I love working with actors in rehearsal. It's my laboratory. It's a place I am free to fail without recrimination. It presents the perfect opportunity to study an actor’s physicality, nuances, intentions, etc. The goal being to find a garment’s silhouette—architecture so to speak—in order to enhance each character that the actors are trying to portray. By creating poetic juxtapositions through design, my intention is to give an unconventional shape to the world in which each character exists.

As a costume designer, I facilitate this investigative process by trying on rehearsal costume pieces: padding, hats, wigs, cans, plastic bags, or anything else that might enable the actor to find his or her character through improvisation. Sometimes it takes several attempts; sometimes I’m completely wrong. That's the beauty of it. By being wrong, I can find something that is right. For example, it was immediately apparent that the wig I designed for the chevalier played by Merritt Janson in The Deception (which opened at La Jolla Playhouse before coming to Minneapolis) made her look too feminine for someone that was trying to impersonate a man. Her own short haircut proved to be more convincing.

Rehearsal mock-ups also give an actor a chance to live in his or her costume. Many times they are essential for the choreography of a particular scene. That was the case with the contessa’s train, also from The Deception. Because it was forty feet long and twenty feet wide and a hundred yards of fabric total, it was very necessary to have a mock-up for rehearsal that the actress, Emily Gunyou Halaas, could work with. At one point, Casey Greig, portraying her suitor Lelio, pulls on the skirt of the dress to physically restrain her. It was vital that both the workability and strength of the design could be tested before committing to the finished costume piece. Since the show was budgeted well, there was ample time and funds for a costume shop in Los Angeles to produce a second rehearsal costume relatively quickly.

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Top: Original rendering (courtesy Sonya Berlovitz). Bottom: Emily Gunyou Halaas in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's The Deception (photo: Sonya Berlovitz).

Christina Baldwin also wore a voluminous dress in Carmen at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Her rapid and violent manipulation of the dress with its multiple layers of petticoats and long train was used to heighten the drama of the final scene—a frenzied dance of death with Don José painstakingly choreographed by director Dominique Serrand over a period of several weeks. In this case, we didn’t have a budget that allowed time for a mock-up, so the actual costume had to be produced well before tech week to allow enough time for them to master the manipulation.

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Original rendering of the dress worn by Christina Baldwin in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's production of Carmen (courtesy Sonya Berlovitz). 

Dance costumes also require this same kind of advance planning and experimentation. Dancers need costumes that can move with them, that feel one with their bodies and have fluidity. For this reason, it’s vitally important to bring in rehearsal pieces or actual costumes early on in the rehearsal process. Sometimes happy accidents come about to everyone’s delight. Such was the case working on Ways to Behold with Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater. When I brought in a clear plastic coat as a possible costume piece, we soon discovered that it made a wonderful swishing noise that was then incorporated into the sound design of the piece.

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Plastic coats

The plastic coats designed by Berlovitz for Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater (photo: Paul Virtucio).

For me, Jeune Lune was the Garden of Eden of this transformative process. It was a privilege to have a space devoted solely to theater which allowed for anywhere from five weeks to two months or longer to spend on this labor of love. It gave a thorough opportunity for directors, designers, and actors to be part of the conversation about what worked or didn’t. The design of the show grew out of conversation, collaboration, and cooperation between performer, designer, and director. I had almost unlimited opportunity for reflection and revision. Does the silhouette I am creating work with or against the production? Do the color and textures give the right emotional punctuation? Does it give a potential audience member, or me, fresh insight into the character and the play?

When time and funding will not allow for a long rehearsal give and take, as was the case with The Chairs that I recently designed at Pangea World Theater, there is little time for evolution. Beginning of rehearsal to opening was three weeks. Working in these scenarios is designing without a safety net because there’s little time for reflection and revision. One has to commit to a vision very quickly but have the flexibility and adaptability to find costume pieces that may or may not fit the original drawings precisely, but still, hopefully, have the same original intention.

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The Chairs

Left: Original rendering of the Richard Ooms costume. Right: Ooms in Pangea World Theater's production of Eugene Ionesco's Chairs (photo: Marc Norberg).

In the larger regional theaters, due to tech shop schedules, completed designs are often due well before the actors start rehearsing. In this case I scavenge existing sources, such as photos or videos of the actors involved. The director and I create our own minirehearsal without actors by trying and retrying many drawings before settling on the one that works best. I still provide actors with rehearsal costumes, but they are usually based off of what I have already drawn rather than what we are discovering together. In these scenarios, because there is less emphasis on an emerging rehearsal process, I feel lucky to be able to fall back on instincts that have been sharpened through experience into an increased facility to move between two and three dimensions.

Still, I think of the renderings as a gesture, another step in the process. I'm simply not a designer who will stubbornly adhere to a design for a particular production, if it doesn't work exactly as drawn. Having that freedom is essential to creating a cohesive end result. A good example is the yellow coat worn by Lelio in The Deception. I had drawn some decorative elements on the original design that, once the coat was made, Dominique and I discovered in rehearsal were distracting from the emotional darkness of the scene. Once we asked for these changes, the shop obligingly reworked the coat without them.

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Yellow coat from The Deception

Left: Original rendering with frills on sleeves. Right: The jacket made for Casey Greig to wear in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's The Deception, without frills on the sleeves. (photo: Sonya Berlovitz).

Basically, I hate the idea of putting something on an actor that is clearly uncomfortable and hampers their ability to move or perform. I am always rewarded when someone tells me they feel completely at ease in their costume. It’s reassuring to know that some of that success grew out of the freedom to experiment during rehearsal. I also sleep a lot better when I know how and why they are wearing their costumes instead of just looking pretty. 

Sonya Berlovitz

Sonya Berlovitz worked as a costume designer for Theatre de la Jeune Lune (1980–2008). Her work has also been seen at American Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, New Victory Theater, Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Children’s Theatre Company, Guthrie Theater, and many others. In 2007, her designs for The Miser were presented at the Prague Quadrennial.