Behind the Scenes Spotlight: Deb Shippee, Costume Director
“Theatre is important because it feeds the soul, the intellect, the mind. It reflects back all of our realities even when presented as fantasy or fiction.”
Deb Shippee, Children’s Theatre Company’s (CTC) Costume Director, clearly believes in the value of theatre as a power to shape lives. Shippee has spent the past eight years overseeing the costuming department at CTC, and she and her team are responsible for translating costume designers’ visions from paper sketches to the reality of the stage.
Shippee has 40 years of experience in costume directing and has worked everywhere from college shows to an apprenticeship in Maine to here at CTC. She explains that the role of a costume director is to coordinate the process of creating costumes, from start to finish. Shippee communicates with a show’s director, costume designer, and production staff “to ensure a cohesive vision is carried through all aspects of costuming.” After seeing the initial sketches, Shippee makes a bid for materials and labor for the projected designs, and then she and the designer discuss the designer’s hopes for the costumes. Sometimes Shippee modifies the costumes based on actors’ body types because the designer often makes the sketches before the show is cast. Then, Shippee says, “You just figure out how to do it.”
She sometimes works with the crafts and electrics departments to build especially complex costumes, such as those for CTC’s upcoming show The Last Firefly. The show, which follows Boom, son of Thunder, on his quest to find his father, personifies Lightning as a fierce warrior with full armor; she and Boom both wear costume pieces that emit their own light and will “essentially glow in the dark.” To create these pieces, Shippee and her team are experimenting with fabric that contains fiber optics and can be switched on and off manually by actors and remotely by a team in the booth. She is also in touch with a contact in Spain who makes luminescent clothing.
In order to actually fashion the costumes, Shippee and the costuming department need unique, specific materials. She mocks up muslin prototypes for actors to try on, but the costumes that audiences see are often crafted from materials bought as far away as New York. For The Last Firefly, costume designer Helen Huang will provide the costume sketches, and then will travel to the garment district of New York to search for the perfect fabrics. This is a process that Shippee refers to as “shopping the show.” Huang will then ship the materials back to Minneapolis, and Shippee and the costumers will begin to create.
After the costumes are assembled, Shippee says she directs the actors to try them on, tumble, get on the floor, and stretch to make sure the costumes will allow a full range of motion onstage. For example, the shoes the actors wear in The Last Firefly are adapted to make them flexible because the actors do a lot of climbing, but they’re purposefully designed to hide this alteration. Shippee recalls that actors sometimes turn around, see themselves in the mirror in full costume, and exclaim, “Oh, that’s who I am!” That moment of realization where a costume allows an actor to become fully immersed in a character is one of Shippee’s favorite aspects of the costuming process.
The job of the Costume Director isn’t finished once the costumes have been fitted, however. Shippee enthuses that she loves the process of teching a show—pulling together all the show’s technical aspects and effects, including making any final tweaks to costumes. “I’m always captivated by the fine-tuning that happens in those few days before opening—both the visual and the performance,” she elaborates.Shippee refers to costumes in theatre as “a vehicle for telling a story” and to theatre itself as a wonder that “expands perspective, horizons, and life experience.” The one cannot exist nearly as fully without the other, and at CTC, the Costume Director is integral to the existence of both.