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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Interview | Cathy Parrott, FORUM Costume Designer

ramaturg, Rachel Lerner-Ley, sat down with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Costume Designer, Cathy Parrott, to discuss inspiration, collaboration, and the magic of elastic. 

Rachel Lerner-Ley: First of all, I’m so excited you have your binder with you because that was actually going to be one of my first questions.

Cathy Parrott: Oh good!

RLL: Which is: you get the FORUM script, you read it, you laugh a lot—I certainly did. And then how do you start to approach it as a costume designer?

CP: Working very closely with the director. We’re doing an all-male cast. Jess’ vision was going to be a little different than past productions. So it was really seeking out her vision and seeing where she wanted to take it. And the biggest piece of the puzzle has been figuring out the courtesans. How are we going to shape our men into women?  So it was about really nailing down the concept of the production.

Jess and I worked really close for the first month. We kept sending images back and forth to each other. We’d literally be e-mailing images everyday. Because she’s been working for months on the idea, I really wanted to pick her brain to see if there was anything that she was thinking visually even before I came on board. I wanted to jump on her bandwagon.

RLL: And what kind of sources did you use for research? Where did you start looking?

CP: We started looking online and, funny enough, I actually started looking at a lot of modern influences to inspire me and not necessarily get locked into Roman togas. We wanted to have a little bit of freedom especially with our courtesans. My first month was internet research and then I had access to the university library where I was. And the costume designer there has her own fabulous costume book library so I was able to pull images and resources from there. And send that back to Jessica.  We were able to tie all that in, from actual period garments from drawings or pictures of sculptures to modern day influences to have a slight little twist on our courtesans.

Back in New York, I went to the Met, as Jess had done a week or so before me, as they have this huge wing on Roman and Greek statues so I could see the detailing in the costumes and jewelry. It’s a wonderful primary research source which doesn’t happen most of the time. We are very lucky, to have this collection of Roman art right in our backyard.

RLL: Can you walk me through your binder?

CP: So this is my bible that I’ve been working from. (Flips to a section with sheets of measurements) So about a month and a half ago all the actors came in for body measurements and I was able to get a good sense of their height, weight, and you know every other measurement from there. Anything the shop may need as these people are making custom-made garments. (Flips to a new section with photos) Then we take body shots. We take a front view and a side view and a back view and then we take the headshots and send them off to the wig designers. (Flips to next section with sketches, photos, images) And then we came up with our research board. So for each of the characters I come up with an inspiration board through my collaboration with Jess. I’d send her an image and she’d respond negatively or positively or we’d put something together like “Oh, I really like the drape on that.”  “Let’s do the simplicity of this one.”  Then we come up with our own color palates. And color theory—in terms of what different colors mean to a modern day audience. So that’s where the magic happens.    

RLL: Now, there are so many characters in FORUM and also we’re doing it with doubling so I can imagine that there are many, many costume pieces that are flying on and off. So do you have to make charts for that? How do you keep track of it all?

CP: We do. That’s what I’m wrapping up today. I’ve been working on it for about a month. (Cathy pulls out many sheets of charts) But this is kind of the short version. It’s broken down by act and scene and then character. So here’s act one. It’s broken down by act and scene. In terms of some of the characters like Jeremy Shamos’s who’s playing Vibrata and Senex, he’s Vibrata and then several scenes later, Senex. But then at the end here you can see how he has to change…

RLL: Oh my goodness. That’s all in one scene!

CP: And then in Act 2, it’s just as crazy for him. On, off, on, off, on, off. So that’s kind of how we set-up the tracking so everybody can see it visually how many changes there are in one scene.

RLL: And how many dressers do you have working backstage on the show to help? Or is it happening on stage?

CP: All the changes happen off-stage, well most of them. So you won’t see all that. And I believe that we have 7 dressers at the moment. It’s what we were shooting for.

RLL: An army of dressers! And because there are so many fast changes happening, do you want to give our audiences a little peek into the magic that happens? Can you give me an example of how one of the fast changes works? Or would you rather keep that a secret?

CP: The magic of snap tape and zippers. (Laughter) And a little bit of underdressing. So if you see something shiny and blue underneath a costume…


RLL: But of course they won’t be seeing any of that.

CP: Of course they won’t because we’ll have it all figured out by then!

RLL: It always just amazes me how quick changes happen.

CP: In addition to zippers and snap tape there’s a lot of elastic.


And that obviously wouldn’t have been the case in Ancient Rome but in order for our theatre magic to work it allows them to pull it up really quick and rip it off really fast.

RLL: Oh that’s so smart.

CP: And all their drapes are nailed at a point so all they have to do is lift their arms up, the dressers put it on, and send them on out.

RLL: And do the guys have basic costumes that are underneath everything? That everything is piled on top of?

CP: The courtesans will because of our quick changes. So everything is built off of that. And then the rest of the silhouettes are tweaked to adapt to the costumes underneath. So there are some of the base costumes that have some shoulder decorations so we have to put a shoulder pad on the side of the other costumes so he doesn’t look like a hunchback.


So there’s definitely theatre magic happening backstage. It’s not fashion. It’s not a runway show. It’s making everything functional for our actors.

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