Advertise with us
Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   JOIN
TBA Online: News & Features: April 2016

Designing Shakespeare

Monday, April 4, 2016   (0 Comments)
Share |

By Sam Hurwitt

There’s something about Shakespeare that gives creative teams a whole lot of freedom, and it’s not just that his works are in the public domain. You don’t see a lot of productions of Mrs. Warren’s Profession with everybody dressed as flamingos. But it’s as common to see Shakespeare productions in modern dress—or set in any historical period that you can imagine—as it is to see it performed in traditional Elizabethan doublets and hose, if not more so.

For costume designers, Shakespeare also presents a lot of unique logistical conundrums, from the multitude of characters and necessity of doubling roles to simply making sure the audience can tell your Rosses from your Buckinghams.

Frances McDormand* as Lady Macbeth and Conleth Hill* as Macbeth in costumes by Meg Neville for Berkeley Repertory Theatre. *Member AEA. Photo: 

“I think the biggest challenge with Shakespeare is that there’s always a lot of characters,” says Meg Neville, who designed the costumes for the current production of Macbeth at Berkeley Repertory Theatre starring Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand. “You have a lot of double and triple casting, and sometimes one actor playing four roles. So you can start out with these very elaborate ideas about what someone’s wearing, but when you find out that they’re actually going to have to do a quick-change in 30 seconds and come back onstage as a different character, all of a sudden you find that you have to strip down the idea and make it so that you can get into the next character as quickly as possible. The witches in Macbeth are all playing other characters. If those actors were not double cast, there were things we could have done with their costumes—things like body paint and heavy mud—but knowing that they had to do a quick-change meant we had figure out which elements were the most important. And that’s true of every Shakespeare play, because no one ever has a cast of 30 actors.”

Meg Neville's costumes for the witches in Macbeth had to allow actors Rami Margron*, Mia Tagano* and Frances McDormand* to make quick changes. *Member AEA. Photo:

Neville’s Macbeth design wound up being very much based on the medieval Dark Ages, but when she signed on, the period was still very much up in the air. “Daniel Sullivan, the director, was not interested in doing it Elizabethan,” she says. “There was a chance it could go postmodern and kind of ‘Mad Max,’ and there was a chance that it could go pre-Elizabethan. He made the choice that, while the period wasn’t that important to him, what did matter was that this was not a Christian medieval world that they were in, but rather one that was very much based in paganism. It was an earth-bound culture. This world looks to nature and animals and spirits to guide it. And so when Macbeth goes to see the witches, he believes that they do influence events.”

“I think timing has a lot to do with where directors go with choosing a period for Shakespeare,” says Neville. “The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is you can really go anywhere with it. We’re going to do an Othello at Cal Shakes at the end of this coming season that’s going to be contemporary and that’s going to have a Muslim Othello. So, of course, that feels about as relevant to our times as anything.”

Neville’s last Shakespeare production previous to Macbeth was basically in Elizabethan dress, albeit with some liberties taken. It was a Twelfth Night last summer at California Shakespeare Theater, where she’s an associate artist, and the cast was almost all women.

“First of all, there are not a lot of period Elizabethan clothes to rent in women’s sizes,” she says. “For budgetary reasons, we knew we wouldn’t be able to build every item of clothing. We’d be able to build a few things and do a lot of alterations on things we had or things we were renting from other theatres. Because there are basic traits that men have that women don’t have, and there are things women have that men definitely don’t have, it took some work to make those clothes work on our women, especially the smaller women. But it also made it part of the fun for the actors to put on men’s clothes, and then of course wearing beards and mustaches. It definitely lent [the process] an air of playfulness.”

For California Shakespeare Theater's recent production of Twelfth Night, Neville designed male costumes to fit female actors, such as Catherine Castellanos*, on left (as Sir Toby Belch) and Margo Hall*, on right (as Andrew Aguecheek) frame Domenique Lozano* as Maria. *Member AEA. Photo:

That playfulness played out in part through a few deliberately modern touches. “I think it’s definitely true that you tend to play more with anachronisms in the comedies,” says Neville. “A lot of times you start off thinking it’s going to be strictly period, and anachronistic things come in, like a character in period costume pulling out a cell phone, or having some recognizably contemporary item of clothing that helps the audience get a sense of who the character is. A lot of times with period clothes, people are so taken in by what they think of the beauty or romance of period clothes, but they don’t have the context for how those clothes were worn, and so sometimes you need to give people clues with contemporary things.”

