In this blog, board member, Lillianne P. Torrente discusses costumes, props, and sets, and gives lots of helpful tips on making and finding them in New Jersey!
Have you ever put off directing a particular show due to its challenging costumes, props, or set pieces? (I remember stressing over Ursula’s tentacles, Thoroughly Modern Millie’s vintage telephones and rolling desks, and Singing in the Rain’s vintage cameras, microphones, and silent film footage!) Did you ever realize at some point during the rehearsal process that you hadn’t completely thought through a challenging costume prop? (I got some additional gray hairs from the failed attempts to blow up Violet Beauregarde's blueberry dress!) Or, had you ever found yourself scrambling last minute for that impossible to find or extremely expensive item that you couldn’t do without? (I lost sleep over how I was going to recreate Tevier’s milk cart!)
Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ve experienced some if not all of these things and more. Costuming a show, building or finding appropriate props, and designing a set that works for your production can seem like a daunting task for a middle school theatre director. Not to mention that shrinking budgets and timelines add to the stress of pulling it all together. Somehow, despite all of these challenges, we make it work with the help of friends, families, and co-workers.
Here’s what I experienced over the years addressing (or not addressing) costume, prop, and set design elements encountered along the way...
1. Free is best!
Don’t underestimate the treasures found in closets, attics, basements, backyards, etc. Reach out to the families of your cast members and colleagues if you are looking for any vintage costumes, accessories, or set items. Grandma is often a great resource for costume jewelry, scarves, and vintage dresses for those period pieces we all love! Colleagues may be cleaning out garages, or moving and looking to unload old furniture. For set pieces or design elements, you can often find free wood pallets at local area home improvement stores which you can take apart and use for building and construction. You never know, so just ask and it may be given, and free is always your best option!
2. Cheap is good!
Consignment and Salvation Army shops are great resources for inexpensive clothing items. I once picked up fedoras and bold print suits for a community production of Guys and Dolls for less than one dollar per item! If you are an Ebay fan (www.ebay.com) or Let Go user (https://us.letgo.com/en) you just might find that special item. Be open minded when looking at local dollar stores, flea markets, or small boutiques as they may present options for finding something you can use now or in the future at budget prices. Even when I am not currently working on a production, my family and friends know I am always “plotting”! Sometimes local theatre groups are cleaning out their resources and will offer items for sale cheap! A few years back, I picked up bolts of red velvet material, Las Vegas style headpieces, and showgirl costumes from a community theatre for a fraction of their original cost. Also, check out garage sales for small set dressing items. Don’t be afraid to bargain over prices, as you will have to front the money if you go this route. Is your middle school good about reimbursing you?
3. Borrowing may be possible!
A family may be willing to offer a patio bench and table during the winter months for your production, or have just the right vintage trunk, suitcase, or side table you were looking for that you can borrow. Also, consider networking with other theatre groups and schools in your area. There’s a good chance another school or theatre company has a costume plot or prop already in its inventory for a show you are considering and is willing to let you use them for free. I was fortunate a few years back to find local theatre companies clearing out their inventories and picked up a few costumes for Beauty and the Beast and vintage stainless steel mugs for free - all I had to do was pick them up!
4. You can always rent!
If your budget allows, consider renting costumes and/or props. I’ve had great success with The Costumer (www.thecostumer.com) and Props Rentals NYC (www.proprentalsny.com). Both accept school purchase orders and are easy to work with. The advantage to renting costumes is they’ll fit them to the measurements you supply and label each item with the student’s name and character. The disadvantage is you don’t have them for longer than a week and at the end of the run, you have nothing to add to your costume closet.The advantage to renting props, set pieces, or backdrops is that you don’t have to build and store such items, or spend countless hours searching for impossible to find vintage props or spend time painting flats. The disadvantage is coordinating delivery and return dates, and again you end up with nothing to add to your inventory. Some schools would rather not have to store such items, so this may be the way to go!
