It’s Monday morning before opening night for the Atlanta Opera‘s PORGY & BESS, George Gershwin’s self-dubbed “American folk opera” about a disabled beggar who falls head over heels for a tough guy dockworker’s girl in Catfish Row, a Charleston, South Carolina gullah community. To say that the Atlanta Opera’s costume shop is busy would be an understatement. Seated at a big work table, Stitcher Brett Parker pins and bastes a chorus member’s circa 1930s purple dress. Across from him, Synithia Cochran, First Hand, makes final adjustments to a pink frock. On another surface to the side, Patricia McMahon, Costume Shop Manager, irons a red satin bodice yet to be attached to a dress for leading lady Laquita Mitchell, who plays Bess. And costume assistant Michele Kennedy adjusts a suit on a cloth dressmaker form.
Supervising the whole shebang is Costume Coordinator Joanna Schmink, who has worked with the Atlanta Opera for 18 seasons. For PORGY & BESS, most of the wardrobe were rented as a package from the Houston Grand Opera. Director Larry Marshall had played dope peddler Sportin’ Life in that company’s 1995 PORGY & BESS production and really liked the look, says red-headed Schmink, casually dressed in an airy black and white top and jeans, pointing to several racks in an adjoining room. The clothes on them are a mixture of vintage and more contemporary that resembles a ’30s look sufficiently from stage, all labeled to indicate the character or chorus member who will wear them. The availability of all these costumes in one batch in many ways made the job easier for the five-person costume team, but it certainly didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to do. For example, when the lot arrived at the start of January, Schmink discovered that all of the Bess dresses looked too worn for use and had to be recreated.
Each show presents an exciting new experience, because of the opportunity to collaborate with different directors and performers to resolve its own unique wardrobe challenges, Schmink says, now seated in her office. A bulletin board above an old desktop with an almost-Retro-now bulky monitor is decorated with snapshots of dogs—not just her own, she loves dogs—and an Oriental carpet covers the floor of the small room, crowded with book cases and drawers. Problem-solving and detective work are what makes her job fun, and yes, sometimes she feels a bit like Sherlock Holmes, she admits.
“This is the fun and frustrating part,” Schmink says. “The clothes have to match the integrity of the original designs because that’s what the director likes, but I can change the designs slightly to flatter [a particular] performer more.”
Adjustments to fit the actor are just par for the course, Schmink continues, but those tweaks are not always as easy as taking in or letting out a seam and everything has to fit from hat to shoes. If she has worked with a performer before, she’ll have a good idea of their body type, but she still checks to see if they have gained or lost weight. For new actors to the company, she’ll get all the measurements but also speak to them to find out any concerns prior to fitting. A good fit is essential to a good performance, she says. “I don’t want my wardrobe to be what slows them down or makes them uncomfortable,” she adds.
For some shows, Schmink rents from big theatrical costume houses such as A.T. Jones & Sons, Inc. in Baltimore or Malabar Limited in Toronto, and she will fly to the warehouse and select straight from stock. In the past, she has made a lot of phone calls chasing just the right clothes for a show, and sometimes she or her assistants browse the racks at thrift and consignment stores. Now much of the search takes place online, where, for example, via www.zootsuitstore.com, she found Stacy Adams Collection pale dove gray and lavender suits to match the flamboyant style of Sportin’ Life, as well as similar enough to match the period.
The toughest shows to costume are the concept ones, where a director resets a production into a different era or goes for a completely original look, Schmink notes. As with any arts group, budget also plays a part in the puzzle, so she tries not just to be as economical as possible but also tries to ensure that the Atlanta Opera gets the most bang for its buck. “If we’re going to spend it, I always want to make sure it’s seen,” she says. Now that the Atlanta Opera has received a generous $9 million bequest, she does hope, though, to have a bit more money to play with.
Working with 20th century clothes may not seem as glamorous as the earlier periods required by many traditional operas—for example, an entire box labeled ancient Egypt sits on a shelf waiting for the next AIDA—but Schmink says she enjoys all periods. “It’s all different,” she adds. ‘When you do a grand style opera with underpinnings, corsets, and hoop skirts, that’s always fun. The shape of the clothes is so different and the audience enjoys that. It’s an escape for them.”
Indeed, Schmink will be staying in the 20th century for a while. Circa 1940s dresses and men’s wear borrowed from the Alliance Theatre hang on racks waiting in another corner of the workroom. Schmink and her team will be considering these pieces for Mozart’s COSI FAN TUTTI, the company’s next production which has been reset from 18th Century Naples to the ‘40s so there’s no package to rent. The game’s afoot.
Schmink’s Retro Recommendations:
Movie: anything with Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant
Jazz Performers: Cab Calloway, Herbie Hancock or Tiajuana Brass
Atlanta Store with vintage-inspired fashions: Mooncake
Best place to find 1930s/1940s fashions: Stefan’s
PORGY & BESS plays Feb. 26 and March 1, 4, and 6. COSI FAN TUTTI plays April 9, 12, 15 and 17. Purchase tickets for both here.