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Saturday, October 5, 2013

OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE!


A few weeks ago I was asked if I could make a costume for a skit that was to be a key part of a showbiz roast for Frank Marino in Las Vegas. Anyone who knows me knows I LOVE to design/make costumes and I LOVE to make money, so anytime I can do  the two things at once, I’m one happy camper! But I turned this one down. It was SOOO out of my comfort zone. It was to be a large, and I do mean large, tiger costume, Montecore of Seigfried and Roy fame to be exact, with certain elements of puppetry.  I don’t do animals. I do glamor, glitz, beautiful elegant and classy costumers. I haven’t ever worked with foam, never wielded a knife in the cause of a costume, seldom use a glue gun, am not particularly “crafty”, and know absolutely nothing about how to make the apendages of said animal move.

I thought that was that, but the producer could not find anyone else to do the costume and offered me double what I would have asked, so I weakened and said yes!

The cool thing about being out of your comfort zone is that you are forced to expand your capabilities and do things you thought you had no aptitude for. This was NOT an easy job. The animal has to be big, almost as long as I am tall (5’8”!), and somewhat life like. The legs have to move. It can’t topple over. So off I went to the fabric store and bought lots of fake fur. OMG this is the first time I have worked with fake fur.... it is all over my workroom, in the carpet, in my eyes, certainly up my nose. I had to vacuum every day after working, and I’m still finding fur tufts everywhere.

Thankfully, my husband is very resourceful (and a good sport!) and helped me immensely by building a skeleton of bits and pieces of things we had in our garage and at our neighborhood Lowes. Then I bought foam and started to figure out how to create the shape of this animal.  First fitting did not go well. The producer thought it too small. Back to square one. More fur needed. More vacuuming needed. More patience with myself needed.

Second fittng went pretty well, though the mechanics still weren’t working. Back to Lowes for more supplies.

But in the end, I was amazed that I was able to pull it off! It’s not a glamorous gown, like I enjoy doing, nor is it on the level of a Lion King or War Horse puppet. But it got  huge laughs at the event when it appeared and now it’s all over Twitter!

I’m so glad I wasn’t comfortable for a few weeks - such a sense of accomplishment when it all ends well!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

COMING FULL CIRCLE, BACK TO MY SEWING ROOTS!


During my costume designing career, often I have been asked if I sew all my costumes. It always bothered me a bit, because it assumed that a designer has to sit at the sewing machine turning out hundreds of costumes a show might need as well as designing them, meeting with the actors, going to production meetings etc. It is like asking an architect if he constructs all his own buildings!

However, I am now in the process of making a number of costumes for a musical groups’s new show, and to my surprise, I am loving it! I have put in far more hours than my fee would suggest but I don’t mind in this instance, because I am having so much fun! I sit up in my second floor office, which has windows on two sides and a view of Mt Charleston to the west, and sew away on my sturdy little workhorse Singer sewing machine. In the evening I sit downstairs on the sofa and hand sew, trying not to leave the tell-tale sequins scattered on the floor. (Sticky rollers are brilliant for getting up sequins!)

For thirty odd years working as a costume designer for stage, film and TV, I have sewn little more than a few throw pillows and hems and minor alterations on my own clothes. I have relied on the fully professional and divinely talented people in my costume workrooms who look at my sketches and miraculously turn them into fully realized costumes. They make the patterns, turn out a “muslin” sample for my approval, cut the fabric, assemble it, and put in those pesky zippers. Then, once the fitting is done, they make the adjustments, and add the beading or trim, and do the final hand finishing. One of the great joys of costume design is seeing one’s creation go from my imagination to sketch to finished product on the actor!

I started hand sewing at an early age, growing up in England. All little girls were taught to sew, and we had a class where the teacher would read to us while we did our embroidery. When I was 8 years old I won my first prize for embroidery!

Later, during my teen years in Canada, I went to a summer course at the Singer Sewing Machine center, realizing that I could get more clothes to wear if I learned to make them myself.

