I’ve written another article for Pioneer Drama Service, (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum.) My article in this week’s newsletter is about costuming a show on a tight budget. Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter for articles written by a variety of theatre professionals.
The full text of the article is below:
By Mike Steele
March 4, 2014
You’ve just signed on as costumer for a play, and you can’t wait to wow audiences with your ideas. Each performer requires at least one — if not half a dozen — costumes, and you plan to ensure that every actor will look good. Making sure the costumes fit well would be easy if you could hire a team of tailors to create your intricate designs from scratch. But with school and community theatre budgets, that’s never an option. Instead, you fear you’ll spend the rehearsal process tearing out your hair as you attempt to keep the performers clothed, because even renting costumes from a theatrical costume supplier would break your small bank.
Well, fear not. Stretching costume dollars is easier than you think. Take a look at these tips and tricks you can use to costume a play on even the tiniest of budgets.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help. There may be only one costumer for your production, but that doesn’t mean only one person has to do all of the costume work. The more people you can find to shoulder the burden of preparing the costumes, the more time you will have to explore the various other inexpensive costuming options. Other cast and production staff members might have the skills to hem clothing. Parents will often volunteer to make alterations for their own children and for others if you simply ask. After all, they are eager for their children to look great up on that stage. You might even come across a real tailor or seamstress amongst the bunch who has a library of patterns and will help make costumes from scratch.
- Hold a Costume Conference with the Cast. Take some time early in the rehearsal process and meet with your actors one-on-one to discuss each costume piece and accessory they will need. You’ll be surprised at how many actors will mention that they already own clothing that will work. Utilizing your actors’ own clothing will not only save money but also save time since pieces the actors already wear will likely fit, and therefore need fewer alterations.
- Get Crafty. You don’t need to be Coco Chanel to construct clothing that’s fit for a short theatrical run. Brainstorm how you can use basic art supplies to take what you already have and transform it into what you need. A little fabric paint and a stencil can turn a plain t-shirt into a custom jersey. With some sequins and glue, you can make a simple dress mimic a designer gown. You can even tailor a suit with duct tape. The audience will never be close enough to the costumes to know you took a few shortcuts.
- Utilize Your Theatre Network. Call up friends who are part of other school and community theatre troupes and let them know the pieces you’re looking for. Even if the troupes they belong to don’t own the costumes you need, they may know of others that do. Many theatre troupes rent out their costumes for minimal fees (or even for free) as long as the borrower promises to return the dry cleaned costumes in good condition. Offer your own troupe’s costumes to others and begin a give-and-take relationship with the local theatre community.
- Send Periodic Email Blitzes. Create an email list of all of the actors, parents, production staff members and any other colleagues you know that might have an interest in your production. Shoot out an email at the start of your production stating what costumes you’re looking for, and keep everyone well informed with gentle reminders throughout the rehearsal process. You never know what people have in their closets.
- November 1 is the New Black Friday. Halloween costume retail chains pop up every fall, and their merchandise is significantly discounted immediately after the holiday. Stop in the day after Halloween and grab any costumes you need for a fraction of their original prices. Even if your production is not in the fall, get ahead of the game and shop for a show that is several months down the road. Mark the date in your calendar and be quick with your shopping, though, because these stores are packed up and gone only a few days after Halloween.
- Become an Extreme Couponer. Sign up for discount emails at every clothing store you can think of and scour the internet for printable coupons before you go shopping. You can save a ton of money just by utilizing discounts that you might not have even known were available. Don’t forget to join rewards clubs at these clothing stores, either. It won’t take long before you earn free store credit that you can use to shop for future productions.
- Don’t Discount the Discount Stores. It’s a great idea to save money by shopping at thrift stores, but keep in mind that some clothing pieces are surprisingly less expensive when purchased brand new at big box discount stores than they are when purchased used. For example, a brand new generic shirt is likely to be less expensive at a discount store than its name-brand counterpart at a thrift store. You can find inexpensive clothing and accessories at dollar stores and damaged (but usable) clothing for next to nothing at off-price department stores.
- Shop the World Wide Web. Conduct an internet search of the various costume pieces you need. You can shop around for the best prices without ever leaving your chair. The internet is especially effective if you’re in need of a difficult-to-find piece. If it exists, there’s a good chance you can locate it online. Check out different auction-style websites such as ebay.com and ioffer.com, and place an ad on craigslist.com if you’re really scrounging. Utilizing the web, you can score clothing at prices you’d never see in retail shops.
…And now that you’ve discovered some ways to save a few dollars costuming this play, don’t forget the most important trick to save money for the next…
- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s not just good for the environment, it’s also good for your costume budget. When a production ends, rather than throwing away or donating your costumes, store anything that’s in good enough condition to wear again. Even if a piece seems like something you’ll never need again, there’s a good chance it can be transformed into a useful costume in the future. The more costumes you already own, the fewer costumes you’ll need to spend money on next time around.