Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Colleen Grady | Costume Designer/Costume Shop Manager

Interview :: Colleen Grady
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 Oct 2006

Colleen Grady is the Costume Designer/Costume Shop Manager at the Walnut Street Theater. This is her 10th season with this landmark theater in downtown Philadelphia. Her costume design credits include: Phantom!, La Cage Aux Folles (for which she won a Barrymore Award for Outstanding Costume Design), She Loves Me, Evita, La Vie En Bleu (American Premiere), West Side Story, and Godspell.

The Walnut Street Theater opens its 198th season with the musical production, "Windy City." It is based on the play, "The Front Page" by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. "Windy City" runs on the mainstage of the Walnut Street Theater through October 22.

Colleen Grady can be reached at: [email protected]

PCG: Stage costumes need to mesh seamlessly with the actors, stage lighting, set design, and audience perception. There are so many factors that influence the design process. As a costume designer, how do you integrate everything?

CG: Many factors influence the design process. As the costume designer, I need to know what color palette is on the set so the costumes can compliment that palette. For example, I don't want to put someone in a costume that is the exact color of the walls, or else they'd appear like a floating head. Usually, I meet with the director first and we talk about concept, color palette, character, etc. From there, I do research on the time period according to the character. I consider things like time period, the characters' social and economic background, what type of person are they... things like that. From there, I usually do some sketches for the director to look at and approve. There are always production meetings so that the director, set designer, costume designer and lighting designer are all on the same page. Then we start the building process up in the costume shop.

Left and right: The Walnut Street Theater's vast costume storage rooms. Center: The costume shop.

PCG: Are costumes at the Walnut Street Theater made from 'scratch', or do you actually use and modify existing 'everyday' clothes--especially when doing plays of a historical nature such as the WST's current mainstage production, "Windy City."

CG: It depends. For our current production of 'Windy City,'we made all of the costumes for the character of Natalie from scratch. Because 1929-type dresses are in style right now, we were able to buy a dress for the character of Molly, and modify it by dyeing it and adding some sleeves. Often it's a combination of rentals, building from scratch, and modification of items purchased 'off the rack,' so to speak. The costume shop is at the very top of the stairs (four long flights up!) backstage at the theater. Our storage is directly above the stage in what we call the "jump." We have 4 industrial sewing machines, 1 industrial serger, 4 full-time staff members, 3 full-time apprentices and countless numbers of overhire staff, depending on the production.

PCG: At what point in the theatrical production does costume design come in?

CG: We usually start fitting actors on the very first day of rehearsal! Then we have 2 1/2 weeks to get everything fit, made, altered and created before our first dress rehearsal. Here, that rehearsal is usually on a Saturday evening and the final dress rehearsal is on Sunday evening, so the time between Saturday and Sunday can be very hectic, making changes or alterations for the dress rehearsal on Sunday night.

"In these days of 'vintage' stores and websites, it's not really that difficult to keep the historical integrity."

PCG: What are some of the creative challenges in doing costume design for a show like "Windy City" which is set in a bygone era? How do you maintain its historical integrity while also using modern day technology and materials?

CG: In these days of 'vintage' stores and websites, it's not really that difficult to keep the historical integrity. What can be more difficult is finding a balance between realism and the "musical comedy" world of the show. In 'Windy City' for example, I have put many of the reporters in brightly colored shirts, which is not necessarily period-correct, but still fits in the world of the play. The best example of that came from Marc Robin, the director and choreographer of the show. He wanted me to think of something like the movie, "Dick Tracy", but not go quite as far color-wise. That color palette is not historically accurate, but fits the mood of the piece.

PCG: What/who got you interested in costume design?

CG: I always loved the theatre as a kid, and as I grew up, I guess I always considered it would be something I would do as a hobby. So, after high school, I went to hairdressing school. I did that for a little while, then worked for my dad who was an architect. From there I got interested in Interior Design. I went back to school and got a 2-year diploma in Interior Design and was starting college to finish off a 4-year degree. Well, because of my lifelong interest in theatre, I found myself fulfilling all my Fine Arts requirements with theatre classes. I struggled with the decision to switch to theatre. I sought advice from my Uncle David, who taught drawing in an architectural program and has a Masters Degree in set design. He said to me, 'Do you want to pick paint colors for cabinets, or be part of the magic of theatre?' Well that did it. I quickly changed my major to theatre and had intentions of becoming a set designer. Hey, it's still interiors, right?! Then my hairdressing and wig styling skills kept pulling me into the costume shop, which, was where I stayed. This is my 10th season with the Walnut!

The Walnut Street Theater's shoe storage.

PCG: Care to share any timeworn tricks up your sleeve to prevent onstage 'wardrobe malfunctions'? Or anything memorable on how you saved an actor from onstage disaster?

CG: First of all, we try not to have 'wardrobe malfunctions' around the Walnut Street Theater, but when I used to work backstage, I always had safety pins with me at all times! Oh yes, I've pinned up many a hem that had ripped offstage. There was one time I've quickly sewed someone into a dress and then had to cut the actress out of it a few scenes later. For the most part, safety pins are always the key. The best part is that if the audience doesn't notice all the work that goes on backstage, it means I'm doing my job well.

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