PROFILE: Dressed For Success – Janessa Chats With Master Costumer Michelle Spencer Davidson

Published on August 21, 2014 by   ·   2 Comments

When you go to the theatre, and a show is done right, you enter a new world for the evening and everything fits together perfectly.  People often forget how much work goes into the technical aspects of a production: set design, lights, and costumes can blend so seamlessly into a show, you almost forget they are there.  Our own Miss Jaye loves the technical side of theatre and was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Michelle Spencer Davidson, the current costumer for UND’s Theatre Arts Department.

0000000000 Michelle CatJanessa:  I’m so excited to talk with you today! 

Michelle: Me, too! I always feel like there’s no time in the day to just sit, so it’s nice to take a break

Janessa:  I’m a total tech nerd!  When I go to a show, I’m just as excited about the set and the costumes and the lighting as I am about the performances themselves.

Michelle: I love everything about live performances!  I’m like a little kid, trying to look at everything at once, trying to figure out how everything’s done.

Janessa:  People often forget how important the technical details, especially costumes, can be for the overall success of the show.  Tell us a little bit about your background – how did you get involved in costuming?

Michelle: I always say I started costuming because I’m short, love Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I’m afraid of people.  I was born tiny and have remained tiny all my life.  When I stated kindergarten, I was still wearing baby/toddler sized clothes.  My mom didn’t want to send me to school in baby clothes, so she made a LOT of our clothes (my sister was pretty much the same size).  I didn’t own a ‘real’ pair of jeans until I was in 5th grade! When I was in 3rd grade, my teacher gave everyone in the class a book for christmas.  0000000000 Nellie OlesonThe one she gave to me was “Little House in the Big Woods.”  I LOVED it, and being a voracious reader, I tore through the rest of the Little House books in no time flat.  Then there was nothing to be done except own a prairie dress and sun bonnet.  Well, my mom drew the line: she didn’t have time to raise 3 kids, have a part-time job, go to school part-time, make most of our clothes AND make costumes, too.  So she taught me to sew.  She helped me make the prairie dress, but we couldn’t find a pattern for the bonnet.  My great-grandmother came to my rescue: she took an old pillowcase and cut out a bonnet and put it together WITHOUT a pattern! I was completely hooked. As far as being afraid of people, well. I wanted to be an actress and that’s what I started school for.  I think I was/am a pretty decent dramatic actress, but I have zero comic timing and I’m short.  These are problems because I look like a character actor, but I’m not so great at comedy.  I kept getting called back for dramatic roles but being rejected because I was too small for the audience to accept me as a character who was the same age I was!  At least that’s what several directors told me.  It caused my anxiety to skyrocket.  I mean, I can gain or lose weight, change my hair color, wear contacts…but I can’t grow. Actors are very special people.  They put their whole being on the line every time they audition.  I couldn’t take it.  But I still wanted to be in theatre.  You know, it gets in your blood and you’re just addicted for the rest of your life. So I stepped back and assessed my skills, and went to grad school for costume design. Wow, long-winded! Not a surprise to my students!

0000000000 Michelle BeanieJanessa: I love a good story!  So it sounds like you have some experience with other aspects of the theatre as well.  Can you tell us a little about that?  Any acting, directing, other technical work?

Michelle: I have directed a few times and would like to do it more.  The process of finding the characters and story is endlessly fascinating to me. I used to act quite a bit, but I had some pretty severe anxiety issues after the death of my husband, so it’s been close to a decade since I’ve been onstage. I’ve done scenic design maybe once. One of my grad school instructors advised me to have a double emphasis in my MFA: costumes and scenic design.  But I had 2 teenagers, and a husband I wanted to spend time with, so I didn’t want to pile even more on.  Loren Liepold is teaching me how to build sets when I have time to spare from my shop.  Which isn’t often, so it’s a slow process.  That’s ok.  I figure I have about 50 more years left to me on earth and I want to learn as much as possible before I go!

Janessa:  Tell us a little bit about your process – do you have specific things you do to prepare for every show?  How do you work through the process of costuming a show?

Michelle: I read every script at least 3 times–you know, usually more, so much that I basically have it memorized.  I want to give cues to the audience about what’s going to happen, or what has happened, or when they are, or how the characters feel, or manipulate the audience into feeling things.  I have to know what the goals of the script are to do this.  I also need to understand social and cultural cues so I can be subtle about what I’m doing.  The show isn’t about the costumes; it’s about the characters and story and I’m just there to help. I also love the collaborative process, working closely with my director, the other designers, and the actors to make sure we are all telling the same cohesive story.  I tell my students it’s not about throwing a lot of costumes at the stage and seeing what happens.  It’s about having a goal and figuring out as a team how to reach it.

