Nothing catches your eye in a theater production quite like the costumes, which immediately establish the scene, era and tone of the setting, and say volumes about a character's personality before a word is spoken.
The process of clothing actors in the Berkshires falls to a cadre of professionals with years of experience behind them.
At Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, costume maven Govane Lohbauer sits in a spacious, air-conditioned shop "the envy of every designer who comes through here," she said, when compared to the "little rabbit hutch rooms" they typically inhabit. Around her, members of her 15-person crew industriously turn out costumes for three of the nine productions presented this summer on the company's four stages.
Lohbauer, a veteran of 37 seasons at Shakespeare & Company, came to the world of theater costumes accidentally.
"I started sewing when I was 11 and never stopped," said the former third-grade teacher. "My daughter decided she was going to be in the theater and dragged me along."
Along with designing three shows a season, she runs a full rental business with four rooms of well-organized costume racks. Stock includes little black dresses, a "Dynasty Collection" of sequins, glitter and enormous shoulders, fairies, shoes, crowns and "an inexplicable rack" of rarely used wedding dresses. "They do seem to breed in the night," she mused.
"Our budgets are so tiny we depend heavily on the stock," she explained, as do renters from as far as Boston and New York.
Still, half the costumes each summer are built from scratch, including all the costumes for Liz Duffy Adams' historical play "Or" — which runs through Sept. 4 at the Tina Packer Playhouse — where two of the three actors play three roles each.
From her experience with the annual spring education tour, Lohbauer was used to designing for quick changes.
"You make compromises to start with," she explained. "[Actors] wear the same shoes, stockings, pants and undergarments throughout the whole play, and you plan costume changes before you design the show."
Only then does she talk with the director about time and place.
Restoration comedy of the period 1660 to 1690 was a time when anything goes. "The reaction to the Puritans was a huge explosion of art and theater," she said.
On occasion, the playwright specified what the characters wear. One was described as "disgusting," while the theater owner was written just short of clown. A "britches role" or female character in drag wears a very traditional young man's costume, "like little Lord Fauntleroy."
To make the king's quick changes possible in "Or," she explained, his coat closes with just two snaps at the front, whereas a wealthy Restoration gentleman had "a thousand buttons, ruffles, ribbons, tassels and sashes."
"The idea is to get the correct shape, the straight coat with the big bell sleeves and shirt sleeves [sewn in] underneath, without so much trim and closures," she said
No frills were spared for the show-stopping appearance of theater owner Lady Davenant, however, resplendent in a russet colored dress covered in bows and flourishes topped with a jaunty hat.
The actor is wearing all her other costumes underneath, Lohbauer reveals.
"People don't believe me, she's wearing Maria the maid, and Nell's pants and top, three layers of underdressing. But she uses it in the way she walks and carries the weight."
Audiences should not be surprised to see the costume in some future production.
"We use heavy materials when we can, and try to build to last," Lohbauer said. "We're still using things from the first year of the company."
Over at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, the costumes for the new Berkshire Opera Festival's production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" — evening performances on Aug. 27, 30 and Sept. 2 — are the charge of veteran designer Charles Caine. An Egremont resident for almost 40 years, he led a distinguished career at the Metropolitan Opera for 17 years, joining straight out of the army and working with luminaries including Marc Chagall and Franco Zeffirelli. He has also worked with opera companies throughout the U.S., including the former Berkshire Opera, and for 12 years for a NYC opera training company.
When designing opera costumes, Caine explained, the director and designer must share concepts and come up with a collaboration that makes sense.
For the opening scenes, he dressed the geishas in ornate pastel kimonos with elaborate wigs. "It makes for a very attractive picture for the audience," he said.
The rest of the opera emphasizes Butterfly's concept of a stylish American wife of the 1950s and '60s, with a Chanel suit that becomes threadbare and faded over the years. The lovelorn former geisha returns to her gauzy wedding kimono for the production's tragic final scenes.
For research, Caine consulted his library of fashion books and reviewed Chanel creations online. Blending in with the scenic setting is very important, he noted; and Butterfly's simplicity and neutrality helps ensure a smooth connection.
"The costume designer's authority is to design and supervise everything from the tip of their head to the toe," he said, in collaboration with wig and make up professionals.
Making everything from scratch, however, is cost prohibitive. "Small companies and even some large ones can't afford to do that," he cautions.
Instead, Caine visualized elements that already exist, using traditional pieces from a NYC production he put together a few years ago.
Complex historical costumes like kimonos are simplified for ease of dressing. As Caine likes to quote, "we are doing a theatrical production, not the National Geographic!"
"It should look and appear the way you want," he said, "but how you achieve it is a different story, as you have to think of comfort, weight and maneuverability."
All the outfits come from the Baltimore, Maryland, costume rental house A.T. Jones that Caine has used for 30 years.
"They have a great selection," he said. "I have a lovely rapport with them, and they charge far less than they would the average company. And I can design one or two special things that they will just charge a rental price for."
For Butterfly, they made two Chanel suits from scratch for a few hundred dollars, instead of paying $1,200 or $1,500 apiece.
Caine still pulls out his needle and thread sometimes to make sure costumes fit well and look their best; and he will be part of the support crew dressing the singers on the night.
In the end, he says, it's the artist that has to stand alone in the middle of the stage.
"We're here to support each other, to collaborate and work hand in hand," he said, "and the end product ends up being much stronger and making more sense."