Usually, costume designers can apply modern conveniences to dresses and costumes that might otherwise be perfectly authentic for the Victorian era or some other historical period.
What’s most important is that the actors can get in and out of the costumes backstage in time to get changed and ready for their next scene. And thus it usually doesn’t matter what they’re wearing underneath.
But for the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of “In the Next Room,” the story dictates that some of the actors remove, and don again, their hefty dresses, petticoats, mackintoshes, stoles and bustles. And since they’re exposing what’s underneath in front of the audience, they must be wearing the official corsets and bloomers of the day.
“You can’t cheat,” said the play’s costume designer, Jennifer Brawn Gittings, who lives in Del Cerro. “We can’t use Velcro or zippers or any of that stuff.”
The parenthetical second half of the play’s title might give you a bit more of a hint why these actors are disrobing. Acclaimed playwright Sarah Ruhl wrote “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)” to explore Victorian-era American questions of female sexuality and the range of female ailments that fell under the diagnosis umbrella of “hysteria.” Just after the discovery of electricity, a doctor uses the newly designed electric vibrator to treat such women. (As you can imagine, the theater advises that this play is for mature audiences.)
One morning last week, photographer Sam Hodgson and I found Gittings in the middle of that predicament of designing costumes that can be easily removed.
Gittings acts as designer, assembler and shopper, though she has some help from the Rep’s in-house costume shop to implement the changes she orders. While she measured the length of skirts and the length of seams, she shared with us historical guidelines for makeup of the time and joked about the heaviness of the bustles the women would have to wear.
In the fitting room in the bowels of the Lyceum Theatre, Gittings pinned a bustle on actor Aubrey Saverino, who stars as Mrs. Catherine Givings, the doctor’s wife. A dress rack held frocks and corsets and bustles in burgundy, turquoise, black, yellow and orange for the characters’ many costume changes.
Gittings’ 3-and-a-half-year-old son, Oliver, was her assistant that morning, playing with measuring tapes and aligning his toy cars on the floor of the dressing room.
“Do you need this one?” he asked, handing his mom a safety pin. “Just show me where to put it.”
The Victorian era is her favorite to design for, Gittings said.
“Not a lot of companies do it, because it’s expensive,” she said. “Nobody ever chooses, ‘Let’s just do bustles!'”
Gittings must cobble together costumes from rental shops, thrift stores and discount shops, designing new pieces to go with them as needed.
The yellow ensemble worn by actor Willow Geer, who plays Mrs. Sabrina Daldry, provided a good example of the effort. The blouse came from J.C. Penney. The jacket was constructed new for this production, and the skirt was rented.
“We’re trying to make it look like it’s all from the same place,” Gittings said.
“There’s a train! Oh nooooooooooo!” came Oliver’s voice on the other side of the room as Gittings and Geer examined how a hat might stay on her head and be easily removed.
Gittings worked to pin this burgundy ensemble together so that it could be easily removed onstage. “Everything I wear I have to take on and off onstage, sometimes two or three times,” said actor Saverino.
As Oliver’s attention span came close to running out, he asked for another task. Gittings gave him a measuring tape and asked him to gauge the height of Geer’s skirt. The toddler reached his arms skyward and approached the actor.
“You’ll have to tell me how many numbers it is,” Gittings directed, in the remote voice of a multi-tasking mom, her attention fixed on her pinning.
“It’s twenty thousand thirty, Mommy,” he offered, proud of his helpfulness.
Opening night for “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)” is tonight; it runs through April 17, 2011.
I’ll be talking about this today with our friends at NBC San Diego at 4:30.