000000000000 ListsAlso lists.  I have tons of lists and make new ones every day.  I will sometimes shout that I have lost my Master List–my list of all my lists–and we cannot proceed without it.

Janessa:  I’ve noted in reviews how much I love your costuming work – they always feel to me like exactly what that particular production of that show needs.  What do you look for in the show or in working with the director to help you find your inspiration?

Michelle: Just like when I was acting, I want to touch the audience.  I want to joke with them, reassure them, frighten them–whatever the production needs.  I want audience members to be thinking about our show long after they’ve walked out of the theatre.  I try to find my inspiration in that.  What can I do to grab the audience, make them think?  Understand, I don’t necessarily want people to ooh and aah over all the sparkly clothes.  I want the clothes to be the perfect choice for THIS character, in THIS production, for THIS audience.

Janessa:  Do you have a favorite show that you’ve costumed?  How about a dream show you’d love to work on?

0000000000 Michelle Urinetown 01Michelle: My favorite design so far was Urinetown.  A close 2nd was Threepenny Opera.  In my personal life, I’m a very structured person.  Some might say a little obsessive-compulsive.   Some might say more than a little.  Things need to match and balance, everything needs to be in its correct place.  I try to let that go in my creative life, or everything I do would be all the same.  With Urinetown and Threepenny, I think I was fully successful in letting that structure go, throwing neatness and properness to the wind.  I think there is a joy to be found in the designs of both of those shows that I’m not always successful in allowing out or demonstrating in public. I feel the costumes for those shows exuded the feeling of movement even when there was none.  Hmm.  There is menace in both of those shows.  Maybe it’s my chance to say, “Fuck you, universe! You can’t beat me!”  Hahaha! I also loved working with both of those directors, so there’s that, too.

0000000000 Michelle Urinetown 05Janessa: Urinetown The Musical was definitely one of my favorite costume collections I’ve seen.  There was such a strong story there!  Can you tell us a little bit more about the decisions you made for that show?

Michelle: I think I just answered part of that!  I wanted there to be clear definition between the rich and the poor.  You know, we were having the Occupy movement very strong at that time, and discussion about the 99%  and the distribution of wealth in this country.  It seemed to me that a LOT of people couldn’t see the discrepancy.  It was–and still is–hard for middle-class people to really grasp the idea of the super-rich or the super-poor.  I was inspired to wipe out any grey in the discussion. But no one wants to be hit over the head or lectured at about issues, so how can I get my message through subtly? The result was: “See? Bright, pristine clothing with sharp lines = rich. Filthy, dull, soft clothing = poor.  NOW do you get it?”

Janessa: I loved the super saturated neon colors for the rich characters contrasted with the more chaotic mixture of colors for the poor characters.

Michelle: Thank you.  You got my message!

Janessa: Do you feel like you have a specific design aesthetic you bring to your work?  How do you find the balance between your viewpoint and the director’s vision for the production?

Michelle: I like to think my costumes always serve the story.  I have found myself not agreeing with a director’s choices, and wanting to scream and sob, “My art!  My art! You’re ruining my art!”  But the truth is, the whole production is the art.  Everything has to agree.  It’s not about my ego.  So you know, sometimes I rant and spew out all my frustration, and then I come back ready to listen.

0000000000 Michelle IronyJanessa:  I have to say that coming up with these questions was more difficult than some of the interviews I’ve done with actors and performers – it’s almost like a different language!  Since you work in educational theatre, how do you help students (many of whom may be more focused on or interested in the performance side of theatre) access the language and processes of costuming?

Michelle: I think it’s important for them to know that I am doing the same textual analysis and ‘homework’ as the actors are doing.  But instead of emoting, I am making something more concrete.  We’re all in this together. When we are in fittings, I tell them what I’m doing and why.  I don’t talk down to them.  I always use costume/seamstress language.  Everyone in theatre should speak theatre; costumes is just a local dialect.

Janessa:  If there was one thing you wished more actors or directors knew about the costumer’s job?

Michelle: I wish it was understood that every time you add, subtract, or substitute an actor, it increases the cost both money- and time-wise.  I don’t have a Star Trek replicator; I can’t just whip up a new costume on the spot.  And yeah, I may think you’ve just ruined the picture I was trying to paint.

Janessa:  As a big girl, I know that a great costume can absolutely die if the fit isn’t right.  How do you approach fitting your designs to the actors?

0000000000000 FittingMichelle: Fit is EVERYTHING.  And not just that the clothes fit the body, but the costume fits the actor.  That’s confusing wording.  Look, if an item of clothing doesn’t fit, it’s ugly.  It droops or pulls, looks sloppy, makes the actor look or feel ugly.  But the costume also needs to fit not just the character, but the actor.  For instance.  I’m 4’10” and weigh just over 100 lbs.  I can get away with wearing things you can’t.  I can wear ‘childish’ clothing without looking ridiculous because I’m kid-sized.  The same costume on you may look clownish.  You–how tall are you?