During my Broadway career (as a dancer and actress) I used to sew many of my own clothes, inspiring my friends to ask me to make clothing for them. I even had a line of dresses that I took around to the various theaters on Broadway for the dancers and singers to look at and buy. 

Once relocated to Los Angeles to pursue my acting career, I supported myself in-between gigs with making patchwork dresses and skirts, also quilts and pillows which I sold to interior decorators, private clients, and at outdoor craft shows.

Eventually my career morphed from performing to costuming. My first job was co-ordinating the costumes for Ann-Margret’s nightclub act, dealing with the many costumes for the dancers and singers. When I worked up the nerve to ask if I could design a dress for Ann-Margret herself, guess who sewed it....ME!  I remember many a night struggling away to make it fit, make it perfect, even adding the rhinestones myself.

So, flash forward to my professional costume design career for TV series and films....no sewing! I remember fondly the many wonderful women and men who made my designs come to life. And now, I am happy sitting upstairs sewing away, trying to do as good a job as they did.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A SALUTE TO FILM COSTUMERS!


For thirty plus years I have been a costume designer for TV and film, and have loved every minute of it. It has been hard work, demanding work, requiring interacting with producers and their budgets, crews large and small, and actors with all their needs. 

But recently I returned to the trenches! I went to work as a set costumer on a feature film that has been designed by a former colleague Salvador PĂ©rez, and has been filming here in Las Vegas for 5 weeks. What an education! I now have an even greater admiration for how hard the set costumers work, how long they work, and how physically demanding the job is. The job is neither glamorous or for the faint of heart!

On one hand, the Costume Designers are “on call” which means they are wherever they need to be, whenever they need to be, and do not clock in and out. Often they work very long hours too, and work weekends if they need to. They are responsible for not only the creative aspect of the costumes on film, but the budget, and the operation of their costume department throughout the process. They are at the head of the department and get the credit or the blame for how the film’s costumes look. 

However, the set costumers are among the first to arrive, even before “crew call”. Their call might be at 2 in the morning or 5 am in the morning, or 7 pm at night. They need to get to the wardrobe trailer, set up and be ready to set the costumes in each actors’s dressing room before the actors arrive. They check the background actors’ wardrobe, getting them dressed as cops, waiters, club patrons, sometimes hundreds of them. Then they go to set, lugging their set racks and kits. If location is outdoors, they work in whatever conditions exist, which in the case of the recent feature, was over 100 degree temperature, day after day (record breaking heat waves for Las Vegas!). Umbrellas, fans, portable a/c is provided for princple actors and the director and DP, but the set costumers sweat it out. They are there every moment to keep the actors comfortable, dressed correctly, holding their set slippers and robes for them, or their cell phones and other paraphernalia. They must stay focused through hours and tedious hours of shooting, watching their actors to make sure a collar doesn’t flip up or a bra strap show.  Often there is nowhere for them to sit.

At the end of 12 hours of filming, everyone is exhausted and rushing to go home. The transportation department picks up the actors and takes them back to their dressing room and/or their hotels. The background actors are in a rush to check out and go home too. After most performers are headed “home”, the set costumers THEN have to pick up all the actors clothes, often strewn on the floor in a hurry, pick up the damp socks and under shirts, and get everything back to the trailer. Then they sort and organize. Put things away. Write up the dry cleaning or do a laundry in the portable washing machine on board. Set up tomorrow’s costumes so that 10 hours later when they return for the next day’s shooting, everything is ready to go.

So my hat is off to set costumers! One week I did five 14 hour days in a row, and was happy that I survived! Yes, the money is excellent, and I am glad of the paycheck. But as I approach teaching my classes  to film costumers of the future I now have a much greater insight into what they need to know.... from my view from the trenches!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

DREAM BIG, FORGET THE SAFE LIFE!