5. Consider purchasing items!
Most recently, I’ve taken my costuming and prop ideas to Amazon (www.amazon.com), buying individual costumes and/or props by character and creating my own costume plots using the “save for later” cart feature. Of course, this has only become possible recently as our school now has an Amazon Business Prime account which I can utilize and which is tied to the school’s purchase order process. The advantage is that I can build the plot myself based upon my desired color palette rather than rely on a rental company’s plot design.The disadvantage is that the searching is time consuming and the products often of lesser quality than a rental. However, I can do the work at my own convenience and from the comfort of my own home and most audiences wouldn’t notice the quality difference anyway. You’ll need to do your research first, but often I’ve found it paid off to buy some items rather than to rent them!
6. Consider making items!
Google (www.google.com) and YouTube (www.youtube.com) are your friends! Know that you are not alone in creating props and/or costumes for school productions. There is a plethora of video tutorials and blog articles out there that others have created for you to explore. I’ve had great success finding YouTube videos and articles on how to make mermaid tails, vintage telephones and video cameras, and Muppet-like puppets which I was able to morph into Flotsam and Jetsam props. There are great “how-to” videos for making non-sewing tutu skirts, dashikis, and Lion King masks from scratch, just to name a few.
If you or someone you know is skilled in the needle and craft arts, consider making your own costume plots or props. This, of course, is time consuming and involves not just the sewing and/or crafting, but includes researching and designing, purchasing materials, and building the costumes and props. As someone who enjoys sewing and crafts, I’ve done this often but would be remiss if I didn’t mention the extreme time commitment required outside of regular school hours, the numerous fittings and reworkings which often go unrecognized and unappreciated by students, parents, and administration, and the “mess” you live with for months on end (I’m still finding sparkles throughout my house from a material I used for the Mersisters tails in a 2016 production!) I’ve been fortunate to have a dedicated crafting space in my current home, but for many years it was my dining room table that looked like a clothing sweatshop factory for months on end. I advise you only do this if you have cast parents who can help, or have no alternative and/or really enjoy creating in this way. The upside is that your show will be one of a kind, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll accumulate an inventory of props and costumes that can be shared with other theatre groups in your area. The downside is the time it takes away from your family, sometimes feeling unappreciated and/or taken advantage of, and the added stress of taking on one more responsibility besides all that comes with directing and staging a production. Do you have the courage to do it all?
7. Performing in just t-shirts is OK!
When all else fails, logo t-shirts are a great way to transcend the costume issue. With a few minor accessories such as hats, scarves, ties, etc., you can create an effective and fun way to distinguish characters. The t-shirts not only serve to unify your students, but allow for them to create memorable moments without the trappings of costumes. Consider a large trunk stage center filled with costume accessories and small props that students grab during the course of the production. How fun this could be for your students and can serve as another great way to add one more layer of creativity to the production.
The t-shirts also serve as a great take away for the cast. I’ve purchased the pre-designed shirts from MTI, as well as designed my own using purchased show logos. There are plenty of quick turn-around t-shirt companies online - I’ve used www.rushordertees.com on several occasions, which also accepts school purchase orders. I often think that leveling the playing field in this way serves a variety of costume concerns. How have you used t-shirts in this way?
8. Pantomime is fun...
...And educational too! As to the issue with finding or creating difficult props, well, students learn so much in the act of pantomime that I often think that working without props can be a wonderful experience for your students and audience. Pantomime is valuable because it encourages meaningful movements, significant gestures, and animated facial expressions from our students. And remember, audiences are smarter than you think. Give their imaginations a chance to fill in the gaps that not having a prop offers.
9. Paint your set with students!
As to challenging set design elements, theatre can be created with just a few solid wooden blocks and step sections, ladders, stools, and/or folding chairs in a minimalistic approach. Paint them matte black and you’ve created levels for your students and an opportunity for them to create interesting configurations themselves during the production while in character. There is no better way to let your young actors be the decorations on your set and for their skills to be the main focus, rather than large set pieces and/or extravagant set design elements. Perhaps your costumes are the main focus this year and can be used to paint the stage with color? Or perhaps your props are so amazing that you don’t want them lost in a set design that would take away from their focus? Remember the days when theatre didn’t have elaborate sets and set pieces? Consider bringing that back in your next production!
10. The End... or is it?
Although the above represents just some of the ways I’ve approached costuming, props, and set elements for my productions, I’m sure that many of you have more to offer. If you are willing to share some of your ideas, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lillianne P. Torrente;