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Behind the Scenes at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival Costume Shop

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Designers and seamsters prepare for the opening of Romeo and Juliet

Boise Weekly by Deanna Darr

Published May, 30, 2012

Inside a warehouse off Warm Springs Avenue, there’s a distinct feeling of the calm before the storm.

Racks of carefully labeled clothes line the walls and the dull hum of sewing machines punctuates the quiet as sleeves are taken in. Bolts of fabric rest in a corner, while carefully styled wigs wait for their wearers.

Soon, the sense of urgency will increase as final fittings are done and last-minute details are ironed out before opening night for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s first production of the 2012 season, Romeo and Juliet.

“It’s stressful but we know how to handle it,” said Rachel Reisenauer, costume assistant for ISF.

The shop crew has been doing fittings for two weeks, and crunch time has arrived. But when the star-crossed lovers take the stage on opening night Saturday, June 2, the chaos of preparations will transform into the thrill of performance as the cast and crew transport audiences to Italy in the late 1920s.

It’s a transition that costume designer Star Moxley has grown used to after 31 years of working with ISF. Moxley started as a volunteer during the company’s second season, and her work has grown to include memorable productions like ISF’s Japanese-inspired production of Macbeth, which won a World Stage Design award.

But good costume design rarely earns audience accolades–in fact, when done best, it becomes a seamless part of the entire production.

“It’s good design in any production,” Moxley said. “Costumes alone won’t carry a show.”

For Romeo and Juliet, the process started in Cleveland with the Great Lakes Theater, where the company spends its winters. The closing show there is transported west, where it becomes the opening show in Boise. But it’s not quite as easy as just boxing up a bunch of costumes.

The new season brings new actors, and costumes have to be re-fitted or sometimes changed altogether. For this production, the crew of 18 at the ISF costume shop had more than 30 costumes to fit for 13 actors.

On a recent afternoon, stitcher Jeni Montzka worked on the cuff of a suit jacket while draper and assistant shop manager Leah Loar reworked the sleeve of a dress, and wardrobe supervisor Angela Dunn carefully styled several wigs.

Between fittings, the shop staff craft, recraft or seek out each item an actor will wear on stage. They do everything from dying fabrics to creating custom jewelry to putting a rubber coating on the soles of shoes.

For every production, Moxley said the process starts with finding a common idea with the director and then bringing in the set designer–a process that can start up to six months before the production hits the stage.

“It’s always about the text, too, especially with Shakespeare’s work,” Moxley said. “I like grounding it, rooting it in some kind of historical timeline, but not necessarily staying true to that so that it can become somewhat abstract. I need to know where theses characters live, what kind of life, what kind of world I’m creating.”

Moxley works on rough sketches, which she brings back to the director before she creates final line drawings, at which point the color palette is finalized.

“Color is everything to me–everything, as far as my design work,” she said.

Her use of color has been one of her trademarks, like the punch of red in the otherwise black-and-white world of Macbeth, or in the upcoming Romeo and Juliet, where a monochromatic world of gray is punctuated by Juliet’s violet.

Once designs are set, then comes the balancing act of deciding which pieces can be constructed, which can be reused from the company’s stockpile, and which need to be bought or rented.

A large portion of the costume shop is packed with items from past productions, each carefully labeled. Body padding and petticoats hang above racks of period gowns, which are just down from religious clothing and armor. A dizzying array of shoes rests in one corner.

“Shoes are our bane,” sighed Reisenauer as she looked at the pile.

For the pieces that will be built, Moxley heads to Los Angeles to find fabrics, spending days pouring over thousands of options.

Then comes the shopping. While Moxley said she buys pieces locally when she can, her dependence on online shopping has grown exponentially in recent years.

“You’ll be in a dark theater and a pair of shoes doesn’t work and you’ll literally get on a laptop and order a pair of shoes almost in the middle of the night so you can get them the next day,” she said.

Then, of course, there’s the challenge of moving a production from an inside theater to an outdoor amphitheater.

“Some colors don’t work when you get them on the stage,” Moxley said. “It plays different outdoors vs. indoors. … It’s like designing two different pieces.”

If one of those moments happens, it might be a matter of last-minute re-dying or even rebuying something.

But once the actors take the stage, the designer’s work is done and he or she moves on to the next project. For Moxley, it will be revamping last season’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.

The shop crew is already working on costumes for the next two productions, The Mousetrap and The Imaginary Invalid, but regardless of the production, Moxley’s favorite part comes at the end.

“I love curtain calls–when they’re all standing out there and the magic of it, to a warm welcome after all their hard work,” she said.

Click to read at Boise Weekly with photos