Is Your Costume Authentic to Your Character?

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Photo Source: Danielle Levitt

After last season’s high-concept musical “Once on This Island,” Tony Award–winning costume designer Clint Ramos is back on the boards with “Burn This,” a revival of Lanford Wilson’s straight play that dwells in grounded realism. Opening April 16 at the Hudson Theatre, the drama sees its stars Adam Driver and Keri Russell as 1980s New Yorkers, portrayals helped largely by costuming—and, of course, by Ramos, who reveals what’s different (and what’s not) about designing for a play versus a musical, and how actors can deploy costumes like a secret weapon.

In your words, what is a costume designer’s duty?
A lot of what we do is sociology and psychology. It’s really about trying to figure out how a particular character appears when we catch them in their life, in that particular moment of the play or musical. All the clothing choices that we make inform who we are as human beings, what we’re trying to present to the world, what we’re trying to hide. A theatrical costume designer is really responsible for providing the shell for the character.

READ: How Actors Can Give Feedback That Actually Helps Costume Designers

Your work was last on Broadway in the highly theatrical musical “Once on This Island.” How does a costuming feat like that compare to a very grounded piece like “Burn This”?
Every project begins with a search for truth. As much as “Once on This Island” and “Burn This” are two vastly different projects, both began with figuring out who the characters are and on what level thematically they exist. It’s the same process: figuring out the human beings presented onstage and trying to honor them. The only way we honor them is to get them right, so I really read the text to understand what the playwright was trying to say, how the play existed in the time it was created. After I learn all that, I become a detective, getting into these human beings.

Are there major differences between costuming for a play and a musical?
Yes, there are particular considerations, because in a musical they could break out into dance, so you have to worry about things that can survive that kind of movement. But also, naturally, when doing a musical you’re designing for the book. You’re trying to find the logic of the clothing, but you’re also tethered to the emotional quality for the music. So in a way, you’re also designing for the score. You’re either going against it in a very deliberate way or you’re sort of riding that style of the score. To a certain extent, you do that with plays, too. With really high language plays like Shakespeare, there’s a musicality to the language. With “Burn This,” I’ve really fallen in love with how Lanford wrote it. It really is a unique window into humanity and human beings that were filled with desire and rage.

Genre aside, are you always designing with the actor in mind?
I don’t know how else to do it. With every project, from “Once on This Island” to “Eclipsed,” I needed to know who the actor was. For Adam Driver and Keri Russell, I had to place them in the period, I had to look at the archetype of their physicality. I needed to understand how I could locate them in New York City in 1987, so it’s really about studying them. That’s just the first layer and the second layer is these conversations: Is this shirt shiny? Is he comfortable that day? How did he get dressed that day? There’s a scene where he comes in very drunk—none of us dress for being drunk that day, we don’t know. But because you are drunk, you do so many things that require the clothing to actually sustain itself. These are the really fascinating things about costuming because, when we meet the character, they are doing physicalities that they may not have dressed for that particular morning.

Does it go without saying that costumes are vital for actors’ character development?
When deployed intelligently and sensitively, it’s a very necessary tool for the actor because, in a way, it is an extension of their physicality. I’ve had these great conversations with actors over a pair of jeans, an hour-long conversation about navigating what kind of jeans that character would wear, what the comfort level is in all of it. We’re human beings, and we choose these things from many points of view. We choose garments that we wear, that we put on our bodies, from our brains, from our hearts, our souls.

READ: How to Become a Costume Designer

Do you work closely with scenic designers to create cohesion, then?
Very much so. For this particular show, the floor that has been designed is very specific, and that also dictates how the characters treat that floor. Keri plays a dancer and choreographer, and the floor in her loft is also her work floor, so there’s something sacred about it. [Scenic designer] Derek McLane has designed it as this beautiful wooden floor, and not only does it inform me about what shoes people would wear in it, but how they wear them, which characters who enter that space treat it sacredly and which don’t give a damn what that floor is. There are so many things hidden in the set that could be mined for how people wear their clothing.

For the aspiring costume designers out there, what advice would you offer?
My advice would be to really understand your love for storytelling. That’s the skill and the thing that needs to be sharpened, and then everything else will fall into place. Costume design is just a tool in that broader art of storytelling. I consider myself—before I am a designer, I am a storyteller. It’s not about beauty or style; it’s really about telling a story.

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