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Creating costumes for quick change Baskerville

Cornish College of the Arts graduate Nina Bice '18 worked with assistant professor Melanie Burgess to create nearly 90 costume changes for the fast-moving "Baskerville" at Taproot Theatre in Seattle. The show plays through October 20, 2018. Bice is currently in San Francisco for a Fellowship at the American Conservatory Theater and sent the following update on life after college.

"Baskerville" photo by Erik Stuhaug, courtesy of Taproot Theatre.

RJ: How did partnering with Melanie Burgess at Taproot come about?
NB: I took a few classes from Melanie while I was at Cornish, and she was always supportive of my creative process and especially of my sketchbook practices. In my last semester I did an independent study for costume design with her, since I had always taken scenic studio instead of costume. For the independent study I did a paper design for The Importance of Being Earnest, from research through concept through renderings. Conveniently that show is the same time period as Baskerville! The Baskerville project came up in the middle of that semester and Melanie proposed working together on it.

RJ: This play uses five actors to play 35 characters! How did this impact your designs?
NB: When we started work the director, Scott Nolte, had already provided some inspirational images and research, especially relating to shows like 39 Stepsand artists like Monty Python. This helped us to think about questions such as the level of realism, the type of comedy, and how the show interacts with the audience. We talked about key icons of the various Sherlock Holmes adaptations, such as the deerstalker cap, and how we want to relate to them. I learned that the deerstalker is never actually mentioned in the text of the novels, but was used in an illustration and from there became an essential visual cue for the adaptations. Given that the show is all about quickly communicating characters to the audience, we embrace these elements.

RJ: For a show with so many costume changes, what’s the biggest challenge for you as the designer?
NB: Keeping track of everything has definitely been a challenge. There are almost 90 costume changes in the show, so not only are there a lot of characters and costume pieces to keep track of, but there’s the movement of the show to track. I did the best I could with prep work, reading the play a lot of times and creating detailed paperwork. It was a back and forth with design, both seeking out or creating what will work for a given change or character and making what we did find work. Then there’s balancing all that out into a cohesive show and giving the director the tools he needs to make it all come together on stage.

RJ: Which project or class at Cornish helped the most in completing this assignment?
NB: I would say a combination of the design studio classes and the practicum classes. The design studios only take you through the first third of the process; research, conceptualization, and collaboration with members of the other design team. Those ideas then have to come into contact with reality: budgets, time constraints, plain physics, and sometimes luck. Even though I took mostly scenic design studio classes these concepts are transferable, and the lessons learned from the reality of production practicum I found were also applicable.

RJ: You’re currently at ACT in San Francisco. How did that come about? Are you going to be able to see Baskerville?
NB: Sadly I am not going to be able to see Baskerville. Just as that project was starting I attended the annual USITT conference (United States Institute of Theater Technology), where Pinky Estell, the director of the Cornish Playhouse, introduced me to Callie Floor, the costume rentals manager here at ACT. She convinced me to apply for the costume fellowship. Melanie actually helped me with that application by writing me a letter of recommendation. When I was accepted we realized that I would have to be gone before the show opened, but I made arrangements to come back to Seattle for final fittings. I wish I could be there for tech week and the show, but we completed the bulk of the design work including pulling costumes, designing built pieces, and even fittings before rehearsals even started in August. I made sure to leave everyone some very detailed paperwork!

RJ: What’s next for you?
NB: I’m here doing the costume fellowship at ACT until the end of May 2019. I’m leaving possibilities open for getting a job here in the Bay Area after that. But if [that doesn’t happen], I am confident that there is work for me in Seattle, given how busy my summer was. I’ll return more confident in my costume skills and knowledge and thus able to design and assist for either costume or scenery, so there are many possibilities out there for me.

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