In two weeks I will be going to the airport to pick up a young lady I have never met, a young woman who sought me out via email a couple of years ago. She grew up in Turkey, and now lives and works in Germany. She told me about her dreams of designing costumes, even though she is highly educated and accomplished in the field of politics and international relations. I do not know her design talents, but I do know that if she wants a costume career as badly as she seems to, I should encourage her to give it a try. So I did.
She has saved up enough money,taken some classes, got her visa, and is coming to intern with me for a couple of weeks and look into further longer lasting internship possibilities.
She has said in her emails that no-one else has encouraged her but me, so when I read Xazmin Garza’s column in todays Las Vegas Review Journal, I thought of her. Below is an excerpt of Garza's column:
Everyone has a dream somewhere along the line. Dreamers just dare to keep having them well after society expects them to stop. There’s a reason the question “what do you want to be” always ends with “when you grow up.” We equate dreaming with immaturity. 
......To go after something beyond standard goals — 10 fingers and 10 toes, a corner office, the lifestyle that comes with the Champagne that comes with the car — requires bravery. Not just for what might be sacrificed to do it, but for all the naysayers who will inevitably be encountered along the way.
It’s also Father’s Day today, so I am grateful to both my parents (both long gone) for allowing me to dream big. It wasn’t always easy for them, I don’t think, as my dreams of a showbusiness career did not guarantee me a nice stable and possibly affluent lifestyle in the city where I grew up, surrounded by family and friends. But they didn’t stop me when I flew off to Boston the day after I wrote my last exam for my BA, to audition as a dancer for the “My Fair Lady” National Company and, as it turns out, never to live at home again.
So Mum and Dad, thanks so much for letting me go, letting me dream. And I’ll write more about my intern in a few weeks. I hope to be part of her realizing her dreams.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Far Reaching Arms of the Show Business Family


An interesting thing happened to me this week. In my Yahoo inbox was an email from a total stranger who gently enquired if I would be willing to share my impressions of a mutual friend for an article he was writing. Within 24 hours it seemed I had time-travelled back to the mid 1960’s, and shared stories, memories, and bittersweet reflections with this well-known writer about our friend. More of this experience shortly.

This led me to all sorts of musings. With the 315 million people who live in the United States and the 35 million who live in my former country of Canada, it astounds me how often paths of certain people cross, nearly cross, and re-cross, mostly within the theater, film, and show-business community. The entertainment business is truly a family, an extended dysfunctional family at worst, a close family at best. Sooner or later we all meet each other! The cliche “small world isn't’ it?” might be apt, but hardly explains the remarkable and unexpected connections we often discover by chance.

A couple of years ago I was visiting with fellow Costume Designer Albert Wolsky and we were talking about his early career when he was assisting famed designer Ann Roth. We realized he had outfitted ME for my role as Gwendolyn PIgeon in the National Company of The Odd Couple many years ago. We did not remember each other.

My sense of family has always come from the work I do, the performing companies and film communities I have been part of.  I grew up in England with virtually no cousins and no family other than parents near by. My English grandmother died before I was born. My Canadian grandparents were an ocean away, and I did not meet them until I was six. 

Dancers, in particular, have a strong bond. We all know how hard it is to train to become really good at what we do, and how short our careers will most likely be. Dancers of any age speak a common language, a language of sore muscles, intense and disciplined training, and the pure joy of artistic expression through dance.

A few years ago I was in the fitting room of my costume department at CBS Radford Studios with actress Leigh Taylor-Young, ready to fit her for her costume in the NBC daytime drama Passions. She looked at me strangely and said “were you ever a dancer at the National Ballet School in Toronto?” I was, in fact, at about age 14 and Leigh, a younger dance student, remembered me! How extraordinary! And I thought I was so dull and invisible at that age.

My closest friend as an adult was a dancer I met at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival when we were both still teenagers. We went on to perform together, room together, and go to each other’s weddings. I am still in touch with two other dancers from my earliest days of professional dancing in My Fair Lady. One is now a licensed family therapist living in Pasadena, another is retired and living in North Carolina, but we still email and check on each other frequently, some 50 years later.