Helping the audience keep the plot and characters straight is a key responsibility for designers, agrees Maggie Whitaker, who’s designing African-American Shakespeare Company’s Antony and Cleopatra this May, directed by Jon Tracy.

“The language is so archaic at times that a contemporary audience needs a lot of help to make sure that they understand what is going on,” Whitaker says. “It becomes very important for the performers, and also for the designers, to help clarify what’s going on from scene to scene. Especially the costume designer. If an audience member has never seen Macbeth before and they’re trying to keep distinct Banquo from Macduff from Donalbain from Malcolm, you need to help them as a designer, because there’s like 20 people onstage. You need to tag those people so they don’t get confused. And if you have people playing multiple roles, again distinguish them—so when the audience sees that actor come on again in a new role, they’re not like, ‘Wait a minute, I thought he was dead! Why is he wearing a different hat?” As a designer, it gives you permission to make some pretty bold choices, because you kind of have to.”

The cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Rob Melrose at Marin Academy with costumes by Maggie Whitaker, 2003. Photo: Rob Melrose

Whitaker had only recently signed on to Antony and Cleopatra when I spoke to her and was at the beginning of the design process, but her conversations with Tracy had given her a good sense of what they’d be doing.

“They are taking a fairly modern spin on it,” Whitaker says. “The template I’ve been given is that the visual shorthand should feel a little bit House of Cards in its aesthetic. Fairly modern, fairly affluent, contemporary, political, and that there should be a pretty distinct difference between the world of the Romans, which is very sort of buttoned up and uptight, and the world of the Egyptians, who are going to feel a lot more sensual. My instinct is to play dark to light, structure to drape, not become literal. I don’t want it to feel like, the Egyptians are all in dresses and the Romans are all in suits, or the Egyptians are all in cream and the Romans are all in navy, because that’s not interesting.”

For Whitaker, the freedom that working on Shakespeare gives you brings with it a responsibility to make sure the spin you’re giving the play makes sense.

“When you start playing with the world of Shakespeare and trying to say something about the story and give it context, you hopefully give the audience a reason why they can look at and say, ‘Oh, this is why we are listening to these actors tell this story right now,’” she says. “There’s got to be a reason we’re addressing it, and there’s got to be a reason that we want it to be contemporary. It can’t be a calculation of money; it has to be a calculation of clarity for the audience, and it has to be a calculation of connection.”

At the same time, the flexibility and durability of the material helps keep something 400 years old from getting old through sheer repetition.

Maggie Whitaker's designs for Twelfth Night at UC San Diego use contemporary lines to clarify the storytelling. Photo: Manuel Rotenberg

“We can have multiple different Shakespeare-specific theatre companies, and each one can have their own lens of why they’re focused on Shakespeare,” Whitaker says. “You can have five productions of Romeo and Juliet running in a given summer within 150 miles of each other and still feel very comfortable that, while the heart of the story is going to be intact from place to place, each theatre company’s take and their reasons for doing Romeo and Juliet are going to have distinctions. They’re not going to be cookie-cutter.”

The Hamlet now playing at Shotgun Players may be one of a zillion Hamlets, but it’s also a highly individual take. Director Mark Jackson’s pared-down production features an ensemble of actors who don’t know what role they’ll be playing on any given night until a few minutes before curtain. Every one of them has to be prepared to play Ophelia or Polonius or Hamlet at a moment’s notice. 

