Stitching it together

This month, two local theater companies take on iconic Disney productions—and the costumes that accompany them

Childhood memories come to life this month when Theatre Baton Rouge and New Venture Theatre stage their productions of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King Jr., respectively. Theatre Baton Rouge resident costume designer Crystal Brown and New Venture Theatre Managing Artistic Director Greg Williams sat down with 225 to discuss the process of bringing the colorful productions to life, one outfit at a time.

With big productions like these, obviously not all the costumes can be made from scratch. So, what is the costuming process for both shows?

New Venture Theatre’s Managing Artistic Director Greg Williams. File photo.

New Venture Theatre: For us it [starts with the] budget. We create a priority list as far as what can we realistically make. What are the pieces we need to rent? For us, it was the headpieces that need to be rented. The pieces that require stilts or mechanics all need to be rented. We’re actually working with a company in Houston that has created a lot of those pieces. And we’re going to make a few pieces like [the character] Timon in-house, the African maidens in-house and other hyenas in-house.

Theatre Baton Rouge: Budget is something of a big concern with us, too, but, you have to weigh: What’s it going to take me other than time to make this? And, can I get my money back? Can I rent it back out? … And, you don’t want to rent cheap costumes, because you want them to look good. So, we tried to take the middle road. We found a company we’re working with in Maine. These are gorgeous costumes from this company, but they’re not the most expensive either.

What are the challenges when costuming for the stage versus a TV show or movie?

Theatre Baton Rouge’s
costume designer
Crystal Brown. Haley Schroeck / Courtesy Theatre Baton Rouge.

TBR: Well, with movies, you can worry about detail. A lot of prints that will read well for film, you put on stage, and it’s going to look like a solid color. You can’t use subtle prints on stage. Your colors are more true with movies and TV. On stage, depending on your set, depending on the lights and just depending on the distance, colors change. You have to think big and how it’s going to show for your audience versus how it’s going to show to a camera.

NVT: Similar things for me. I always try to keep my scenery designer and lighting designer in the same room with my costumer, making sure nothing snags. Especially since these are rented pieces, it’s important that we send it back to them in the same condition. … So, making sure that the costumes are ready for the moment the show and the curtain goes up and they don’t look like they’ve just been abused are also important to me.

What are the challenges when working with children and costumes?

Theatre Baton Rouge costume designer Crystal Brown fits actor Lauren Smith, who plays Belle in the production of Beauty and the Beast. Haley Schroeck / Courtesy Theatre Baton Rouge.

NVT: I think they get hyper-excited about everything, and they always want to go to that moment where they’re at the [Lion King Jr.] show. For me, it’s about making sure they respect the process. I think this is a great education period for them—making sure they understand the rehearsal process, taking care of the costumes. We normally get really good kids, so I’m excited to work with them.

TBR: I think it’s because it’s a place they want to be.

NVT: Yeah—they’re just excited about the whole process, and they want to learn. So, it’s about making sure everybody on my team is ready to educate and not just produce.

In both productions, many characters wear masks, head pieces, stilts, etc. How do you work with these extra pieces in addition to the normal costumes?

TBR: Well, your set designer knows what’s going to be thrown out there, so he adjusts for that. I find with these kind of costumes [for Beauty and the Beast] our problem is in the wings and backstage. Especially if these people are changing clothes and stuff like that, because you’ve got all these set pieces coming in and out. When they’re on stage, they learn how to function in the costume. My nightmare is backstage in the wings.

NVT: She’s absolutely right. I think one of the biggest things I try to rehearse are the transitions. I rehearse my backstage and transitions just as much as I do onstage, because people forget there’s a whole other show backstage.

TBR: Sometimes it’s as entertaining as what’s going on onstage.

NVT: I also have to have specialty rehearsals just on how to train those kids on the stilts [for Lion King Jr.] without all the kids there—making sure that we have the volunteers backstage to get them off stage and create this other transition. That is really where a lot of the work for a director and costumer comes in.

Some of the costume fabrics being used for The Lion King Jr. Photo by Sean Richardson.

Why are costumes so important to a production?

NVT: They validate the world of the play. They help the audience suspend that disbelief. They help an actor create the character, become the character. If you get to throw on a costume like The Lion King’s Scar, you’re instantly going to affect your entire body.

TBR: You can see an actor, when he puts some costumes on, all of a sudden he’s more that character than he was before. When an actor walks on stage, before he ever opens his mouth, the audience knows: Is he rich; is he poor? Is he old; is he young? Is he happy and vibrant in a bright color, or is he in mourning clothes fixing to go to a funeral? Instantly, it tells the audience something. It sets a mood as well as tells you about that character.

Editor’s note: This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity. 

See the productions

Theatre Baton Rouge will present Disney’s Beauty and the Beast June 9-25. New Venture Theatre will present Disney’s The Lion King Jr. June 16-18. Tickets and more information are available on theatrebr.org and newventuretheatre.org.

This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of 225 Magazine.