This season, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Deb Dryden designed the costumes for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Pirates of Penzance.”
After graduate school and several years as an OSF Guest Artist, Dryden became an OSF Resident Costume Designer in 1997. The superbly fitted, intricately constructed, richly textured, impeccably detailed, durable and weatherproof costumes (that seem to effortlessly appear on the OSF stages) are the products of the process that Dryden calls “builds.”
I visited the slim, soft-spoken Dryden at her studio, and we strolled through the OSF costume shop, which hosts a team of about seventy accomplished artists.
DD: We’re opening this week; simultaneously we are starting the builds for the outdoor summer shows plus “Julius Cesar.” We have eight shows in process. We are still finishing up some final notes from the first four shows.
Everyone in the shop gathers together with the designers for note sessions where we go through every single sketch. The drapers and the people who construct the costumes ask questions such as, “What does this sketch really need? Where does it open? Is this a pleat or a ruffle?” It’s breaking it down to its most specific component parts.
The shop is divided into three, what we call, “pods.” Each pod is designated for a separate show. There are drapers, who create patterns from costume sketches (they indicate character, the actor’s measurements, and a flavor of the period). The drapers’ assistants lay out and cut the fabric. Then there are the “stitchers.” Customized dress forms display mock-ups (fabric facsimiles of the final costume). It’s like doing a rough sketch in three dimensions. We use a fabric that has the same kind of feel as the fashion fabric. Each pod has its own design assistant; fitting rooms are equipped with lights that approximate stage lighting.
(On our tour we visited a room with color-coded boxes containing shoes, underwear, and jewelry for each character in each play; the costume/props section containing hats, strange headpieces, swords, scabbards gloves, parasols, jewelry and bags; the dye room, with an 80-gallon steaming kettle, where dyer-painters process and distress yards of fabric. We passed drill presses, hat blocks, fabric steamers, washer and dryers, rolls of fabric, etc… .)
DD: Space is always an issue.
(Dryden’s design studio is filled with art books, portfolios, file cabinets filled with photographs and designs from various historical eras, plus boxes filled with fabric swatches. For a play’s cast of characters, Dryden creates a color collage consisting of small segments of great paintings from the play’s historical period. After director approval, she sends the collage to shoppers in New York or Los Angeles to give them a frame of reference for fabric, texture and pattern.)
DD: I can say, “In this color palate,” and that helps them limit what they’re shopping for. It’s like a big puzzle.
EH: Do you use volunteers?
DD: We could not do it without them. Some volunteers help paint and dye, other people are happier doing hand work. We’ve had volunteers do sewing, knitting, embroidery; just about any skill can be accommodated. We also have people who help in the rental department. We have a big warehouse where the costumes are stored. We rent to schools, theaters, universities; “Saturday Night Live” keeps renting from us.
EH: Designers must want to come to work with this marvelous team.
DD: A lot of designers feel very well-supported by the remarkably talented artists here who are so eager to fulfill a designer’s vision. It becomes a collaborative creation. It was my strong feelings about working with the costume shop that made me decide to move here. I still feel that way about them. It’s a collaborative adventure.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at email@example.com.