

"I was the only girl," she says, "so that was my identity, to be feminine."

She took ballet at a young age, and began costuming for herself when she was a teenager. After she was married and had children, her daughter also took ballet and musical theatre. As always with the arts, her daughter's troupes needed someone to make costumes.

This was the beginning of Sally Ann's life as a costumer.

David Jacobs as Tevye wears the tallit katan (“small tallit”),
a fringed garment worn by Jewish males.
Special twined and knotted fringes known
as tzitzit are attached to its four corners.
(Photo by Valerie Morgan)
As a show’s costumer, the first thing that Sally Ann does is familiarize herself with the script. Once she has done this, she uses the reference material she owns as well as the Internet to research the time period and fashion trends of the play's setting. Set in a small Jewish village in Eastern Europe, Fiddler on the Roof required clothing of tsarist-ruled Ukraine, especially Orthodox Jews of the period.

The attention to detail is an important aspect of costume designers, she says. “The purpose of the costumes is to sublimely set the mood to the time period, social and economic situation and the culture of the people in the play. When you look at Fiddler, for instance, you see a poor, pastoral community, committed to their faith and family.”

Once Sally Ann has a good idea of the styles she wants to design, she checks the theatre's costume shed for any available costumes. To personalize the play and to better help the actors understand their characters, Sally Ann sends the actors to check their own closets and local thrift stores in search of clothing or articles that will fit the play. The cast then brings in their findings and supplements them with pieces from the costume shed or from other costumers. Sally Ann refits any article of clothing as needed; the time it takes to sew a costume depends on the piece. A period piece, for instance an antebellum dress, could take up to six hours to complete. She also ensures that the clothing chosen by the actors fits their interpretation of their characters' personalities.

For Fiddler on the Roof, Sally Ann will use traditional Jewish prayer shawls (tzitzits) to costume the cast, as well as kippot (or yarmulkes), brimless skullcaps that the Jewish men wear.

“The biggest challenge in Fiddler is the prayer shawls for the men,” she says. “The kind worn then is not the present day tallis, consequently, I will make them. The other is the formal ceremonial coat to wear at the wedding. And men's hats are always a challenge. Fiddler is such a popular play that you can find several varieties to choose from.  Cost is another concern but we have found some economically priced ones. Hopefully they will fit, if not, plan B - modify!”

Regardless the show she’s costuming for, Sally Ann encourages the actors to embrace their character and look at clothing items in an imaginative way. One tip she gives to actors on the lookout for their own costumes is to look at the garment with a fresh eye. She suggests that rather than simply seeing a shirt, the actors "envision what it could become." For instance, '70s clothes can become Victorian attire. A long skirt can be made into an elegant gown.

As famed costumer Edith Head explained: “What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not….”

And so it is Sally Ann’s task to transform local actors in the 21st Century into early 20th Century Orthodox Jews eking out a living in rural Ukraine.

Yente, the local matchmaker (Carla Costanza, left) 
plots with Golde (Sara Pagones) to marry off one of her daughters.

Dana Anderson and Michael Willman model their wardrobe
in the early stages of costuming.

(Photo credit: Don Redman)

Tevye’s Daughters played by (from left) Martha Braud, Alex Barron, Hannah Jennings, Jamie Skiles and Georgia Peck (Photo: Valerie Morgan)

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