Jeff Cone And The Portland Center Stage Costume Shop
One of Portland’s most sophisticated ateliers makes elegantly tailored custom garments for a select few under the direction of Jeff Cone. You’ll be forgiven if you aren’t familiar with the name. Cone is the Resident Costume Designer for Portland Center Stage, charged with designing and overseeing the creation of every costume that hits the stage at The Gerding Theater at the Armory. For the upcoming season-opener, Cabaret, Cone and staff are delivering upwards of 80 costumes and will create, from sketch to exquisitely-finished garment, more than a third. They will do all this in just three short weeks. We visited the costume shop of Portland Center Stage a little more than a week before the opening this Friday of Cabaret.
“People don’t even know we have a costume shop,” says Cone. In fact, he says that the new space in The Gerding Theater at the Armory is a dream. “We are thrilled to have our own building,” he says. The bright studio (he calls the lighting “surgical”) is right-sized for the additional staff he has to bring in during crunch times. And though there is storage for stock, “and stock is so important,” he says, Cone sees them nearing a “storage crisis,” with the crafts shop also serving as a storage area. His hope is that one day the costume department can have its own endowment to ensure the health of the department.
“The big pressures are time and money,” Cone says. “Our budgets are not huge. We get three weeks to make all of the costumes.” Three weeks? Don’t they know well in advance what the shows will be? “True, I know six months in advance. But the show is only cast two weeks before the first rehearsal. Only then do we really know what we’re dealing with.”
Cone approaches the task of designing the costumes with as much integrity as creativity, doing more than due diligence in researching not only historically appropriate dress (down to appropriate materials), but also the class, the personality of the character (what kind of watch would he carry, if he carries one at all?). More than this, his designs for each scene are reflective of the emotional state of the character, or sometimes as a counterpoint. He gives the example of the white dress (ecru, really) he is doing for one of Sally’s scenes when she is at her lowest: pregnant, losing her man, everything falling apart. He would normally have put her in a garment that reflects her state of mind, but here chose to do just the opposite and put her into a dress that she would have worn doing the number at the top of her game.
Cone’s research has been hampered by the fact that his library of reference books was stolen while he was on vacation during the off-season. “We have it on security camera. The guy would come in, take as much as he could carry and walk right over to Powell’s. It was devastating because I had pretty much everything I needed right here,” Cone says. The floor-to-ceiling bookcase in his office that is now maybe a third full was once crammed with costume and dress reference books he’d collected over the years. Cone was able, after hours online, to compile a list of the books he lost, mainly by recognizing the covers.
Nonetheless, Cone still does deep historic research for each show. For Cabaret, he unearthed a grainy black and white photo of a pretty, topless cabaret performer with a man down on one knee before her and another illustration of a blond bobbed dollface draped in a feathered boa. 30 two-ply ostrich boas will go into making the costumes of the Kit Kat girls (and boys).
How do Cone and Artistic Director Chris Coleman work together? “Chris and I have been working together so long that he trusts me. We communicate really well. We talk a lot, about the show, about the characters. I will send him sketches, particularly for the more unusual garments.” Like the cutaway, chest-baring vest the Emcee wears in the “Two Girls” number, we imagine.
Our visit starts in the crafts shop. Here, Barbara Casement makes anything that is not a garment: gloves, hats, a gorilla mask. She does all the dyeing and, if necessary, distressing of garments…Cone has decided that the black leather trenchcoat that Wade McCollum’s Emcee will wear should be distressed and hand painted with a devilish red. On dyeing, he says, “We never put white on the stage. It’s always dyed to an ecru. It looks white on stage under the lights, but a true white would be too much.”
The gorilla mask that Casement is currently working on is a testament to the attention to detail that goes into everything made in the shop. Sure, they started with a stock-issue rubber mask, but Casement has lined it for comfort, built the furry head around it, and will shortly be applying, as Cone describes it, “long eyelashes and cupid-bow lips.” Then there is the gorilla’s head scarf and fascinator. “I had read about feathers from a bird of paradise. Actually Mae West mentions them in Dirty Blonde. So I wanted a feather from a bird of paradise for the gorilla’s headdress, but they’re endangered. I went online and finally found one that a vintage dealer had.”
