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Dressing the scene

CATF costume designer hopes you'll notice the acting, not her costumes

CATF costume designer hopes you'll notice the acting, not her costumes

July 04, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Devon Painter has one word when it comes to designing what the actors are wearing: authentic.

"I think the quality in my design work I'm most proud of: is if the show feels authentic, if the character feels authentic in the moment," Painter said, standing in the Contemporary American Theater Festival's costuming room located inside Shepherd University's Frank Center for the Performing Arts. "So my design work tends to be subtle unless it's a show that calls for something outrageous."

The New York-based costume designer has a plethora of recognizable theaters on her resume including the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., and Pearl Theatre Company in New York.

And for the last three years, she has spent her summers in Shepherdstown with CATF. Painter said she was invited to CATF by Peggy McKowen, associate producing director and a respected costume designer herself.

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"I'm so happy she invited me. It's a really great group of people," she said.

CATF begins Wednesday with pay-as-you-can previews to this season's five shows by contemporary playwrights. The festival officially kicks off Friday evening. The festival continues Wednesdays through Sundays through Aug. 2.

In previous seasons, Painter was the costume designer for "Lonesome Hollow" and "View of the Harbor." This season, she designed the costumes for Beau Willimon's "Farragut North" and Steven Dietz's "Yankee Tavern."

The way she approaches her work can be traced back to a production at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts. Painter's insight came while she was assisting the costume designer on the show, "Buried Child." She said the designer's approach to costumes was about more than colors and just clothing actors. Instead, the designer choose elements of the show based specifically on the psychology of the characters.

"I think it was the first time I really understood that costume design was an actual profession and that it took all the skills I enjoy: the knowledge of draping and patterning and dress making; the knowledge of telling a story; and the organizational skills that it takes to be a costume designer," Painter said. "It's not all the artistic stuff, the drawing and painting, but the organizing which I also find fun."

And finding what's below the characters' surface is what she continues to do when she's working on a play. She said it's the same thing - the psychology of the characters - that she found fascinating in "Yankee Tavern" and "Farragut North." She said clothing can show the characters fall and their journey through the story.

Before Painter takes on a show, she first asks to see the script to determine if it's something that engages her. After she agrees, she'll do a full read-through and note her first impressions. Then she'll continue to do more reads to make notes.

"But it's that first impression and the first time you read it that it carries a lot of weight on how I approach the design," Painter said, "because I want to remember that impact of what that felt like to me."

Next she'll do a break- down of the number of characters and the number of scenes. She'll also make notes on any significant items in the script, for instance, if the actor swings a jacket over his shoulder before he leaves or carries a baseball cap.

If there's historical research, Painter said she prepares by gathering as much information as she can.

After her breakdown, she talks to the director. Often there's already been conversations with the set designer on the look of the set, which might mean adjustments to the costumes.

Sometimes directors, or playwrights, have a very specific image in mind. For instance, in "Farragut North," Painter said Ed Herendeen, CATF founder who's also directing the show, had a specific look for the lead character. Herendeen wanted the character to be wearing a parka over his suit and wear snowboots to show he's out of his element while campaigning for a presidential hopeful during winter in Iowa.

Next is the drawing process, where she actually sketches what the costumes will look like. There have already been conversations with the set designer, so she might know what colors the set will be and might have to adjust costume colors.

The final stage, Painter said, is what is known as drawing and painting. That's when she does a full set of sketches and paints them for color to introduce the idea to the actor.

"Then, when you introduce it to an actor, the whole thing could change depending upon what type of actor they are, how they fit into the role and their impressions of their character," she said.

Those conversations with the actor are just as important because the actor has worked so closely with the character.

"As a designer, I would be a fool not to listen to what the actor came up with," she said.

All those elements help to show who a character is without a single word of dialogue.

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