The wardrobe always starts from the script. That's how Sarah S. Shaver approaches costuming for plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.
"The script is your blueprint of all the things you need," she says. "It has what the characters say, what is said about them, the author's description of those characters."
From there, she talks to the director and wraps her head around their vision. Setting is a major concern — restaging something like Hamlet outside of 1600s Denmark naturally requires different costuming. Shaver, president of SET's board of directors, recalls last summer's staging of Titus Andronicus, which pulled Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic design elements into the play's traditional Roman/Gothic-era setting.
From there, Shaver dives into primary research, looking up what people actually wore when and where the action happens. For Titus, she delved into period paintings, statues and other iconography. If she were staging a play set in the U.S. in the 1960s, she says she'd turn to yearbooks, films, newspapers and magazines. It's all about getting the feel of the costumes as true to the setting as she can.
It's also about pure inspiration — the Mad Max costumes, in the case of Titus, as well as elements from the movie How To Train Your Dragon and the Star Wars series.
"I wanted the drapiness of the period plus the armor made out of garbage or non-traditional materials," she explains. "I had $500 to dress 19 women in armor and Roman togas. You have to get creative."
Budget is always a concern, especially in smaller productions. She uses thrift stores to stretch her dollar, as well as everything from hotel bedsheets to hoarded fabric scraps.
"It's always a good idea to come up with good relationships with other theaters in town, so you can borrow from them and they can borrow from you," she adds. "Sometimes you have to beg, borrow, steal, thank profusely."
And every piece has to work within the script — not just in terms of making sense with the characters, but in terms of what the actors have to do on stage and how long they have to change in and out of their costumes while off-stage.
But attention to detail pays off and brings characters to life.
"Everything that you put on your body today is a choice, and it tells me a little bit about you," she says. "It can tell me about your age, your gender, what things are important to you ... there's all kinds of things. You can tell a person's mental state from what they're wearing, [or] what their job is. It's very Sherlock Holmes."