Dancers Over 40 is a group in New York, formed to provide a community to support the needs of “mature” dancers and choreographers. I know board member Harvey Evans from when we were both performers on the road in Chicago in the 60’s.  In Los Angeles I am a member of the Professional Dancers Society which keeps us, haha, on our toes!  

Some companies, like the aforementioned My Fair Lady, form strong “families”. Others not so much. Ann-Margret to this day surrounds herself with her dancers and friends from her days of performing live; many still walk together on Saturdays for exercise. The soap opera Passions has a core group that still stays in touch, and Facebook has certainly facilitated that. I used to suffer terribly at the end of a show, as I was constantly losing my families and having to find new ones. We are all scattered and have to go on to other cities and other shows, hopefully to still feel part of a larger community.

Another interesting story (which I have written about before) concerns a young girl who lived in Belarus when Santa Barbara was the first US show to be shown on Russian television. It was an enormous hit, and the bright colors and somewhat unrealistic rich lifestyle was very appealing to those still barely out from the grayness of communism. This young lady, Antonina Grib, reached out to me via email and I responded. After getting a scholarship to study costumes in the US, she eventually came to intern with me on Passions and has since gone on to a very successful career in costuming, working on major TV and film projects. For all the negative things that are written about the internet, without it Antonina and I might never have connected, let alone formed a deep friendship and mentorship.

So back to my new journalist friend: it turns out that as a 17 year old he was a ticket-taker at the National Theater in Washington DC, his home town, and was “introduced not only to the backstage magic but to a real-life cast of charismatic and eccentric players who would become his mentors and friends”.  Though I can’t claim to have been either,  since we did not know each other, our paths crossed a number of times over the years. He saw me at the National Theater in My Fair Lady, later in the out of town try-out of the Broadway musical Hot Spot, and later at the Blackstone Theater in Chicago where we shared, unbeknownst to us, a friendship with a wonderful man, Clayton Coots, who was a mentor to young Frank, and a dear friend to me.  So Clayton was the catalyst, the internet the instrument of Frank finding me, and the telephone made possible our sharing so many of our stories about so many mutual friends.

Here is the link to Frank Rich’s touching article in The New York Magazine

Sunday, May 5, 2013

WOMEN IN FILM AND LIFE: SOME THOUGHTS


The other night I was one of four judges at the UNLV produced film festival called “Spring Flicks”. At the end of the three day event, awards were handed out for best film, best director, best editing, best cinematography, and so forth. And then, to my total and utter surprise, I was awarded a special “CInefemme of the Year” award for my support and encouragement of a group of young and mostly female film-makers during the year. I was touched beyond words, and still think I really didn’t do enough to really deserve this honor.

Cinefemmes was also awarding a screenwriter, either male or female, an award for the best female protagonist.  Yet here we are in 2013, and to my surprise and disappointment, even these energetic and creative young film-makers were still making films about females as strippers, hookers, victims, or nags! And this all got me to thinking about the continuing role of women in film, in life, and the world in general.

I have been lucky in my life for a couple of reasons, one being that I chose careers that are largely female driven, first ballet, and later costume design, which is pretty evenly divided between male and female. But secondly, I was born into a family where I had many strong women as role models. My paternal step-grandmother (my real grandmother died before I was born) was a judge, a mayor, received the MBE for her services to the community, and was in general a no nonsense kind of woman. My great aunt was an obstetrician, one of the first females to graduate in early 1900’s with a medical degree. There was also a distant cousin who  was an Arctic explorer in the early 1900’s!  So it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted because I was a woman. It just never entered my mind.

In high school, most of my classmates were going on to be either nurses or teachers. It seemed a pretty limited selection to me, but I already knew I was going to be a dancer, so what did I care? Even in college it was a fairly common “joke” that women who went to college were not after a BA or MA, but a MRS! But me, I was headed to Broadway and a husband was the last thing on my mind.

