From Sketch To Stage: A Behind-The-Scenes Look At A.C.T.’s Costume Process

by Victoria Flores

"The details are not the details. They are the design." –Charles Eames

The grandeur of The Geary Theater does not make the show; rather it's the detailed craftsmanship that creates the show's atmosphere and allows the audience to fall into the story. Tracing the development of A.C.T.'s costumes for Napoli! from sketch to stage, I found a crew of artisans shining behind the show's Italian charm.

The costumes for Napoli! were designed by Lydia Tanji (Dead Metaphor, Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, After the War), who starts the costume process with visual research. This research was extensive and captured many aspects of Napolitano life through classic Italian film stills and portraits from the era. Tanji also had sketches depicting the cut of men's suits, worn-out aprons, and even quirky superstitions, like the donning of a chili pepper (a symbol to ward off evil). Using Tanji's research alongside her final costume renderings, the costume shop staff had the challenge of portraying the idiosyncratic Napoli, Italy during its tumultuous governance by conflicting parties during WWII.

The next step of the process took me to A.C.T's costume shop, a hidden treasure on Market Street, which houses costume inventory and rentals as well as the workspace for A.C.T.'s wardrobe team, including drapers, tailors, stitchers, and artisans.

Costume Director Jessie Amoroso—a costume designer in his own right (Underneath the Lintel)—works directly with the designers to bring their sketches to life and coordinates with the shop and theater staff throughout the process. Jessie explained that there is a balance to accomplishing a designer's vision once it's been sketched and planned. The wardrobe team creates most of the pieces from scratch, but pulls from the shop's inventory, where possible, to complete costumes within budget and on time. "Nothing is sacred; [we] won't hesitate to cut something up," Jessie remarked, especially if the refurbishment improves an older costume.

Costume Director Jessie Amoroso
The rentals and inventory headquarters, run by Rentals Manager Callie Floor, are located on the second floor of the shop. Here I found a rack of eclectic costumes sitting next to a rack of WWII era items that were pulled from A.C.T.'s inventory as possible options for Napoli! costumes. A.C.T.'s inventory not only supplies costumes for mainstage and M.F.A. productions, but also rents to other arts organizations and to the general public.

Inventory Manager Jef Valentine
Touring me through the vast array of costumes—in his stylish, suspender-ed pantaloons—was Inventory Manager Jef Valentine. A kind of costume connoisseur, Valentine zipped from rack to rack, detailing shows, time periods, and A.C.T. history contained in the epic closet. Among all these, he can still hone in on his favorite pieces from past productions such as Tales of the City and the 1973 production of Taming of the Shrew.

Just off Valentine's field of costume racks is the crafts/dye room, containing a colorful array of artifacts and accessories for costume manipulation. Here costumes from the inventory are distressed or altered in a myriad of ways to achieve the desired look. Cloaking a dress form in the room was a military overcoat—a costume worn by Marco Baricelli in Act II of Napoli!—which Accessories and Crafts Artisan Kelly Koehn worked on, adding bullet holes, paint, and dye to render it "worn and torn" to fit the character. Paired with the overcoat were previously-new boots that spent a good amount of time in a small cement mixer to make them look old and used.

York Walker
During my costume shop visit, I also observed an important stage in the costume process: a fitting. Fittings are a time for the designer to see the actors in their costumes and make adjustments before the actors—and their costumes—get onstage. While on my tour, I saw Tanji seated calmly at the curtained fitting room, while tailer Alexander Zeek and costume fellow Karly Tufekjian assisted in fine-tuning the designs to the Italian aesthetic Tanji wanted. During the fitting, draper Keely Weiman brought in one particularly funny project, a nun's habit with no back. After the fitting, Weiman adjusted the costume so Napoli! actor, and A.C.T. MFA student, York Walker was able to don the habit onstage quickly and without assistance.

Less obvious—but crucial to the success of the costuming process—are the actors' wigs. Wig Master Jeanna Parham's grand studio, located on the third floor of The Geary Theater, is decked out with hair tools galore as well as lots of A.C.T. memorabilia, while Wigs and Makeup Supervisor Jessica McGinty assists the actors from the wig room, located adjacent to the actors' dressing rooms.

After the costumes have been designed, collected, and distressed to perfection, they're transferred to the theater where the wardrobe staff—including Wardrobe Supervisor Mary Montijo and her assistant Diane Cornelius—takes over coordination of the collection, divvying them up to the appropriate dressings rooms and assuring costumes are worn correctly throughout the show's run, based on Tanji's and Amoroso's instructions.

Wardrobe Supervisor Mary Montijo
and her assistant Diane Cornelius
During the show, among fitting rooms and quick-change spaces (where costume changes sometimes happens in 15 seconds!), a grand, orchestrated chaos occurs. The dressers become the keepers of calm for the actors offstage, maintaining the smooth process of costume juggling during the show and resetting costumes to their start positions for the performances thereafter.

The beauty of A.C.T.'s costumes is their realistic appearance and wearable construction. Actors can put costumes on without much help as they are not sewn or pinned into them. One of Tanji's favorite pieces is a vintage floral summer dress, worn in the show by Sharon Lockwood. Lockwood showed me dozens of tiny patches that were added to reinforce each tiny flower on the inside of the dress. This detail makes the garment wearable and comfortable for the performer.

York Walker and Asher Grodman
With eight performances a week, maintenance of the costumes and wigs is a rigorous and ongoing process. Following each performance, costumes are washed or dry cleaned (and occasionally mended!), steamed, and returned to dressing rooms, while wigs are washed and restyled to maintain the correct Napolitano look and feel.

The life of an A.C.T. costume is indeed an assortment of moving parts, all driven by multitasking, talented craftsman working hard to create the atmosphere you see on stage. "Auguri" (congrats) to all!

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