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The costumes reveal the character at Seattle Shakes

Kate Wisniewski, Connor Toms, Emily Grogan, and Kimberly King in late Victorial garb and Melanie Burgess hats.
The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by John Ulman
 Melanie Burgess makes actors look good and, more importantly, in character throughout Seattle. The costume designer, who also teaches at Cornish College of the Arts, has clothed productions at Seattle Opera, A Contemporary Theatre, Village Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Intiman, The 5th Avenue Theatre, Empty Space, Strawberry Theatre Workshop, New Century Theatre Company, Taproot Theatre and Tacoma Actors Guild, among others locally. A regular recipient of Seattle Times Footlight award and a winner of a 2010 Gregory for her work, Burgess recently discussed the challenges of designing two very different productions for Seattle Shakespeare Company: Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Shakespeare’s King Lear.
What do you think is the biggest contribution that costumes make to a production?
Costumes provide visual storytelling. They can indicate time, location, and a wide range of character traits. More subtlety, through silhouette, color, and texture, they can provoke an emotional response from the audience.

So do clothes make the man? Especially for a comedy like Earnest or a tragedy like Lear?
Yes! Clothes tell us many coarse and subtle characteristics about a person’s economic and social status as well as the confidence level of their self-image. Every play is saying something about these characteristics. The Importance Of Being Earnest is part satire and comedy of manners so the clothes emphatically describe everything to support that end. With King Lear, one can play with the emphasis by using the clothes to describe political rank, indications of alliances, contrast between the fabrication of an elitist environment vs. a natural one. Those are the themes that we are exploring and with Shakespeare in particular, there are seemingly endless themes to explore through clothing.

Do the time periods of the play dictate the costumes?
Wilde’s play is set in 1895, Victorian England and it is implicit within the text that it remain there. With Lear, we are being somewhat ambiguous about the exact time period. The clothes have a bit of a modern silhouette but not necessarily western, so we are attempting to create the universal place and time for the themes of this play to be explored. There will be swords and sword belts over modern pants, East Indian kurtas and many styles of vests—avoiding any western style of collar and lapel. The women will wear long knit jersey dresses, and though the length of dress harkens to the past, the modern design lines speak to a contemporary sensibility without being trendy.

When you're designing a show, what is your process?
The design begins with reading the script several times. I then meet with the director and the rest of the design team for our first concept meeting, which will give us the trajectory for the particular production. From there, I begin researching, immersing myself in the script and research and start sketching or collaging ideas that come out of that simmering pot of information. Then, more meetings, more sketching, which move me into final designs where then I take the designs into the costume shop to be executed for the stage. This will be accomplished by a variety of methods; building (sewing), pulling or renting and shopping. The process continues with actor fittings, production meetings, and anything and everything that brings all the costumes, accessories, wigs and costume props to the dress rehearsal stage. My job then is to balance the clothes with the set and lights—moving the hypothetical into the real. Lots of tweaking happens in this 7 to 10 day period. My job is completed on opening night.

You've worked with some of the largest companies in town as well as many smaller companies. How do you balance budget with getting the look that you want on the stage?
This is a great question! Most of my work is in union costume shops, which means that I’m not allowed to touch a needle and thread. Needless to say, this has spoiled me. Earlier in my career, I constructed many of my designs and in fact had a cottage industry making children’s clothing before my career as a costume designer. After having worked with extremely skilled technicians, I am now usually disappointed in my own sewing skills.

So what do you do when the company doesn’t have a dedicated costume department?
I am able to bring to the table my acquired resources. In the case of Earnest, I have been fortunate to collect some of the best made, previously designed, Victorian costumes in town—some from productions that I designed myself at other theaters. So instead of using my more limited budget on building costumes, I chose to use the monies for rentals and purchasing Victorian accessories—the fabulous details of the period. I did make the hats for the production, so I was able to flex my creative muscles as well. I value a high level of detail in period productions and with an audience so close to the action, as in the case with the Center House Theatre, those details can be much appreciated.

And how did you handle Lear? Since it isn’t a set time period?
In the case of King Lear, the design was invented out of an interest for simplicity—saying more with a small gesture. We do that through a very tight color palette, a simple silhouette of a base costume with color-coded accessories to signify a particular alliance between characters. Design choices were made by searching out available garments to be purchased on line. I feel it is prudent to know ahead of time what I will actually be able to get with the budget I have. Personally, I find “less is more” design esthetically more challenging and ultimately more interesting and satisfying.

When you are talking to your students, what advice do you give about going into costume design as a career?
My advice is to be proactive! Take classes if they are available and then be industrious about volunteering with any theater company that will allow you to. There are many aspects needed for costume design—drawing skills, knowledge of fashion, history, character analysis, an artistic eye and most importantly—the art of collaboration! Theatre is a team sport, playing well with others is essential. I do not consider myself a brilliant designer, though I do think that I have had moments of brilliance, but I do make a point of trying to be as likeable as possible in the various theatres that I work for. I believe that to be the key to my success.