Jobs in Theatre: Costume Design

Jobs in Theatre: Costume Design image

A behind-the-scenes look at costume fittings from Beauty and the Beast in 2018.

Tammy Spencer has been working in various roles in the costume department at Casa Mañana since 2000. One of Casa’s employees with the longest tenure, Tammy talks about her unusual path to costume designing and why she wouldn’t want to do anything else.

How did you become a costume designer?

My background is actually in accounting. I was an accountant for 10 years before I started working in wardrobe. In 1998, my husband, who has been in the theatre business for 38 years, asked me if I wanted to fill in for someone as a dresser at the Music Hall at Fair Park. I said, “Sure!” (A dresser is someone who helps actors get in and out of costume, especially for quick scene changes.) I was hooked from then on. I dressed for Music Hall and Bass Hall, which taught me how to organize shows.

That seems like quite a leap from accounting to working in wardrobe. Was making costumes or clothes a hobby of yours?

No, no. As an accountant, you’re organized, which was a skill that helped me work the road shows at Music Hall and Bass Hall. I learned a lot from that experience. I was hired at Casa in 2006 as Wardrobe Supervisor. At that time, Casa was bringing in the costume designers for each show. I learned a lot from observing different designers. It was almost like an apprenticeship. In 2009, when Wally Jones became the Executive Producer, he wanted to do the design in-house and he gave me the role of Costume Designer.

What would a “normal” path for a costume designer be?

There are schools for costume design or fashion design. Theatre majors usually have to take at least a 100-level course in every department, so every theatre graduate will have some experience in wardrobe. But someone isn’t going to come in off the street and be a designer immediately. You need years of experience.

Describe the design process.

When I learn what shows are coming up the next season, I’ll start doing some research. I start familiarizing myself with the shows that I don’t know so that I have ideas in my head when we finally talk to the director. Since the director isn’t here until two weeks before the show starts, we send pictures. We communicate a lot before he or she even gets here. For example, we are renting a costume package for The Producers, which came with pictures. We sent those to Courtney Young, the director and choreographer, so she knows the ideas we have in our heads. We aren’t going to use every piece in that package. We’ll make some of our own stuff, but this will at last give her an idea of the direction we’re going. You always have to talk to the director and producer to make sure everyone’s visions align.

Once we know the direction, we get together in the shop and figure out what we want to do, because we never do anything from a single pattern. We might piece together parts from four different patterns. Audrey, one of our costume stitchers, is very talented. She does a lot of that for us. Then, when we’ve figured out how much fabric we’re going to need, I go shopping!

Do you have a favorite show that you’ve designed?

Sweeney Todd Jacket BeforeSweeney Todd Jacket AfterSweeney Todd Dress BeforeSweeney Todd Dress After

Sweeney Todd was fun. I love rags. Rags are my favorite kind of show to do. We do the pretty costumes, too, but I like the Les Miserables, the Olivers, the Sweeney Todds. All the drab, gross rags are my favorite. Sweeney Todd was a lot of work. Everybody thinks, “Ahh, that’s just tearing,” but it’s hard work. We built beautiful dresses; we built beautiful jackets and then, I took a steak knife and ripped the fabric. I had to paint the costumes in the dark back stage. If I had painted them outside in the daylight, the detail wouldn’t have shown up once they got on the dark stage. So, I actually did it backstage with very little lighting so that you could actually see the results on stage. It’s hard work to get the results you want to get from it, but it’s so fun and I love it.

Is there a most challenging show that you’ve done?

I think I’m fixing to do it with The Producers. Spamalot was challenging, but it wasn’t anything I designed. We rented the costume package and they were absolutely fabulous. The challenging part was fitting everyone in the costumes and making sure everything was preset on the correct side of the stage because there were a lot of costume changes. But out of everything I’ve done, I think The Producers will be the most challenging.

Is there a show that you haven’t done that you would love to design?

I would love to do Les Miserables again and design it myself. Before, we rented part of it.

What do you love most about your job?

The kids. I got in it because of the talent and seeing how the kids advance. I’m Mama Casa. The Casa Kids are my kids.

I love what I do. I don’t want to do anything else. Accounting was my first love and something that I thought I’d always do and retire doing, but this is just wonderful. I love coming here. It’s a job, but I like the things that we get to do here so it’s not always work to me. Even on the most stressful days, I am proud of what we accomplish as a team. I don’t want to do anything else and I don’t want to do it anywhere but Casa.

Photo credit: Audrey Navarro
Video credit: Chip Tompkins