Helping costumes make the actor

If you step into the costume storage room in UC Irvine's Contemporary Arts Center, you may think you've stumbled into the dry cleaners.

The room, which became fully operational last spring as part of the building's renovation, stocks nearly 7,000 costumes on a massive ceiling rack. Punch a few digits into a computer at the bottom, and a formal gown, military camouflage or something more outlandish will hum right down.

The collection represents years of painstaking craft at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, which uses its own in-house team to create costumes for drama, music and dance productions. Usually, the costumes are tailored for a specific actor, then kept around in case the school can use them again — sometimes with an alteration or two for size.

Last month, head of costume design Holly Poe Durbin and senior wardrobe technician Erik Lawrence spoke with the Daily Pilot about their busy lives backstage. The two, who work with students and other faculty to design costumes, had just finished the Hollywood satire "Tinseltown Christmas" and had a moment to rest before again firing up their sewing machines. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Daily Pilot: What's the most weird or outrageous costume request you've ever gotten?

Holly Poe Durbin: I think we suspend judgment a lot in our business, because it's literally normal to be set on fire or anything else like that.

DP: Set on fire on stage?

Durbin: Yes!

DP: So you've actually made flammable costumes?

Durbin: Flame-proof, yes.

DP: What play was that?

Durbin: I did one in St. Louis when I worked at the repertory theater there, and it was a Shakespeare. I can't remember why, but someone needed to transfer flame from a held device to the actor and just have it appear like they were shooting up into flame. But of course then the lights went out and they were covered. So it was a very fast effect, and what we ended up using is the chemical that is put into race-car drivers' uniforms to make them flame-proof. Their uniforms have to be more flame-proof than the normal flame-proofing, because — you can see why. And it's something you can buy and soak the fabric in.

DP: But you never lit anyone up at UCI?

Erik Lawrence: Not yet. We've had people look burned, like they've gone through a fire, and there's a lot of work that goes into it — painting it and making it look like the costume had really been burned, like the person had been burned alive.

I have a section in my portfolio that's called "Oddities." There was a man — he had to look like he was made out of cardboard. So the whole costume was made out of cardboard, and he was rectangular, and his makeup was rectangular, and we painted onto the costume. I did make everything out of cardboard. So that was kind of an odd request, but it's not — when they come across the table, they're not odd, because it's just, that's the way a costume is. It's just the whole creative process.

DP: In terms of working with actors, do you ever encounter divas? Do you ever have the actors bossing you around or telling you to cut a costume a certain way?

Durbin: Yes.

Lawrence: (laughs) Yes.

DP: How do you handle that?

Lawrence: Well, we graciously take their advice, and I kind of try to convince them that my point of view, or the designer's point of view, is maybe … better, you know? I try to get them to see what's going on with the designer's point of view. And sometimes, the actor does have a great idea, though. And sometimes, the designer and the actor can work hand-in-hand, because sometimes the actor will have a vision that the designer didn't see, because the actor is on stage creating that character.

So sometimes, that part is needed, but when you've got a diva in there who's just refusing to wear stuff, then you just kind of have to have the conversations with the actor and the director and bring about, you know, "This is our goal, this is what we're trying to create with the actor or with the character, so if you could just work with us...." and usually you can get around it. I don't think we've ever had any problems here, at least, where people would have refused to wear stuff.

Durbin: We are 50% psychologists. Whenever you work with someone's intimate body and artistic expectation, you're treading in very tricky territory automatically, so we have developed, I think, a great deal of coping skills along that line.

DP: I notice you have a sign up that says "No eating in costume." Do actors ever break that rule?

Lawrence: All the time.

DP: What do you do?

Lawrence: Um, you come in with a stern look on your face, and they usually put it away right away. But the designers and the staff, we're not here when the show is running. We usually have a costume crew that is overseeing everything, and sometimes the students are eating with them. Sometimes stage management brings in food, sometimes they don't. We just leave it up to their discretion.

DP: Do they ever actually get food on the costume?

Lawrence: They have. And I usually talk to the actors that I've built for and I just stress, "This is silk. Do not get anything on it. This is what will happen. This is what you will look like onstage if you get a stain on it." And usually when they hear, "Oh my God, I'm going to look like crap onstage," they don't mess with that. But if it's something that we really can get a stain out of, I don't worry too much about it.

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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