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Reflections on the creative life

EDITOR’S NOTE: Meryl Waldo’s internship was supported in part by an Amy Rose Silverman Fellowship from the University of Michigan Center for International and Comparative Studies (CICS). Each year CICS provides financial assistance to support the internships, research projects, and study abroad programs of dozens of U-M undergraduate students.

By Meryl Waldo

This past summer I worked as assistant costume supervisor and designer on the National Theatre’s production of the Jacobean domestic tragedy entitled A Woman Killed with Kindness. The National Theatre is on the forefront of the English theatre scene and is considered the most prominent theatre company in the UK. (PHOTO LEFT: Interior of the National Theatre.)

Through my internship there I was able to work closely with individuals who are seasoned professionals in this creative center of the dramatic arts world.   I was involved with the production from the first day of rehearsals until opening night, so I was able to experience every aspect of the costume process. I was introduced to valuable techniques and philosophies on how English theatre-makers approach and design a production, and have begun to incorporate these ideas into my current work.

From day one, our team hit the ground running.  I arrived at the Stage Door at 10am just in time to meet the costume supervisor, Lynette Mauro.  (PHOTO RIGHT: The author, Meryl Waldo, right, and Lynette Mauro.) I worked closely with Lynette as well as costume designer, Vicki Mortimer.  The duo have maintained a close working relationship for years and they had just completed a six-month stint at Glyndebourne, a prestigious opera venue in the south of England working on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

We went straight to the rehearsal space where I attended the model box showing where the set designer brings in a small scale representation of what the set will look like and explains the concept for the design.  The entire cast and creative team were present, and we clustered around the box in a semi-circle while director Katie Mitchell explained her vision for the entire production.  She worked closely with the set and costume designer to create a very naturalistic concept for the production, which was set in May of 1919 and ended in April of 1920.

Later that afternoon I met everyone involved in the costume department including those working in the shop, dye, wig and craft rooms, as well as the fabric and footwear buyers.  The National Theatre employs fifty-two of London’s most talented costume technicians who were able to offer their guidance in a range of specialized areas relating to the construction and execution of our designs.

The rest of my work week was spent in the National Portrait Gallery Archive and the British Library’s Reading Room.  I was assigned the task of gathering images of the period’s fashions for our show (PHOTO left).  These images were compiled into a binder and used as the central reference for all design aspects.  They were shown to the director, and copies were later displayed on the walls around the rehearsal room to give the company a strong visual sense of the production.  The costume and wig departments, make-up artists, jewelers, and prop makers all work from these designs, which form a distillation of the thought-processes behind the production.

Looking through old photographs and magazines is one of my favorite parts of the design process, so I was thrilled to spend a few days in some of London’s most prestigious libraries.  Vicki and Lynette gave me seven different groups of people to research based on the social status and occupations of the characters found in the script.  The social strata is a core element of the play, so we made deliberate design choices to illustrate the different class levels, clearly conveying them to the audience in a visual manner through the costumes.  Over a three-day period, I collected over 300 images of domestic servants, female nurses, sanatorium patients, men in hunting/shooting/fishing gear, society weddings, estate workers, farm laborers, as well as female academics such as Lady Astor, Violet Trefusis and Agatha Christie.

Our team heavily relied on this research.  Instead of sketching each costume for every character we utilized Cosprop, which is one of the world’s leading costumiers serving the film, theatre, and television industries.  It was founded in 1965 by Oscar award-winning designer John Bright. Productions costumed by his company include Pirates of the Caribbean I, II, and III, Pride and Prejudice, Turn of the Screw at the Royal Opera House, and Cyrano de Bergerac (NY).  If we couldn’t find what we needed at Cosprop, we would have the costume shop at the National make it instead.

A major facet of costume design is the psychological analysis of each character and his or her development throughout the play.  Once these analyses have been made, the designer must convey this information to the audience in a visual manner.  Together with the director, the designer is at the heart of the creative process.  They form a very close partnership in order to develop the designs of the set and costumes which define the creative direction of the production.  One of the most valuable practices I gleaned from working with Vicki was during our fittings with the actors.

Vicki, Lynette and I would sit down with the actor and discuss the character and his biography, motivation in life, social status, and any other pertinent information.  Based on these discussions, we would dress the actor in a costume we deemed appropriate depending on their body shape and the ideas we wanted to convey.

We would then take a photo of the complete look and show them to the director for the final critique.  Vicki would always come to these meetings with her own ideas about the character, but a discussion with the actor would give more insight and depth to how he planned to give the character life, and we would utilize the costume as the physical manifestation of the script. If an obstacle arose, Vicki approached it with a calm demeanor, and thoughtfully considered each option before making an informed decision based on the script and the desires of the director.

Throughout the process, I assisted Lynette in her daily activities of conducting fittings with the actors, communicating with the shop on what needed to be made and when it needed to be done, as well as orchestrating work that needed to be done outside the theatre, such as a pair of shoes that were made, and a 1919 reproduction cardigan.  Lynette is the embodiment of superb organizational skills and is overflowing with a wealth of knowledge regarding accurate historical research and the purchase of period fabrics, jewelry, and haberdashery in the city of London.

My undergraduate program at the University of Michigan mainly focuses on the design aspect of theatre-making so I was thrilled to be able to observe and participate in this practical and necessary aspect of the costume design and construction process. One of my favorite workdays was when Lynette and I visited Portobello Road in search of antique jewelry and trims.  I was very impressed with all the resources that were at our fingertips in London.  These unique excursions were only possible in this city because its merchants cater to the theatre industry, and offer most anything a designer might require.

The evolution of the production was a learning tool in and of itself.   Katie Mitchell enjoys working in a “devised” manner.  This means that she starts with a script and lets the story unfold in the rehearsal room.  It is an exciting way to work, but is very stressful for the production team because it drastically reduces the design process time. In more traditional theatrical processes, designs are finalized before the first rehearsal.  A few weeks before opening night, one of the members from our team attended a rehearsal session.  She was appalled to discover that Mitchell had added many more characters without our knowledge, all of whom needed to be costumed in time for opening night!  We were already at our budgetary limits, so the next few weeks were a mad dash to get more money and pull together these extra outfits.

Originally, Lynette and Vicki thought this would be an easier production to design, but as it evolved into something more they were happy to have an extra set of hands to distribute the work load.  I was also pleased with this turn of events because I was given more responsibility in the latter weeks, and my internship became an assistantship.

Towards the end of the process, we were eating all our meals at the theatre, leaving around midnight and returning early in the morning. It was well worth the long hours when I witnessed the first full run through of the show in the rehearsal room a week before opening night.  It was so emotional that during the final tragic scene there wasn’t a dry eye in the space.  The final week before the public attends the play is called Tech Week.  It is a very exciting time when the actors are onstage with the lights, sound, set, and costumes with the goal of integrating all these separate elements into a seamless performance.  Ours went rather smoothly due to our diligent preparation.

Almost every creative field is very competitive, and the realm of theatre is no exception.  The benefits of having worked with a world-renowned company such as the National are endless.  I am more fully prepared to graduate college and enter the work force because of this international experience.  It also gave me ample opportunity to incorporate a global perspective into my work.  Through this exciting internship with the National Theatre’s production of A Woman Killed with Kindness, I was able to develop a valuable skill set in a professional theatrical environment.

Most importantly, I connected with the traditions of the British stage as well as England’s dramatic culture and history, which will be invaluable to me as I transition into a professional career.

Meryl Waldo is a senior studying Theatre Design & Production with a concentration in Costume Design at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance.