Budget: it's the topic nobody likes to talk about in the realm of costume design.
When i was studying costume design in undergraduate and graduate classes, we learned a whole heckuva lot about color theory, fabric typology, rendering techniques, script analysis, costume plot creation, period research, garment construction, and surface design. Not once, ever, did we formally learn anything about how to track a budget, how to effectively direct spending in context of the show and the theatre, or how to view an overall design concept with respect to investment vs expenditure. For those of you among my readership who teach in or come from design programs, i'd love to hear whether my experience is the norm or the exception: what sort of guidance and education (if any) on budget does/did your coursework provide?
So, as i've been pushing the design of Shipwrecked!
from concept to reality, i've been thinking a lot about the practicalities of budget and spending, and realized, hey, this might be a good topic for the blog.
These are some thoughts on guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules, and obviously can't always be implemented for every design in every theatre for every budget. I'm just riffing.
Any set of design renderings for a shop that has construction capabilities hits its first budgetary investment hurdle when you sit down with the costume director and decide, what can we make? Anything made-to-order is a garment that the company will retain after the show in their costume collection, will likely be a unique garment or set of garments, and is something for which you will be spending money on fabrics and trim for its creation. Those pieces are straightforward: you're going to get a custom-made singular garment for your show according to your design specs, the actor's going to get something created to fit them exactly, and the theatre's going to get a new costume for their stock. Great!
Often, the final decision as to the number of built pieces created by the on-site shop is made by folks other than the costume designer. You might have certain things in your design which you cannot purchase because of their unique nature or historical period, but the shop you are working for will also have only so many drapers and tailors and stitchers--there's a lot of conversation and compromise when it comes to dovetailing the construction requirements of the design and the construction capabilities of the shop.
And quite frankly, if you need more things made for your design than the shop you are working with can create, if it's that important to you, you can see about outsourcing: take bids from independent shops or contractors and see if you can have those other pieces made elsewhere and still come in on budget.
The total costume budget is not the total amount you spend on the made to order garments, not by any means--if you are smart about budget, at least. That show budget has to go a long way in a lot of other directions!
Look at how many pieces you're having made, compare that with the total number of costumes you have to provide, and come up with a ballpark of how much of your budget you can spend on those. For a baseline, i start out with a ballpark of 1/5 of the budget for made-to-measure costumes. I might reduce it to even less of a percentage if i were only making two costumes but needed to provide fifty more purchased/pulled looks. I might jack it up to 1/4 if my costume design budget did not also include wigs/makeup (some theatres have a separate budget line for that), or if it did not include dry cleaning (that's Wardrobe's budget in many places), and so forth.
For a concrete example on the show i'm designing right now, we decided to make a period men's vest for the star of the show, a duplicate set of men's Victorian bathing attire, a collection of three matching feathered headdresses, a newsboy cap for a man with an unusually large headsize, and Queen Victoria's costume. (This doesn't include crafts projects like masks or the batik i mentioned in an earlier post, as i'm talking strictly about garments here.)
The logic on these choices breaks down like this:
- Vest: This piece is for the star of the show. He's the guy people are spending the whole play looking at, and he's got to look good. Sure, you can buy 19th-century style vests out there from retail companies like Gentleman's Emporium or wholesalers like Scully/Wahmaker. However, I wanted something singular and unique, and a good period vest goes a long way not only toward creating a unique look for a character, but also as being a useful piece in a costume collection that will get a lot of subsequent reuse.
- Bathing costume: There's really only one style out there that you can buy, and i didn't feel it worked for my design.
- Three headdresses and the newsboy cap: Almost goes without saying. We need three headdresses that comprise a set, that fit our specific actors, and a newsboy cap in a size you can't find for purchase. Making them is the obvious solution.
- Queen Victoria: This character and look is so specific, and this role is played cross-cast. You can't buy or rent a Queen Victoria costume for a man who shops at the Big and Tall. I knew from the moment i read the script we'd have to make this one.
So, that's how we parceled out the made-to-order clothes on this, and i agreed to purchase, pull, or rent every other clothing piece in the show.
In most theatres with construction shops, you're still going to have a bunch of costumes which are either purchased, pulled from existing stock, or rented/borrowed. Those are the costume pieces that (i feel) need careful consideration in terms of budget. How do you decide what to buy, what to rent, and what to pull from stock?