Casement is making a pair of gloves for Storm Large as Sally Bowles. Why not buy them? “They are hard to fit,” she says. “And we want them to match the dress. We have a pair that fit her pretty well. And we made a pattern from that.” Casement hand-bastes the gloves and then machine sews them.
In the main costume shop, the “money” costumes for the Kit Kat girls are in production. Two craftspeople are attaching silver coins to silver chain that will drape nude bras and briefs. The feather costumes are yet to be attacked. Cone is using two-ply rather than four-ply ostrich because he found the four-ply too fluffy. Don’t want them looking like poodles. “I’m going to take thinning shears to them to reduce some of the bulk, ” Cone says.
Paula Buchert is carefully ripping out seams of a pale bodice with clear sequins. “After a fitting, we take it apart to make adjustments and put it all back together again. It’s two steps forward and one step back,” she says. Buchert is the Draper. She takes Cone’s sketches and the actor’s measurements, pads up a dressform, and drapes it with fabric to approximate the garment. From there, she comes up with a pattern, “adding the seams and darts, the style lines you don’t see on a sketch,” she says.
First Hand, Pam Jett (“I think the title comes from the ‘first hand’ to touch the fabric,” she says.), working from Buchert’s completed patterns, is cutting out the lining for a corset+lederhosen-flavored forest green costume piped in purple for Sally. At her hip-high work table, we get a close look at the bodice for which she’s cutting the lining, turning it over in our hands. It’s astounding to see these garments finished better than much of what one sees in shops. Who will ever look this closely? Who will ever see the lining? Why spend the time? “Durability,” Jett answers. “These clothes really are worn. Ten performances a week. The lining also keeps the perspiration from ruining the fabric of the garment.”
We asked Cone if he ever has to modify costumes because of what the actors are required to do on stage. “Oh, yes,” Cone says. “Whenever we have dancers, we heavily modify costumes. Say if there is a super-fitted sleeve on a dress, we’ll add a gusset underneath. It really has to practically be gymwear to allow them full freedom of movement.” Does it ever happen well into rehearsal that a movement is modified or added and that affects the costume? “Oh yes, ” Cone says. “For example, when we did The Seagull, we get to dress rehearsal and we are informed that this actress is going to turn a cartwheel. She’s wearing a long period dress, a wig and a hat and we have to now consider her undergarments and how to keep that wig and hat on her head.” Also, “it’s not uncommon to make a whole garment, get to dress rehearsal, and then the actor decides he can’t be that character in that costume,” Cone says. “A big part of this job is people skills. If the actor is not happy in costume, it affects their performance. They’re not happy on stage, they don’t want to be there and that affects everyone else on stage too.” Check. So in addition to making a visually stunning, appropriate, well made, and thoughtful costumes, Cone needs to consider keeping the actor lookin’ good and feeling gorgeous.
Wig Mistress, Danna Rosedahl is handmaking a wig for Sally Bowles, individually threading the blond hairs through a soft mesh cap. Most miraculous is the utterly natural hairline she’s creating. “We have found,” Cone says, “that it is less trouble to have actress do a wig prep pin curls and a wig cap than to try to have them style their hair appropriately for eight shows a week. We just don’t have the people to do hair for the entire cast. So we’ve found wig prep to be the best solution.” This means custom wigs.
How does Cone keep it all organized? “We have an actor/scene breakdown. We also have a pieces list, down to the cufflinks. And we have a plot for each actor for each scene, head to foot, because the actor, in the end, has to keep track of his and her own costumes.”
After all, as soon as the costumes are done, they are handed off to the Wardrobe Mistress and Cone and his staff turn their attention to the costumes for the next show.