Costuming the Contemporary: Gabriel Berry on her design for Ripcord

Costume designer Gabriel Berry has created wardrobes for over 80 theatrical productions in a diverse career that has encompassed everything from Shakespeare to new plays, tragic histories to absurdist comedies, operas, and even dance. She first collaborated with director Jessica Stone on a production helmed by former artistic director of the Huntington, Nicholas Martin. Since then, she has teamed up with Stone on numerous shows, including Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — seen at the Huntington in 2015. Before the first rehearsal of Ripcord, she sat down with Literary Apprentice Sarah Schnebly to discuss her process and philosophy of costume design.



Sarah Schnebly (Literary Apprentice): How do you begin your design process?

Gabriel Berry (Costume Designer): I talk to the director as much as possible. The more I know about what the director is thinking, the freer I feel to go my own way. Sometimes the questions are as specific as: “what do you want to see?” But often I ask questions like:  “what do you want to feel at that moment?” “How long can we take to get that feeling?” “How realistic does it have to be?” I also like to base my design on the people in the show. I don’t like to design anything until I am in the room with the actors and I have seen them read. You can make decisions earlier on but, until you get that clarity, you can’t know if they are the right decisions.

There are some physically demanding things in this play and that will also influence how I costume. There are an awful lot of quick changes in a small theatre with no backstage, and there are times when four people need to change simultaneously. It is strangely technical in that way. You have to see what happens and work with your actors. Because the important thing is that they feel secure.

SS: Outside of the actors and director of a show, are there any other places you look for inspirations?

GB: You do a lot of research. I went to church luncheon pictures because what I found with nursing home pictures is that the clothing was incredibly dowdy and I don’t know why that is. Because it is not what I see seventy looks like when I look around. What is interesting to me about my own reaction is that, because it is about senior women, it is hard not to go immediately to a very cliché place.

But the fact is that seventy can be a playful and sexually viable age — there is no reason for it to be frumpy or common. There is no reason why these women should not intrigue and delight us. My approach to clothing is very sensuous. I am firmly committed to what I think is the basic law of costume design: the audience needs to lust after every person onstage. You want to have to spend time with them.

SS: Can you talk about what costuming for a contemporary show looks like and what the challenges of that might be?

GB: In a show like Ripcord you are going to “shop” the show. I go to the mall, pick things off the rack and say: “Oh! This might work.” A lot of shows are completely shopped. The idea that the costume department is there making you frocks and suits is a luxury and is often inappropriate for a show. In this case it is completely inappropriate. Ripcord takes place contemporarily with two middle class women who would be buying their clothes where the rest of us buy our clothes — which means just about anywhere. You can touch things, and see things, and grab things that appeal. I am very appetite driven. I find in this case I am having a hard time getting away from blue — for some reason every time I look at something I want the blue one.

One of the challenges of contemporary plays is that every piece means something to the audience. They hated someone who wore that dress. Everyone has an opinion on contemporary clothes.

SS: What drew you to working on this production of Ripcord?

GB: It has deep undertones and some savagery in it, but we are mostly laughing when we watch it. In its own way, the play is generous and kind. That matters. I dont like promulgating cynicism. I like oplays that I care about and deal morally and ethically in something I can support. And, frankly, it’s because I like Jessica Stone and I wanted to work with her.



May 26 - July 2, 2017
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA

When cantankerous Abby is forced to share her room in assisted living with endlessly chipper Marilyn, the two women make a seemingly harmless bet that quickly escalates into a dangerous and hilarious game of one-upmanship, revealing hidden truths that neither wants exposed. A deliciously inappropriate new comedy from Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire (Good People). 


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