“So, Deb,” I asked in a tone of equal parts innocence and incredulity, “you’re the resident designer of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and you design the costumes for only two or three shows a season?”
The question revealed the depth of my ignorance. I might as well have asked a heavyweight boxer why he fought in only a handful of bloody and debilitating, bone-crunching bouts a year. I clearly didn’t get what she did, or how.
So I was grateful when Deb, her face flickering with an unquenchable smile, waved off my embarrassment and described the intensity of her creative process. When she was done, I ought to have asked, “How could you possibly design costumes for as many as three plays a season?”
Beginning as a guest designer in 1979, and taking the reins as resident designer in 1995, Deb is stepping aside after this season to have time to explore other creative options.
Two weeks before OSF’s opening weekend, I found Deb preparing for three productions, each at a different stage in the process: Chekov’s “The Seagull,” (Feb. 23, New Theatre); “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” (April 18, Bowmer Theatre); and “All the Way,” a new play about President Lyndon Johnson (July 25, Bowmer Theatre). For each, Deb labors on the heady edge of exhilaration for as long as a year.
She speaks with me in her narrow office in the costume shop, a space flush with natural light and filled with fabric swatches and sketches, pencil drafts and color renderings. This room is as much a library as a studio, with walls lined with reference books of military uniforms; clothing of various cultures and periods, fine art. I remarked that that Deb’s computer appears dwarfed among these traditional hard-copy resources. “I find that the things that inspire me the most are tangible,” she says.
Covering the corkboard-faced double doors of a closet are push-pinned pencil sketches of costumes for “The Seagull.” Like a child playing with dolls, Deb will rearrange the sketches, grouping them to see how the costumed characters might appear together in various scenes. Beside a sketch of the character of Polina, Deb addressed a question to her assistant who will be procuring the footwear: “Could these be men’s boots somehow?”
The latest iterations of these sketches, with color added and the selected fabric swatches attached, are the currency of communication between her and the director, while serving as blueprints for the craftspeople in the costume shop. The faces too are drawn with extraordinary detail; while perhaps extraneous to the mission, it’s a testament to Deb’s devotion and skill as a fine artist.
Several months have gone by since the initial creative meeting led by director Libby Appel, who adapted the Anton Chekov classic.
“We spoke a lot about the scenic environment and how literal that should be,” says Deb. “Libby clearly wanted something more symbolic, abstract and evocative of the mood of the piece…And we talked through the director’s sense of each character.
“It’s a lovely part of the process in refining the visual image.”
One c critical decision for Deb was to set the scene “a bit later than the playwright intended.”
Guided in part by the more “sinuous and sensual style” of the post-Victorian” period, Deb began amassing images of paintings and photos she then cut up and mounted on a board. Some are chosen for the subject matter (Russian), some for the colors, some for what they say about the hair styles and fashions. One photo included in the “collage” is of a woman behind a lace curtain. “It’s not Russian or from the period, but it had a sort of emotional feel to it,” says Deb.
Other creative decisions, like pebbles tossed onto a pond, create “ripples” that affect what follows. For “The Seagull,” such a decision was to paint the stage floor “a beautifully dappled blue” to suggest water. The color influenced her design for the character of Nina. Says Deb, “There’s a lightness about the character, a feeling that she’s incandescent, which led us to work with whites and off whites that work well against that floor.”
The characters themselves may limit her choices. Take, Masha, who famously declaims, “I am in mourning for my life.” While dressing her in black is obvious, and a direct command from the playwright, “we still have to be careful to avoid using a lot of black on anyone else,” says Deb.
The theatre itself has a say in the process. Because “The Seagull” is performed in the intimate New Theatre, where playgoers in the back row are on top of the action, Deb strives to create the look of “real clothing,” with more attention paid to details; new footwear, for instance, might have to be distressed to appear worn. Then again, when costuming for the Elizabethan Stage, Deb keeps all rows in mind. “We’re trying to find the sweet spot in the design so everyone in any part of the theatre can receive the story telling.”
Each of Deb’s shows this year pose a unique challenge. For “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella,” Bill Rauch’s ambitious blend of three storylines, Deb’s task was, at the same time, to set the different worlds apart, while, in a visual sense, holding them together. Her elegant solution was to create stylistic distinctions while establishing a coordinated color pallet.
Since nearly all of the political figures represented in “All the Way” are constrained to wearing suit-and tie uniforms—and since some of the actors will be playing multiple parts—Deb is tasked with finding minimal clothing “gestures” to set them apart.
As successful as she’s been at OSF and for dozens of other theatres around the country, Deb allows that not every creative decision pans out. “You need to have the courage to acknowledge when something isn’t working, and to find a way to make it work.” A couple of seasons ago, for “Henry IV Part One,” Deb recalls the elaborate and “beautifully constructed dress” she designed for Lady Mortimer, “a blue silk taffeta with lace overlay.
“But once we saw it on stage, I felt I had made a mistake,” Deb says. “The fabric I chose wasn’t moving in a graceful way.” Biting the bullet, she and the director replaced it at the last minute with the rehearsal version of inexpensive fabric, dyeing it to match.
Deb laughs now because even that costly error was recently redeemed. “The (costume) rental department let us know that the original dress had been rented as a costume for the cover shot for a steamy romance novel,” says Deb. “I was happy to share with the cutters and the actress who’d worn it that it had happily gone to its bodice-ripping home.”
You can see a selection of Deb Dryden’s sketches on display in the upper lobby, “house left” in the Angus Bowmer Theatre throughout the season.
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