“I think in this production, just like in every production, the costumes are for the audience to help them with their orientation amongst the characters—the hierarchy, the status of royalty or military and age—as well as for the actor, to help ground them in their character,” says Christine Crook, the costume designer for Shotgun’s Hamlet. “Of course, the format for this is all the actors playing all the characters. What we figured out was that it was best to offer the actors in this world of instability in terms of the way they function in it—never having any idea which character they’re going to have to play—the costumes as something to lean on. So I’ve created a sort of pattern with them that I think is useful for the actor. You always know who Polonius is because of what he’s wearing. It’s pretty similar across the board. Everybody has two pairs of pants and two shirts, and then there are different jackets and ties and vests and hats and glasses that compose the different characters’ looks. If you’re Hamlet, you wear green pants. If you’re anybody else, you wear white.”

Unlike Neville’s experience with Macbeth, Crook knew going in that this production would be modern dress. “I knew it from the start from working with Mark Jackson before,” she says. “I have a feel for his aesthetic. Two years ago I did Twelfth Night with Jon Tracy, and his style is really gritty and kind of punk and urban. It’s okay if it’s a little messy here and there. And Mark Jackson is very clean and strict. He comes from that kind of Eastern European aesthetic of minimalism. He likes a clean, contemporary look, and I don’t get away with a lot of fantastical things or anything that’s too weird.”

Simple outfits were also essential to Jackson’s concept for this production of Hamlet, which he wanted to move away from the usual experience of the play as being all about who’s playing the title role and their interpretation of its big monologues. “He wanted to make this production unique by bringing the focus to more specifically the words and to remove the ego of Hamlet, to remove the ego of the actor,” Crook explains. “So he created this structure of the roulette system. And the clothing, he told me, could not overpower the words. The way he put it was, ‘An actor should enter in the scene, and we might think in the audience, “That outfit looks nice,” but not think too much else about it.’”

Terry Rucker, Billy Raphael, Nick Medina, Cory Sands in Shotgun Players’ 2014 Twelfth Night, directed by Jon Tracy, with costumes by Christine Crook. Photo: Pak Han

The 2014 production of Twelfth Night that Crook designed was also in modern dress, albeit far more fanciful. She says she feels contemporary clothing in general is a good choice for these productions. “I feel like it’s the most useful for Shakespeare,” she says. “I personally don’t feel very attracted to trying to be traditional. Because really, Shakespeare was just using the clothing that at that time was contemporary clothing for him. So I think if we use that now it really helps give it that humanness and accessibility back to the work.”

But contemporary doesn’t necessarily mean street clothes, and Crook enjoys the creative freedom that work as flexible as Shakespeare’s affords. “The reason why I’ve been thinking about him lately as a costume designer is because a lot of our art right now in theatre is overwhelmingly contemporary realism,” she says. “A lot of the clothes onstage, a lot of the stage picture has been shifted toward that. It could have to a lot do with budget; it’s harder and harder for companies to create fantastical work. But that’s what I’m in it for, so I always want to find that edge in something, and Shakespeare has it.”

And yet always, all that potential for flights of fancy has to serve not just the play but the director’s vision and the needs of any given theatre company and its audience.

Designer Christine Crook's inspiration collage for Shotgun Players' Twelfth Night. Note the skeleton dress for Olivia, top center. Photo: Courtesy of Christine Crook


Designer Christine Crook's sketches for Olivia and Maria; note the evolution of the skeleton dress.
Photo: Courtesy of Christine Crook


Ari Rampy as Olivia in Christine Crook's finished skeleton dress for Shotgun Players' Twelfth Night.
Photo: Courtesy of Christine Crook

“How do I give them something they haven’t necessarily seen before without imposing something on the story that doesn’t need to be there, versus offering the story something that really helps and gives it what it needs to move forward?” muses Whitaker. “It’s tricky. And it depends on the kind of theatre company you’re working for. Is it a theatre company where the audience wants all the pomp and circumstance, where they expect corsets and pumpkin breeches, or is it an audience that expects a more edgy, modern version? Or is the audience expecting a really high-concept version, like space pajamas? It’s that trifecta of what is the director’s plan, what does the story need, and who the audience of this theatre is. How can I help them, and not spend a million dollars?”


Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theatre critic for the Marin Independent Journal and the Contra Costa Times and a playwright currently working on his fourth full-length play. He occasionally finds time to update his theatre, comics and culture blog at