Shakespeare’s characters aren’t the only ones weathering floods and tempests. Outdoor summer Shakespeare is an American institution alongside July 4th fireworks and lounging poolside. Across the country, as actors and audiences endure rain, heat, and bugs to present and partake of free professional performances of the Bard’s classics, one group of designers has a special challenge: costume designers, who must conceive innovative ways to protect actors, their clothes, and the integrity of the story. How does the process of working al fresco differ from being in more enclosed venues, and how do costumers think sustainably to preserve their designs night after night?
“Designing for outdoor environments is challenging yet fascinating,” said Ying-Jung Chen, the costume designer for Independent Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus in Los Angeles (running through Sept. 1). “Unlike indoor theatre, weather and environment conditions vary daily and geographically. I’ve learned a lot through each outdoor experience about fabric technology and construction techniques” to help soften Mother Nature’s impacts.
In L.A. rain isn’t usually the main concern; it’s the dry heat that can prove most threatening. Evenings in the summer can stay above 80 degrees in Southern California; couple that with acrobatic performances, bushy wigs, and blaring stage lights, and actors are sure to sweat through even the thinnest of fabrics.
“I provide layered costumes and thermal undergarments that satisfy the needs of performers,” Chen said. “For example, Titus is set in ancient Rome, but I didn’t design wool drapery for the Romans. Instead, I use saturated lightweight summer fabrics to create the symbolic Roman drape.”
But heat invites more than just exhaustion and sweat; it’s also a magnet for bugs, something that Chen had to account for when creating stage blood for her costumes. “Blood is integral to Titus,” Chen says. “My recipe was successful in past indoor productions. With a corn syrup base, it’s easy to wash out, edible, and realistic. But when doing outdoor performances, the sugar-based corn syrup attracts bugs. Fortunately, the theatre company has years of outdoor performance experience and provided a great recipe that’s washable, edible, and doesn’t allure insects.”
La La Land’s iconic sunshine also presents a unique costuming obstacle. “Fading is the primary maintenance issue here due to extensive sun exposure,” Chen explained. To combat this, Chen often uses more saturated hues in her outdoor designs.
And if it ever were to downpour? “I’ve tried to work with directors and choreographers to give umbrellas an artistic presence in the show as an alternative rain plan.”
Rain is no stranger to American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisc., though the threat of precipitation doesn’t change the creative process. As costume designer Robert Morgan succinctly puts it: “Design first, problem-solve later.” He’s the costume designer for APT’s As You Like It (running through Oct. 7).
Water affects some costumes more than others, but often there is no substitute for the impact of a key fabric. “Silk can water spot, but we continue to use it because nothing can replace the look of it, the movement of it, the social meaning of it,” Morgan said.
He also ensures that actors always find their footing—quite literally. “Shoes are covered with non-slip dance rubber,” he says. “But evening dew can make our outdoor stage slippery, so at APT we add sand to paint” to give the stage’s surface extra traction.
As in L.A., Morgan must also consider sweltering temperatures. This includes having freezer packs on hand for actors to wear beneath their costumes and crafting a “heat plan,” which is “meant to accommodate the actors’ well-being on exceptionally hot, muggy nights and matinees under an unforgiving midsummer sun,” Morgan said.
Director James Bohnen’s conception of As You Like It is inspired by Victorian England, with all of the layers that style requires, but for exceptionally hot performances, some layers are removed. “We determine what garments can be left behind in the dressing rooms, usually boiling down to coats and vests for men, shawls and outerwear for women,” Morgan says. “Audiences understand—they hate seeing actors suffer onstage.” An interesting factoid Morgan has discovered in the 19 years he’s worked at APT: “Wigs, interestingly enough—which one might expect to be the first to go—protect actors from mosquitoes and direct sun.”
Oppressive heat and humidity are staples of New York summers as well. After a successful first run in 2016, Andrea Hood returned to design costumes for the Public Theater’s current Shakespeare in the Park production, Twelfth Night, a Public Works musical adaptation with songs by Shaina Taub (running through Aug. 19).
And despite the inconvenient heat and outdoor venue, Hood agrees with Morgan that the design process is the same: A story needs to be told, and a director’s vision needs to be realized. Once the design is decided, she says, “It’s important to pick fabrics that can hold up to the elements of a New York summer. Whether it’s built or off the rack, the costume has to survive moisture, wrinkles, and stains— everything that you’d expect from running around a park. Heat is definitely the biggest concern.”
She continued: “Wear and tear on costumes in a musical is pretty extreme, even in an air-conditioned space. For outdoor spaces, I prefer making costumes out of synthetic or blended fabrics. They show less sweat, hold shape better, and are less prone to wrinkle.”
Hood plans not only the intricacies of these fabrics but also how costume pieces may adjust with unexpected precipitation. “Fuchsia feathers often come loose on [the character] Maria’s peignoir in Twelfth Night,” she notes. “It isn’t the most practical costume for an outdoor space, so if it’s raining she would likely skip that change altogether. It’s the one piece that would probably not go onstage in the rain.”
But a light drizzle doesn’t always signal a costume adjustment, or even a cancelled performance. In fact, its effect—combined with stellar acting, of course—can be as spellbinding as any theatrical flourish, more dazzling than any stage magic.
“Last year it was pouring for the first night of tech for As You Like It,” Hood recalled. “The actors didn’t get into costume at all.” Instead they wore street clothes, covered with plastic ponchos. “It was wonderful,” she enthuses. “By midnight there were only five actors left running a number over and over again, still managing to smile. I loved being in the audience watching them—the rain didn’t even matter.”
Billy McEntee is a freelance arts journalist who has written for Vanity Fair, The Brooklyn Rail, and HowlRound, among others.