Social Media Coordinator Kina Ackerman chats with Melanie Taylor Burgess, the Costume Designer for Lorraine Hansberry’s classic,
A Raisin in the Sun.
KA: How did you become a theatre costume designer?
MTB: I started out as a theatre major in undergrad and I initially wanted to act. I did that for about 7- 8 years, and then I had the first of two daughters. There was a huge shift when that happened and before that, I had taken some classes and did work-study in costumes. But that wasn’t what I thought my career path would be.
I paused when (daughter) Madison was born and I lived on the campus of Lakeside School (in Seattle). Linda Harsol (Artistic director of the Seattle Children’s Theatre) was teaching there at the time. They had hired a professional costume designer to do their productions for the high school and after that person quit, they asked if I would be interested! I said, “Well, I did that in college – I’ll give it a try!”
Later on, Linda told me that I should be doing this professionally, and invited me to come work at the Children’s Theatre. And that launched the whole career! It was never by design that I thought I would be doing what I’m doing now.
The interesting thing about being a costume designer is that you don’t work with other costume designers – so there’s was a of nagging voice telling me “Do I know what I’m doing, really?!” and I felt like I haven’t been fully trained. So when I turned 42 I went back to get my Masters in Costume Design and because I also wanted to teach.
KA: So you’re a costume designer, you’ve been signed on to a show, where do you even start?
MTB: It always starts with the play.
The first thing is to read the play first for pleasure. I teach at Cornish so this is what I say to my students – I try to follow my own rule since I’m telling them to do this. (Laughter)
What’s hard is to turn my brain off to the cues – for example, “What’s the scale of the costume load going to be in this production?” When really I should be thinking about, “What does the play mean to me? How am I responding to the play?”
Thematically with A Raisin in the Sun, I was noticing how in the beginning, this was a really fractured family – and in the end, they are harmonious and come together.
That thematic thought came from the first reading and I wrote those things down – most of my preliminary notes were general impressions of the play, not about clothes. Then after I read the play again and I started taking down all the notes that pertain to costuming and stage direction that that in turn, goes into costume directives.
MTB: In this production – I do!
Now I’m saying this now before we’ve had fittings because when the actors get in, what we have may or may not fit – BUT there are a lot of things about Beneatha’s costume that are fun. One of the things that I’m really hoping stays is this skirt and this sweater.
It makes you think, “Whoa that’s really out there- would you ever put those two things together? No, I wouldn’t – but I think Beneatha would.”
After some doing research, [on Raisin] I have found this image of Nina Simone. She had a red and tan plaid skirt on and a chartreus sweater. This is awesome because she took what was trendy at the time, (which were sweaters and pleated skirts) but then put her own twist to it.
One of the things that Beneatha repeats in this play is “I’m expressing myself! I’m expressing myself!” so I love the idea of playing with that. That quote was a visual metaphor for me.
Now color is an incredibly manipulative element for designers because of what we see in staged pictures. Being able to see that and then working with color theory is like: “Ooh those (costumes) clash” or “Oh! Those colors are complimentary!”
In theory, that’s great when the costumes all come together but for this particular show I had to find period pieces to execute the look and THEN I have to hope that they’re going to fit! When you’re doing a show like this, I say to Timothy, “You can’t really get too married to these sketches!” It’s like a second round of design.
We’re at the point now where Timothy has looked and approved all these sketches but he’s coming in tomorrow to now look at what we actually have on the rack. It’s kind of like ‘Phase 2’ and ‘Design 2’ in a way. I’ve come to realize you start by designing on paper and then you design in actuality.
It’s a real two-part process.
KA: Where do you source these textiles and garments?
MTB: After all of the designs, the first place I looked was downstairs in our (Seattle Rep’s) storage. Then after determining what things weren’t there, for this particular show, we decided that we wanted to build (the pieces) because they were important items for the production.
Then, I shopped in LA fabric stores – all of the fabrics came from LA. Afterwards, I went to other theatres like ACT Theatre and borrowed costumes. We also tend to do a fair amount of purchasing online – like Etsy. We also have a good vintage store called Lucky in Ballard we take advantage of.
KA: What’s your favorite part of being a costume designer?
MTB: I love my job. I really love my job.
I think any time you’re an artist and you get paid for it, being paid is a bonus because you’re so happy doing what you really like doing.
I think my favorite part of my job is the collaboration. Those very first meetings where we’re first talking about the play with the director and the design team you’re discovering the world you’re going to create together- it’s the most thrilling part for me.
KA: In your experience as a costume designer what’s something you wish you would’ve known earlier in your career?
MTB: I wish I knew more about construction.
In the little bit of time before and after my daughter was born and my second daughter was born, I had a clothing business – I knew how to sew.
But there is a distinction between a designer and someone who create the actual pieces. Especially in the costume shop at Seattle Rep. People assume I make each of the costumes as a designer but there is a whole costume shop of incredible people making it happen.
Training for designers is traditionally kept quite separate- you’re either a technician or you’re a designer. We’re starting to realize that there’s a deficit in that kind of curriculum. As a designer, I know I’m limited in understanding and talking construction (of a costume) really thoroughly – it would definitely be helpful as designers to learn more about that.
KA: If you weren’t a costume designer, what would you be?
MTB: I think I would be a therapist.
I’m very psychologically minded, and I like diving into the perspective and personalities of characters in plays. If I weren’t doing this I would go back to school in psychology – I like helping people, I love to listen and hear their stories.