Red coats and denim vests

Theater professor and costume designer Angela Brande talks excitedly about costume design for the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Photo by Martin VanBuren

Martin:  To start off, would you tell me a little bit about the designs and the process?

Angela Brande: We knew that we were going to do this play last fall. Most of us got the music and started listening to the music and read the script. And then the designers got together and talked about what it meant to them and how eerily it paralleled our own last year, our own election season and some of the surprises we’ve all experienced.

It was a lot of fun to work on that and see those parallels, so it made sense that we would consider not dressing it purely in a time period, say, Andrew Jackson’s time period. As it happens, the Broadway show wasn’t in a perfect period either, so we knew we had that leeway, and certainly we wanted to play with that leeway quite a bit.

In addition to that, we are a small department, and we are presenting a play with about 30 characters — no, more than 30 characters— (Asks her students) Do you know how many characters are this in show? Sixty Characters. This play has 60 characters and we have 20 people in the cast, so those people have to change over and over and over again to be different characters, and very quickly often.

For me that becomes an issue; I track everyone through the play and I see how many pages, how many half pages they have to change, how much they can actually do. And that changes how I costume them. Over the course of those months, I’d say December and January, we’re letting this idea gel that these people will have some hints of the early 1800’s, but be dressed in modern day clothes for the most part.

And then after that it was a matter my finding a way to dress each person so that they can play the number of characters they play.

Martin: How many costumes have you created or prepared?

Angela: I’m fully building two solider uniforms, several vests, and almost everything else I think I’ll be able to find. It actually costs less to buy things at thrift stores than it does to make the very same garment when you consider purchasing fabric and the amount of time and skill.

I have to budget money, time and skill, those three things. Juggling that is the case no matter what theater project you’re working in. I dye things and cut them down and reshape them, or take the skirt off a dress or cut down a t-shirt, anything anyone would do, a lot of recycling and up-cycling and wearing inside out and upside down.

Martin: Have there been any challenges with the costuming?

Angela: I want to indicate that there are some Washington insiders, and that has to happen in a split second for some people. One actor has to suddenly become kind of round, and he’s probably the thinnest actor that we have in the show. Those will be challenges, but it’s a musical and it’s funny and it can be a little bit obvious and over the top. There’s always, and this isn’t the case with this show, you’re always straining the budget of time and money and skill, you’re always trying to do a little more than you actually have the resources to do.

Martin: How does this show compare with previous shows that you’ve done costumes for?

Angela: Well that’s a great question Martin, but I won’t be able answer that until probably opening night. Well no, I won’t be able to answer it until we strike the show, and then I’ll know how it compares to the other ones. By then, I’ll be working on the next show.

So the things we do, for instance, we need some redcoat costumes. I have two red, bright red wool jackets in stock, and we’re putting white linings inside the front and pinning back the tails. They’re worn by two women, they’re worn by the two most petite women in the script (laughs) . So already we’ve got comedy. So if they come out looking a little swamped in their redcoat costumes, and they beat up the character playing Andrew Jackson, I think that’s all par for the course, for this particular course.

As the characters begin to make sense to themselves and begin to make sense to the director, I begin to see them pretty well, and I begin to see color possibilities and combinations. We ended up doing a couple of unifying things; one unifying thing is that all the characters will wear a vest, some kind of vest. It may be a double-breasted high-collar 1800s vest, or it might be a vest of a denim jacket with the sleeves cutoff. Without hitting people too hard over the head with it, I think that will be something that unifies it and says this is theater, this is kind of made-up.

The other unifying idea is that men will play women sometimes, women will play men sometimes, sometimes you won’t know the difference. If we need a character to play a senator in the 1800’s — which would’ve been a man — we may be throwing a coat on a woman and having her play the role.

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