Swimsuits & Parkas: Costuming the Rising Seas

Jeni Schaefer, our Resident Costume Designer and Costume Shop Manager, had a real challenge for the world premiere of I Sing the Rising Sea. So, we interviewed her about her process for this show to give you some insight into her inspiration and how she created the designs for each character.

This particular show is definitely a challenge, with the wide spectrum of people, walks of life, and time periods, as well as actual historical figures. Where do you begin when building the wardrobe for a cast of characters that is cohesive with the overall feel of the show?

Costume Design by Jeni Schaefer

Jeni Schaefer: I begin with the script and what clues the playwright has given me, and yes, I guess at first glance the many time periods and characters in different countries can seem overwhelming. But, Eric wrote a beautiful, cohesive story, so creating a look that reflects his vision was a fun challenge. Each moment told me what it needed and what the silhouette should be.

Are there specific issues that arise when dressing a character that was a famous historical figure? How does that differ from a typical fictional character?

JS: I love research; that's the exciting part of Costume Design for me. Investigating the lives of real historical figures takes less time to discover. I just ask Google, and everything I need in pictures is right there. I love the challenge of getting it right, and having a great team behind me who are willing to do what it takes to get it right through building clothes or wigs is what helps me get done. My team is amazing.

What story did you want to tell through the clothing?

JS: Clothing tells the world a lot about a person without saying a word. We dress how we feel, showing what we want the world to notice about us, so I try very hard to get inside the characters. I spend time thinking about what this scene or that scene wants to reveal to the audience.

Where did you go for inspiration?

JS: My research process always begins with inspiration. I search for images that convey the emotions I sense in the play. Rising Sea led me to pictures of amusement parks, vintage beach photos, and vintage photo booth pictures. I was inspired by the colors in the pictures, everything in brown and beige with little pops of color to highlight a pattern in a dress or a feather in a hat, even the cheek color. I have examples if you would like to see them, they are stunning and very inspiring.

For Rising Sea, did you collaborate most with the playwright or the director, or both?

JS: I definitely have been collaborating with both equally. I share everything with both Chris and Eric and listen to what both have to say. I really enjoy the opportunity to work on a new play with the playwright as a part of the process. Making his world come to life is why I love what I do.

In a period show, how much of the costume is authentic to that time, and how much of it is recreated?

JS: I love authentic pieces, and we do have a lot of vintage garments in our show. My favorite is the 1933 bathing suit for our Rosa, but we did have to build a few pieces from vintage patterns, like dresses and skirts because I wanted them specific colors. But, every show is different; some shows may require more building than finding, depending on the concept behind the play and the time period. It is definitely easier to find a 1940s garment than a 1850s garment.

Do you have a favorite design from the show?

JS: The 1933 bathing suit and swimming cape that we built to go with it.

Pick one character and walk us through their evolution through costume.

JS: Ahhh, I think I'll keep that a mystery for the moment. This is a new play and many things can change during this part of the process, so what I say today may change tomorrow, LOL. 

We at Virginia Stage are very excited to see what Jeni and our other designers have planned for I Sing the Rising Sea! The creative team is so talented and has built an amazing world for the actors to play in. 

Tickets are on sale now for I Sing the Rising Sea, taking place at ODU's Goode Theatre from September 13-October 9. It's a small house, so make sure to buy your seats today!