Janessa: I’m 6’2″ before I even step into my heels!

Michelle: To me you are a giant and I never want to stand next to you in heels! But you can get away with bigger designs, louder colors, larger accessories without being overwhelmed or looking like you are 10 and playing dress up with your parents’ clothes.  So sometimes I have to change a design because it just isn’t gonna work on the body that was cast. Sometimes I talk to the actor about what they think they should wear, or look at how they dress themselves for their body.  Not to suggest that an actor decides what to wear onstage.  There are too many designers involved in a production for that to happen.

0000000000 Michelle SmileJanessa: I had a friend that used to say that no matter what else you do in your theatrical life, never, ever, EVER piss off the costumer!

Michelle: Oh, NEVER piss off your costumer!  We have sharp things we can leave in your costumes!

Janessa: Why do you think it’s important for communities to have access to theatre?  Or to an arts scene more generally?  What do they gain?

Michelle: I think Art helps us know who we are. It is a mirror society holds up to itself.  We need to know ourselves to improve ourselves.  Art helps us think critically, learn to ask questions, refuse to be boxed in.  It keeps our brains from stagnating. We need art to keep us sane.

Janessa:  Anyone who saw The Full Monty probably remembers my stunning coat from the final scene – you made that piece.  Do you do a lot of custom work for individuals in addition to working on the shows?

Michelle:  I actually don’t do a lot of custom work because most people are unwilling to pay me what I require.  I’m not only an artist; I’m a skilled worker, like a plumber or an electrician.  It takes time to do things well.  I’m charging $30 to make that pair of slacks because it will take me around 4 hours to do it.  That adds up to less than $10/hr.  Would you pay your electrician that?  Or would you tell him, “My Aunt Mae took a class on wiring lamps in high school; I’ll just have her wire my house.  She’ll do it for way less than you are asking.” That’s what I get.  Or, “I can buy it cheaper at Spencer Gifts.”  Well, you get what you pay for, honey.  So long story short: people are cheap; I’m not.  I don’t do a lot of custom work.

0000000000000 CGI ClothingJanessa: I have to say, it was such a great process for me: all I had to do was bring you a big bag of fabric, a rough sketch, and talk out all of my crazy ideas, and you made it happen in real life!  Are there any difficulties you’ve encountered working with individual commissions as opposed to costuming for a show?  I imagine some people have very specific ideas in their minds of what they want.

Michelle: I think I just talked about one of the problems with private commissions! Other times people don’t understand what they want isn’t possible.  Some things you see in movies aren’t real.  It’s true.  They make them in the computer and I will never, ever be able to make a piece of clothing that behaves like that in real life.

Janessa: I have the same reaction to people who watch The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and see that drag show where they disappear for a split second a reappear in an entirely new costume, new makeup, new everything.  People think I should just be able to do that in real life.  It’s maddening!  Anyway, are there any fun projects you are working on now, or any shows coming up that you want to tell us about?

Glitter BombMichelle: I just finished making “Frozen” costumes for a friend who is starting up a children’s party entertainment business.  That was so much fun!  There was glitter EVERYWHERE! It was funny; you could follow my trail around the building for weeks.  I left cupcakes for the guy who cleans up after us because–well, you know: glitter is the herpes of the crafting world!

Our musical this fall is “Into the Woods” and a student is designing it.  Her viewpoint is something very different from what most people expect from the show.  I absolutely CANNOT WAIT to get started on it.  It is SO EXCITING!  ALL CAPS AND TOO MANY EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!

Janessa: What is your favorite part about what you do?

Michelle: I love my students.  Seriously, not in a cliche way.  I learn so much from them. I’m amused by them, and awed by them, and I never expected I’d feel this way.

Janessa: Any final thoughts for our World of Champagne readers?

Michelle: Yes,  Support your local arts scene: theatre, music, art.  We have so many talented people in our area doing so many amazing things! Seriously.  There is so much wonder in the world.  Stop and wonder at it.

Janessa:  Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us!

Michelle: Thank you for asking me about my work.  I’m always happy to talk at great length about it!

0000000000 Michelle Haircut

Michelle Spencer Davidson is currently the costumer and teaches technical theatre classes for the UND Department of Theatre Arts.  For more information on the DoTA and their 2014-15 season, you can visit them HERE.

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Readers Comments (2)
  1. Nikki Q says:

    Great interview!!! I love you guys so much. I can honestly say that Michelle made me one of the best costumes I ever wore (Tartuffe).

  2. Linda Scribner says:

    Love how much you love your work, Michelle! Great article about a great person.

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