Baltimore's theater costumers don't let limited time or resources stifle their creativity

Heather C. Jackson splits her time between her makeshift work space in the bedroom of her Original Northwood home and her silver Prius, which she loads down with blue IKEA bags filled with garments.

Ben Kress spends most of his days scouring Etsy for vintage finds and helping to shape the looks for productions at Baltimore Center Stage. At night — and during his days off — he further hones his craft with other theater companies.

And you can find Kitt Crescenzo mixing up cocktails in Fells Point to make extra money to cover her commute to costuming gigs between the beltways.

Welcome to the life of a Baltimore-based costume designer.

With more small, independent theaters in the Baltimore region and fewer full-time costume designers on staff, many local costumers hop around from job to job to make a living in the profession they love. But they don’t let limited resources stifle their creativity.

“It can be tough to navigate balancing a semi-typical work week with outside design opportunities,” said Kress said from the brightly lit, sleek costume offices of Center Stage, where he’s worked for the past four years. “It definitely leads to a lot of late nights. But I think there's something about theater artists, or maybe all artists, that draws them to the drain of pushing oneself.”

One might think that the jumping from one theater to another might mean that theatergoers would notice similar design elements in each production. The costume designers quickly say that’s not a problem, even when they share garments among theaters. Small adjustments such has changing the hemline or neckline, or introducing different accessories, helps distinguish the costume for a new character.

“That's the job,” Jackson said, “to make each individual project unique and the costumes specific to those characters in the world of that story we are telling.”

For example, in 2017 Crescenzo transformed a 1950s satin princess-line dress from Signature Theater in Arlington, Va., into a 1930s debutante frock Stillpointe’s production of “Grey Gardens” by adding an ivory and beaded overlay skirt and sash as well as a flounce around the collar.

The process for creating a piece from scratch is a little more involved. At press time, Crescenzo was in the process of creating a costume for a chorus girl for an African-American contemporary version of “La Cage aux Folles” by ArtsCentric in Baltimore.

She spent a couple weeks mulling over the influences for the character. Josephine Baker, Rihanna, Diana Ross, David Bowie were all tossed around in her head. She finally decided on a mix between Bjork’s swan dress and a pink flamingo.

“We wanted to take this show and make it Baltimore,” she explains. “I thought ‘why don’t we have some fun and do something that’s maybe a little ridiculous and pays homage to the city and pays homage to one of the true artists making pop music?’ ”

The piece would be built around a crinoline skirt she already had. She said she would add tubing, papier-mache and “a million pink feathers” to complete the look.

For Kress, too, the early stages of the design process are key to creating distinct looks.

“Possibly my favorite part of the design process is gathering research, be it historical or contemporary references, images from fashion designers, or other forms of art,” he said. “It's easy to go down a rabbit hole of inspiration. And often where you start to look isn't where you end up.”

Kress pointed to his preparation for “Spring Awakening” this fall.

“We're setting it in more contemporary times and imagining a society where customs and clothing are imposed by the adults. So it's going to have a ‘The Village’ or ‘Handmaid's Tale’ feel,” he explains.

While researching dressing customs, Kress explored “some of the more ridiculous ways parents would dress their children,” which then led him to the “interaction between gender and perceived innocence.” The end result, he said, relates to the theme of the production.

“Using that outfit to hold your growing child in a state of sexless innocence really resonated with the book of ‘Spring Awakening,’ and so the uniforms the boys will be wearing are going to draw heavily from that research,” he adds.

But creating garments is the exception, not the rule, designers say. Budget, time constraints and a lack of staff prevent them from doing so.

“There’s a lot of styling,” Crescenzo said. “One of the things about the job is that you are always shopping. It’s always good to have a couple bucks in your pocket to collect. You buy something that you might need down the line.

Jackson often finds costume pieces in thrift stores, she said. “Rendering [garments] and shopping become interchangeable.”

The designers say that the variety of assignments keep them on their collective toes, and inspiration can come from anywhere.

Kress said that in a production of “Peter Pan” he costumed at Notre Dame of Maryland University a couple seasons back, he created the costume of one of the “lost boys” character around a homeless man he observed wearing colorful, loud, thick socks. A hipster stoner character in “Next To Normal” at Center Stage in 2014 was based on a friend. And he’s found himself using more hats in productions — a direct relation, he said, to Baltimore’s predilection for the garment.

“Even walking to work there'll be a little bit of inspiration in a choice some stranger made getting dressed for me to log away for the right show,” he said. “So I think if I stop finding that inspiration, I would definitely start to worry.”

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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