By the early 1970’s I was living in Los Angeles, and it’s not to say that there weren’t obstacles to overcome as a woman. It was difficult at that time, if not downright impossible, for a woman to buy a house without a father or husband to co-sign. Can you imagine! Remember Edith Bunker trying to get a loan at the bank?  The 1970’s were a tumultuous time with all sorts of reexamination of women’s rights going on, and women such as Jane Fonda, Gertrude Stein, and Erica Jong and Germaine Greer drawing attention. And of course the demand for equal rights and the sexual revolution changed so much in how we could lead our lives. It was an intoxicating period, with promise of greater freedom and power!

And as I started my transition to my career in costume design, there were times I strived to be given my due worth. On one TV pilot, the DP kept referring to me as “the wardrobe girl” whereas in fact I was the Costume Designer. He seemed surprised when I called him on it. I told him if he didn’t stop, I would from here on in refer to him as “the lighting boy.” Of course he thought me uppity! But luckily, many of the top TV designers were women, and gradually we were recognized properly.  My very first producer who took a chance on me, hiring me for The Facts of Life, was a woman, and a darned wonderful woman and producer at that. Many of the producers (and a few directors) I worked with in television subsequently were women, including Penny Marshall, Yvette Lee Bowser,  Irma Kalish, and Lisa De Cazotte.

So are things any better? Oh yes, and oh no. Women still earn less on the dollar than men for the equivalent or same job, though in union work, salaries for the same work are equal. There are more females in Congress than there used to be, but not enough, and more females at the top of the corporate ladder, but not enough. Perhaps we finally might have a female president?

And in film, I always sit through the entire credits at the end of the film, and see more and more credits for female editors, production designers, directors, and so forth. So when I hear the young film-makers complain how rough a job they have completing for jobs in a man’s world, part of me wants to say “you have NO idea of how bad it used to be”! 

I still believe that it’s important not to feel that you are coming from behind, but that you are starting from the same start line, and that excellence in what you do is the thing that will propel you forward. Not nepotism, not cronyism, not anything but commitment and talent and passion. Call me naive or an optimist, but I’d like to think even men wouldn’t be dumb enough to ignore someone who is really really really good at what they do!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Costume design for Sci Fi, who knew!


I am currently spending many hours at my desk preparing for my first ever three hour seminar on Costuming for Film and TV, which is being presented on April 13th at UNLV. (see link at bottom for more information).
The first hour will be film clips from some of my favorite films from various genres, starting with period (Marie Antoinette), then moving to more recent periods such as the 1940’s (42, the movie about Jackie Robinson) and the 70’s (Argo). We’ll also look at a number of contemporary films such as Silver Linings Playbook, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Then I am turning to Sci Fi and fantasy films, and oh what a revelation for me! Confession alert: I am so not a fan of sci fi and rarely see those films. I love films rooted in reality, so even if a movie starts off looking “real”, the moment weird creatures start flying in, I’m out!

No judgement here. It’s just my taste, my preference. So I have surprised myself in discovering how fascinated and impressed I am with the work of sci fi costume designers. As I research films like Tron, Prometheus, After Earth, and more, I realize how much goes into coming up with the looks. As one costume designer I saw interviewed said: “sci fi is the last place where you completely rely on your imagination. Period films can be largely rented, contemporary films can be largely shopped, but in sci fi you create a costume from scratch.”

I am learning that these costumes more than many others require extensive collaboration with the director, production designer and art department, props, lighting, and special effects, as everyone together tries to create a brand new world. Sci fi designers have to deal far more with technology, and can discover and use materials that you don’t usually think of as materials for a costume. 

One designer commented that in over 60 years of Oscar Awards, less than 10% of Best Costume Design nominations have been for futuristic costumes. John Mollo’s designs for Star Wars won one back in 1977, but normally the heavily ornamented period costumes of “corset dramas” usually garner not only the nominations, but also the wins. This year Jacqueline Durran won for Anna Karenina, last year the 1920’s costumes of The Artist, and Elizabeth The Golden Age, The Duchess, and The Young Victoria, all won in the recent past.

So I have a renewed respect for the imaginative and innovative work of the sci fi costume designers. Bravo!