Obviously, some things are limited by availability. You probably aren't going to be able to buy ready-to-wear clothing from many historical periods (though obviously thanks to reenactment groups some periods will have some purchase options out there). In terms of pulling from stock, the stock the theatre has is the resource at your disposal. If you're doing a show in a period they do frequently (say, doing a Shakespeare play at a Shakespearean festival), you may have a lot of options from which to pull; what they've got is what you've got, so to speak. Rental is going to be a big part of pulling together a period show if you can't make everything in house and the theatre doesn't own many options in their stock.
In terms of the theatre you're working for, though, purchase is far preferable to rental whenever possible--when you spend your budget on buying something, they retain it in their collection, whereas when you spend it on renting, you are essentially investing that theatre's budget and labor in other companies. Your show's budget is going into the shipping, rental fees, and cleaning costs for someone else's costume collection, and your shop's alteration, repair, and restoration labor is going toward upkeep on some other theatre's costumes. Which, there's nothing wrong with that--it's great to support other theatres and i always take pride in returning a rental costume in better condition than i received it if at all possible. However, with respect to the theatre for whom you're designing, obviously it's better for them in the long run if you appreciably add to the resource of their costume collection and expend their labor and budget to their own benefit.
A digression: in sustainable theatre discussions, i have seen quite a bit of lip-service paid to making "sustainability advances" by mandating the choice to rent or pull from stock for costumes, rather than make to measure, as if this is somehow "ecologically more responsible." To my mind, this completely ignores the question of where does this pulled-from stock come from, if we are not investing in making new costume pieces? All costumes eventually wear out, and how do you replace damaged and destroyed items if all you are allowed to do is rent or pull pieces? If you don't renew your resource of stock costumes, you'll soon be up a creek. Sustainability in the costume shop has to come from some other place than a moratorium on new costume pieces--energy efficient equipment and facilities, conservation-minded designers and technicians and creative teams, etc. But as i said, i digress.
Some years back, I attended a symposium on costume design and production sponsored by the Tony-winning designer William Ivey Long. In one of the sessions on practicalities of design at the high-budget Broadway/Hollywood scale, he made a statement which i have admittedly held near and dear to my creative philosophy ever since, and that was this: "I always put aside a third of my budget for shoes."
In the session, people laughed, thinking he was making some high-flown statement about a taste for expensive footwear, but he quickly explained that, no, he was being just as practical about it as he was expressing a design sensibility. Simply put, if an actor or dancer has good shoes--shoes that are comfortable, safe to do their choreography in, and aesthetically appropriate to their character--they're going to be a long way down the road toward being happy with their costume. In regional theatre, I may not ever be in a budgetary position to commission a custom pair of shoes the way Long does for his Broadway stars, but i can still take something useful away from that statement: buy new shoes whenever possible.
Experience bears this out. In fact, just last month in a fitting with Charlie Robinson, who starred as Troy Maxson in the PRC production of Fences
that just closed, he tried on a pair of shoes we'd purchased for him. He commented on their comfort, and the designer loved how they looked but wanted me as crafts artisan to distress them so they looked older and broken in. I made some joke along the lines of, "Sorry we're going to take your nice new shoes and beat them up, but at least they'll still feel the same inside." Mr. Robinson laughed and said, "I don't care how they wind up looking. I don't really care about every other thing, dress me however you like as long as i have good comfortable shoes." I can't tell you how many times an actor has made nearly that exact statement.
So, that's the ultimate design-budget theory that i always hew to: spend a decent chunk of change on your shoes. Get good durable shoes for your actors, and not only will they love you for it, but so will the stock manager for the theatre you're working for. Shoes don't make it through as many subsequent shows as garments do--i think of a costume as sticking around in stock for as many as nine shows: up to three where it passes for newish, up to three where it looks well-worn, and up to three where it's turning into rags. Then it's trash. Shoes, with good care and upkeep, maybe make it through six. (IME.) This is because not only do they take the beating of the performance calendar worth of wear and tear, but usually also some portion of the rehearsal period, too, since actors often request to work in their shoes.
Inevitably when designers buy cheap shoes or pull old shoes from stock, half the time they don't make it through the run of the show and new ones have to be bought anyhow, so i figure, I'll just spend that money up front and it's something i don't have to worry about. Every actor in Shipwrecked!
is working with new shoes.
That's my buck-and-change about how you spend money for a show at a regional theatre level. If you design costumes, do you have any similar guidelines for how you budget out your expenditures?