What is the magic behind the art of costuming?
It’s magical by its very nature. In doing my research I learn about different cultures, different times. I work with and learn from all kinds of creative people and then create a magical experience for the audience. What could be better? – Alex Jaeger, Costume Designer
Viewers are familiar with the artists [actors] in front of the screen or on the stage, but the behind-the-scenes or backstage creative collaboration is somewhat unknown. The unheralded costume design industry is a contributing art form of expression and storytelling.
Costume design is a complex and fascinating profession. Costume designers work closely with directors, producers, set designers and make-up artists to create realistic costumes for actors and other performance artists. Costume designers not only get to express their creativity, but, they get to design using clothes to tell a story.
Theater is one of the most welcoming of all art communities and a good training ground for costume designers. EDGE talked to Alex Jaeger to gain insight on the costume creation process and the role it plays in the performing arts. Alex is an awarded costume designer based in Los Angeles. His background spans multiple disciplines of the performing arts and film. His recent work is that of costume designer for Rubicon Theatre Company’s The American Premier of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [Liberty Valance], written by Jethro Compton and adapted from the short story that inspired the classic John Ford film.
With an accomplished resume of well over a 100 productions, Alex understands how to define the character and create a believable illusion through costume design. This is no easy feat. To achieve this illusion, the costume designer is involved in a process that includes script review, research, concept and sketch development, and the construction and/or acquisition of the final wardrobe.
Resume of Work, Alex Jaeger, Costume Designer | Courtesy of alexjaegerdesign.com
Alex is a graduate of Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He went on to get an MFA costume design degree at University of California Los Angeles. He says the higher education gave him confidence and actual hands-on production experience. Alex chose this discipline rather than fashion design and says “With costume design, you are not selling a product like in fashion, you are given a budget”. The environment and process is much more, the costume designer creates a believable imagery of a character as part of the art of storytelling.
My conversation with Alex touches on advice to those new in the business; insight into the design process; and what’s magical about the art of storytelling through costume design.
Alex, what advice or tip would you give to a student, recent graduate, or someone new to costume design?
Wow, there are so many things. I think that young designers are so anxious to work that they sometimes will take any job that comes along. Choose projects that you can get something from whether experience, connections, good reviews, etc. That’s how you build a career. Make sure you can create a successful design given the budget and resources of the project. Set yourself up for success. One job will tend to lead to another, but don’t get stuck on a lateral plane. Always look for projects that are a step up in some way. Saying no to a project that isn’t right for you can open you up to something better. Saying no to a bird in the hand is scary, but can also be very powerful.
Starting the Process
The script! This is where is all begins. Alex shared that the reading of the script and the research on an average takes a couple of months. As a very important part of the process, for Alex, he reads the script over and over and then reads it for the technical aspect, the time period, in depth about each character, etc. As he starts to get into the character, he builds the wardrobe understanding the character’s personality and thinking as the actor. Most creators get inspired by current or historical images of the era and develop their vision through research boards as does Alex.
Liberty Valance Inspiration/Research Boards | Courtesy of alexjaegerdesign.com
Alex, now that you are familiar with the script and characters, have done your research, and are developing your concept, what happens once the show is cast and there is the first read through with the actors? Are there any surprises or adjustments?
I always reserve the right to make changes once I see and hear the actors. Being slavish to the design just because it’s on paper can be disastrous. Every actor has a story about having to wear a costume that was just wrong for them and their character. It’s more important for the character to look right than for the designer to hold on to their design because they have spent time on it. Ultimately, we all have the same goal. That is to serve the story telling over all.
In developing the costumes, Alex says that it is ‘rare that you can build every piece needed for a production’. You make adjustments based on lighting and set design. Larger theatres have stock for smaller theatres to pull from [rentals]. You purchase shoes, accessories where needed.
Liberty Valance Sketches | Courtesy of alexjaegerdesign.com
Events of the production define the mood of the play. Mood of character can be expressed through color. Audiences can tell evil from good characters simply by their costume or color of costume. Alex, talk to us about your vision of mood and color and use of color with the characters in this production, Liberty Valance.
While it’s true that there is a generally accepted shorthand for color defining character, IE the evil woman wears a red dress, bad guys in black, etc., I often find it more interesting to not reveal that at first glance. It’s far more shocking for someone who looks nice to turn out to be the evil character. In the case of Liberty Valance, we are dealing with iconic characters. It’s pretty obvious who the good and bad characters are. In this case, I used color to tell the story of a community and the outsiders who shake it up. The people of Two Trees who populate the Prairie Belle Saloon are dressed in soft, warm colors that coordinate with the set. They are visually comfortable to look at. When Rance Foster arrives from NY, his clothes are a cool gray. Liberty Valance is in black and gray. This fits with the iconic bad guy in black, but also sets him apart from the citizens of the town. Hallie makes a long personal journey and the color and style of her clothes reflect that progression.
It’s obvious that there’s a highly functioning and collaborative process in creating a performance art production. The costume designer has to collaborate with the other design team members – set, lighting, hair, make-up, etc. – along with the director-designer relationship for this work to be fully realized. What are some of the challenges and conflicts? What are the celebrations?
Well, this process varies a lot from production to production. Ultimately it all trickles down from the director. Some are very involved in the design process and like to discuss all the details. Others are happy to have design elements off their plate once they communicate the initial concept. The biggest challenge is that given all the preparation and planning, we really never know exactly how it will look once all the elements are put together. Usually it’s magical and really fun during the technical rehearsals when we see the actors with their hair and make-up, in costume in front of the set under the lights for the first time. Sometimes there is an element that doesn’t gel and we all work together to fix it. The celebrations are varied and come big and small. Ultimately the celebration is when the audience has an experience that affects them in some significant way.
I had a designer once tell me the satisfaction they have when they see the actor get into character with their wardrobe. At what point do you feel the costumes are ‘right’ for the production or that they truly support the narrative?
Often actors comment on how the costume provides the final puzzle piece for them to create their character. I think that looking in the mirror and seeing yourself not as you appear day to day, but you as the character staring back must be powerful. I’m usually working on refining the costumes well into previews. If I have been diligent all along in keeping up with the production as it develops in rehearsal, it’s a subtle process for the costumes to become “right”. It’s really only when something isn’t right that it becomes obvious. Then you deal with that. I suppose there is always something more that could be done up until closing night. It’s like a painting never truly finished. Each audience member will have a different experience and reaction to all the elements of the production. There is no way to predict that or create a universal experience. That’s the provocative nature of theater. While challenging, it’s ultimately a good thing.
Alex, where do you find the magic in all of this?
I think that it’s magical by its very nature. In doing my research I learn about different cultures, different times. I work with and learn from all kinds of creative people and then create a magical experience for the audience. What could be better?
With all the hard work and tireless hours, one word to describe opening night?
It’s a combination of physical relief, a little sadness to be leaving the project and the people I’ve been working with so closely and celebration of having completed the creation of a work of art. One word? That’s hard. Maybe “bittersweet” with an emphasis on the sweet as in bittersweet chocolate. LOL
At Liberty Valance opening night, the audience’s standing ovation proved that a believable illusion of storytelling was an enriching experience. This creative collaboration and visual imagery of character, through the art of costuming, created a magical experience.
EDGE congratulates Alex Jaeger and wishes you continued success!
All photography Rubicon Theatre Company’s The American Premier of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Courtesy of Rubicon Theatre Company.