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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

The Absentee Costumer

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

We were deep in the thick of rehearsals for Next to Normal, and had been fitted into potential costumes only once. In fact, that might've been the only time we ever saw our costume designer. The next week, we were supposed to begin tech rehearsals, and we still didn't know what we were wearing. In our only fitting, she had pretty much determined that most of what she selected didn't fit her actors, and with the promise to sort it all out, she vanished into the hills and would rarely communicate, even with the director.

In my dressing room, she'd left a few items that kinda fit and sorta worked, but I still wasn't told in which scenes I was supposed to wear them. I sighed -- I was disappointed once more that I wouldn't get to rehearse in my actual costumes as the lead role of Diana.

For the rest of that week of rehearsals, she stood us up. We didn't see her again until Monday of Tech Week.

She arrived after the scheduled time of "downbeat", with bags and attire in tow, squeezing through the back doors of the theater while the pit band played the overture. She bustled around the dressing room, completely ignorant of our backstage traffic, tripping the cast as we came and went. She would attempt to pull us aside for a wardrobe debriefing, but the run of the show was well underway, and we had to interrupt her to break free in time to make our entrances. On our tables she left elaborate lists of our costume changes -- most of which involved garments I'd never laid eyes on before. I attempted to put some on, but clearly not all of it worked, and the director expressed concern.

I went home that night and dug up undergarments and under-layer clothing to make those costumes work, since I finally had a better idea of what they might be -- we had no more time to find new costumes to replace them, that was for sure.

Then it was Tuesday of Tech Week, and I found an updated and extensive list on my dressing table, of costumes and when to wear them. For the opening scene, she instructed me to wear a short nightgown with a matching kimono -- while I was blocked to hurl myself onto the floor. I decided to leave my black sweat pants on underneath.

A few scenes later, I was scheduled to change costumes while I was blocked to stay on the stage during a scene change.

Our costume designer was very upset when she didn't see me donning her outfits, and came backstage to clarify her intentions. She insisted on giving me a second debriefing when I had 90 seconds to collect everything and make it to my next entrance. I kept saying, "OK! Yes -- well I couldn't because I was blocked to be on stage -- I'll try it on during intermiss--"

"Will somebody please tell Jessika to SHUT THE F*** UP!" our music director blared over the pit band.

On top of costuming issues, apparently our sound engineer was distracted with fixing the interference coming through the wireless mics (that's a topic for another blog...), and had forgotten to mute my channel when I exited the stage. My half of the costumer's ambush conversation was being broadcast through the house, and was blasting into the band's monitor. Yet another thing going awry that I was powerless to correct. Why not scream, "Tell the sound person to F****** MUTE JESSIKA!" instead?

For the end of Act I, I was told to wear a bathrobe with slippers -- the kind that you slip your toes into without anything holding your heel. During said scene, I was blocked to climb vertically up to the second story of the wrought iron set, while belting Diana's defiance song.

What a joke. I wasn't getting paid enough to flash everyone and jeopardize my life, all of which would be accomplished if I wore what was laid out for me. In fact, I wasn't getting paid for this gig at all. I was doing this to leverage my brand and share the message of this story, which was very near and dear to my family's heart. I'd already been pressured into cutting my hair for this role -- and I'd paid for half of it out of my own pocket because I wanted it cut well, even though that wasn't in the costumer's budget. I'd bought a new sweater to replace the one she told me to wear that didn't fit. I provided myself with the means of covering my unmentionables to maintain decency in front of the audience. All of this I'd bitten the bullet for, because I wanted this show to succeed. I needed it to succeed, and she clearly wasn't taking care of her end of the bargain.

Going against theatre protocol and defying the chain of command, I threw my sweats back on instead of the robe and slippers, and made my entrance.

Act I concluded, and I was almost shaking in dreaded anticipation of the inevitable wrist slapping I had coming my way. The director could see I was flustered beyond mere discomfort, and pulled me aside with the stage manager.

"Jess, I can see you're upset, and our designer has expressed concern that you haven't been wearing her costumes. What's going on?"

"Well, I added pants to the first costume because my butt was hanging out of the kimono..."

The two men listened with their arms crossed and nodded with pursed lips.

"...then she scheduled me to change clothes when I was blocked to be on stage, so I never could get to that costume..."

The director's eyes flew open -- very rarely do actors have legitimate reasons for defying orders.

"...Then she had me wearing a robe and slip-on slippers when you have me blocked to climb up the set, and I just didn't feel safe..."

"Are you serious?" he said with concern.

"My God..." the stage manager rolled his eyes.

"If she had ever attended a rehearsal, she would know what's required in each scene..."

"I know," said the director. "I'll have a word with her. From now on, you wear the costumes you can wear -- she's provided you with options, but you know the show so you decide what is appropriate for each scene."

"Thank you, sir."

"We need you to feel safe and comfortable, that's the most important thing. And we don't have any more time to come up with something else," he reassured me, patting me on the shoulder and freeing me to prepare for the run of Act II.

The costume designer made herself scarce after that. She was relieved of putting the final touches on everyone's look (I don't even know if anything went wrong with the other actors' costumes) and had nothing to do but laundry. She thought that halfway through the run would be appropriate to wash the costumes for the very first time. Luckily I got to the theater early for my preparations.

I greeted her with curt courtesy and proceeded to lay out my assembly line of wardrobe and makeup changes. Some new items were on my rack. Some items were missing.

I looked from side to side, and dug through the hangers of garments. She was replacing the clothing that was now clean.

"I'm sorry, but have you seen my blue tank top?" I asked.

"It's here," she pulled it out of a suitcase by the doorway of the dressing room. "You wear it?"

"Yes...I layer up so you can't see my bra through the costume."

"Oh. I didn't know you wore it. Good thing you caught me, I was taking it back home!"

How would she know? She never saw the show. She never sat through a run. And here she was meddling backstage like she knew what was going on. When the rest of the cast arrived for call later, they too had to go scrambling for their misplaced costumes. At this point, the theater should've had the actors do the laundry and divvy up the costumer's pay among the cast -- at least then we'd have gotten paid something. She emptied the rest of her bags and hit the road. We didn't see her until the end of the run, when she returned to collect her personal belongings.

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