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How a Play Dresses for Success

Bringing Huntington’s Educating Rita to life

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In the slideshow above, costume designer Nancy Brennan works behind the scenes on the Huntington production of Educating Rita at the BU Theatre. Slideshow by Kimberly Cornuelle. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

Today’s theatergoers are used to extreme stunts: think Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Compared to such spectacles, the behind-the-scenes apparel acrobatics needed for 11 costume changes, each happening in 20 seconds or less, may seem quaint.

That’s the number of costumes the free-spirited main character in Educating Rita, the Huntington Theatre Company’s current production, wears. But rest assured, creating a successful costume is no small feat, and it’s the daily mission of costume director Nancy Brennan.

“I make sure that all the costumes get on stage in a timely fashion, on budget, in a way that pleases the director, meets the needs of the play, and makes the actors happy,” she says. “And I make sure the costumes continue to look as good on the last day as they do on the first.”

Brennan (CFA’12) is in her sixth season as the Huntington’s costume director. This is the first time, however, that she is also the costume designer, traditionally a separate job. For Willy Russell’s award-winning play Educating Rita, Brennan is cheerfully wearing both hats; from scheduling, budgeting, and management to sketches, fittings, and buttons, she’s doing it all.

Brennan agreed to the extra challenge at the request of director Maria Aitken, with whom she worked on the Tony Award–winning production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, which had its U.S. premiere at the Boston University Theatre in 2007 as part of the Huntington’s 2007–2008 season and later moved to Broadway. Brennan jumped at the chance to collaborate with Aitken again.

“She is so smart and funny and talented that when she asked me to do her project, I had to say yes,” Brennan says. “I knew it would be some extra work, and I was up for that because the opportunity is so wonderful.”

Brennan is quick to point out that her job would be impossible without the expertise of the Huntington’s nine-person costume shop, part high-fashion boutique, part sewing circle, and always alive with snipping, stitching, pressing, and banter. Someone is crocheting, another is mending, and everywhere are bits and pieces of fur and fabric, capes and collars.

With the exception of a few accessories, all the costumes in Educating Rita are hand-crafted. Fabrics were purchased in New York and dyed in a huge dye vat—one of only two in all of Boston. Brennan strives to use the highest quality material she can afford, knowing that skimping can lead to problems. She recalls once having to make a coat three times. First it was too flimsy, then it was too stiff. Finally it came out just right.

“There are all kinds of mistakes that we make, and I still make them even though I’ve been working with fabric for a long time,” she says. “Sometimes you just misjudge how a fabric will behave. At the Huntington, we remedy the disasters before they get to the stage.”

The first stage in the process is exhaustive research, which Brennan compiles in a large binder. For Educating Rita, she had to establish the look of England in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The play follows, over the course of a year, the relationship between working-class hairdresser Rita, who, dissatisfied with her life, takes a literature class, and her tutor, a middle-class alcoholic academic. To find inspiration for what Rita would wear, Brennan visited the MFA, the Boston Public Library, and the Massachusetts College of Art library and perused many books in her own collection. In contrast to Rita’s expressive wardrobe, the play’s other character, college professor Frank, has a more utilitarian style. To find models for his costumes, Brennan looked through old university yearbooks.

In the play’s opening scene, Rita’s fashion sense needs to appear a bit “off,” as Brennan puts it, with clothes too tight, skirt too short, and colors slightly mismatched. To design this costume—an orange sweater, plaid skirt, and white boots—Brennan started with a sweater she had seen in a picture of a British newscaster, a skirt inspired by images of young women going to clubs, and boots and tights from fashion photographs, all from the late ’60s. After several trial sketches, with tweaks to the neckline and waistline, she and director Aitken were happy. A shopping trip to New York City for fabric and several dye samples later, Rita’s first look was born.

“All the challenges are really just a puzzle to be solved,” says Brennan. “It’s been great fun for me.”

Brennan learned to sew when she was 12, and she got into the business of costumes as a 19-year-old college student. Studying textiles at Purdue University, she took a theater appreciation class that required her to volunteer in a theater. “Because I could sew, I volunteered in the costume shop,” she says. “The second day they offered me a job.”

Brennan has overseen costume production for dozens of Huntington plays and was assistant costume designer for last season’s Becky Shaw. In addition to Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, her Broadway experience as costume director includes Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ah, Wilderness, The Piano Lesson, and Fences. She has television costume coordinator credits for The Radio City Christmas Spectacular and The Statue of Liberty Centennial, and she worked on the movie Speed.

But theater is the medium she likes best: “The whole process creates something that is powerful and moving and beautiful and fleeting. Because when you do something on the stage, you do it and then it’s gone.”

Brennan also shares her considerable expertise with BU students, teaching an introductory class at the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre. It’s a survey of textiles to help costume designers and technicians learn to identify and choose fabrics for the stage, “so they’ll know whether wool or cotton will give them the best result for what they’re doing,” she says.

Unbeknownst to the average theatergoer, fabrics are much trickier than they appear. “You can’t just say, ‘I need some satin,’ because satin can be wool, it can be silk, it can be cotton, it can be microfiber,” she points out. “What does it mean if a fabric is cut on the bias? What does it mean if something is canvas versus challis?”

Those who have no idea of the answer such questions can rest easy: Brennan has it covered, so the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the play.

Educating Rita runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through Sunday, April 10. Tickets range from $20 to $89 and may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office or at the Calderwood Pavilion box office, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors and military personnel. Student rush tickets are available for $15 at the box office two hours before each performance, and members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required) a regular price ticket. Members of the BU community are eligible for a special subscription rate. Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

Laura Davidson can be reached at ldavidso@bu.edu.

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