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Interview

Janet Whitaker, Costume Designer and Makeup Artist

How did you prepare for Liz’s Circus Story?

JanetFirst of all, I had to get the feel of the circus. For all of us, I think it was not something we had experienced every day. Fortunately, Liz had a vast amount of old photographs and videotapes, so we were able to see what it was like. Understanding the script and the overall idea of the play was also important. That it takes place over more than 20 years was a little bit of a challenge in terms of costumes.

What were the costume challenges?

The hardest thing about costumes for this production was trying to dress an actress who was supposed to be working literally for a circus, which meant really getting dirty and setting up tents and doing really hard manual labor. Also, it took place in the 1970s and ’80s. The Salvation Army used to be a great resource, but there are not a lot of vintage clothes out there anymore because they have become really trendy.

Fortunately, current trends are sort of retro, so I was able to find some things that looked like the ’70s but were current. That was kind of fun, and doing research on clothes of those eras was fun—but mostly it came from memory!

Another challenge was Liz’s ringmaster jacket. That was a very significant part of the play. The original one she had worn was not applicable to our production, and the one that had been designed for the stage version didn’t fit quite the way she liked. It didn’t quite have the spark she would like it to have. I was reluctant to take that on myself because I was still shopping and trying to find things for the rest of the play. But I was able to locate a place in Lexington that makes specialty apparel for horse show competitors. They make the outfit the guy who blows the bugle announcing races at Keeneland [Racecourse] wears. The ringmaster coat looked very much like a dressage jacket. I called them, and they said they make ringmaster jackets all the time. They were able to have their tailor do fittings for Liz and came up with an exquisite jacket that everyone was happy with. [To see the final result, see our video clip of Liz and the jacket.]

How far in advance did you start working on costumes for the production, and how did you work with other members of the production team?

About a couple of months before the taping, I really started focusing on it. We had some meetings, very helpful brainstorming sessions involving the director, set designer, lighting designer, and Liz. Liz read through the entire script and we got a sense of her pacing, her overall personality—that helped me tremendously. We started sharing ideas. It wasn’t too far after that that Bob [Pickering], the set designer, came up with the palette of colors for the set. Once he did that, it really helped me. [See the video clip of the color palette.] I had looked around a little to see what was out there and met with Liz to get sizes and ideas about what she was comfortable in; but until you know the colors that you’re going to be dealing with, you can’t really start buying. It took me at least a couple of months of shopping, shopping, shopping—and not necessarily buying so much as looking everywhere. Generally what I’ll do for any shoot is overbuy. Sometimes you see things on the rack and think, “This will be perfect,” then the actor puts it on and it doesn’t work at all. Or you’ll get things kind of as an afterthought and those often turn out to be the gems. The main thing is to keep track of everything and keep the tags on so you can return what you don’t use.

What was your role during the taping?

Liz came in two to three weeks before we started shooting for fittings, and we found that some costumes were working and some were not. I was continuing to look for things as the taping was going on. We were able to finalize the costumes for the first two or three days’ scenes in advance, but I was going out in the evenings during taping to find some final things for later scenes. For example, I needed to find boots that didn’t squeak on the studio floor.

What makes a costume “work” for television?

If the actor or actress is comfortable in it, it makes all the difference in the world. If they’re having to “make do” with something, it really affects their performance. I don’t want to add any stresses or difficulty to what they’re doing. Also, how it looks is important. You have to have the palette of the set and know the colors that will be behind the actor and the colors of lights on the cyc [cyclorama] behind the set.

How did the fact that Liz was playing both male and female characters affect the costumes?

It was tough when Liz was playing herself and Wayne Franzen. The director, Liz, and I had decided that we were not going to really take her out of her character to do that. I didn’t change her makeup or her hair; what we ended up doing was use a different shirt. Wayne apparently wore denim shirts; they were kind of his uniform. For when Liz was playing Wayne, I used denim work shirts that were more masculine than anything I used for Liz’s character. And I used a symbolic color—red—to represent Wayne and his presence. We tried to do it subtly. Even when Liz was Liz and would switch over to Wayne, we would try to have some red in the shirt so that he was sort of present even when she was playing herself.

Are there certain colors or patterns that are difficult to use on television?

The patterns and colors are what make shopping really hard. For example, some plaids can work on television, but small plaids will basically “move”—as the person moves, the fabric seems to move, too. On camera, black and white generally are not flattering. There are colors that are not flattering to each actor’s skin tone. And then there are the set colors that will only look good with certain other colors. So sometimes it’s a real dance to find things that will look good.

What looked good on Liz?

Liz has chosen to let her hair go gray, and she has relatively light skin tones, so she appears rather light. Certain colors would be a real contrast. I wanted to keep the costumes kind of muted. The warmer colors didn’t work as well on her as cooler tones, but there were a lot of warm tones on the set. The set palette used versions of circus colors—primaries—so I looked for versions of those. One color that didn’t work very well was yellow. Soft yellow looks good on a lot of people, but we tried some things, and I didn’t think it was working. Liz is so sweet ... At the initial fitting, she didn’t say anything; but after I said the yellow wasn’t working, she told me she was thrilled because she hates yellow. So I was glad I didn’t make her wear it.

What kind of makeup was used?

We use makeup designed specifically for film and television. It’s not as heavy on the face as theatrical makeup. A lot of people think of theatrical makeup when they think of television. There was a time when the cameras required so much light in order to create a picture that a lot of makeup had to be used because the heavy lights washed all the color out of people’s faces. Now we’re so much more technologically sophisticated that we can create a picture with little light, so makeup can be much more subtle. That’s really advantageous to people looking like themselves, which is what Liz was looking for. Liz doesn’t wear a lot of makeup; in fact, she was a little reluctant to have makeup, because she wanted to look like herself. She saw a rehearsal video done without makeup and said, “I don’t look like myself at all.” That’s the perfect testimonial, because what makeup is supposed to do is make you look natural. You get in front of the lights and they wash you out and you don’t look like yourself anymore. The makeup is there to bring some of the color back to your face and to accentuate features.

How did you learn to do costumes and makeup?

I learned on the job. When I first started, I trained with the KET makeup artist at the time. I had been interested in makeup and clothes all my life. I also found that this is a really fun, creative outlet as far as working in television. As I’ve tried other areas of the business, I’ve come to realize that my favorite part is working directly with people. Doing makeup and costumes is the perfect way to do that; you’re working very closely with the actors. I like helping people feel comfortable and helping them do their best work.


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