Behind the Seams with Trinity Rep's Costume Shop Director

Amanda Downing Carney talks costuming "A Christmas Carol" via Zoom

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As summer came to a close, the next thought for many people was what will the holiday season look like? For the leadership at Trinity Repertory Company, it meant figuring out how their 43-year history of presenting A Christmas Carol would continue. By late August it was announced that in the interest of public health, the company would pivot to an online version of the Dickens classic, offering it free-of-charge to everyone. For Amanda Downing Carney, longtime staff member and Costume Shop Director since 2015, this meant a completely different process in almost every way possible.

In mid-September workshops began via Zoom, working out this year’s script and fleshing out the conceptual direction. Due to the scaled back process, Carney assembled mood boards rather than the usual drawings or renderings of costumes. “Their function is to give the other project team members – actors, director, cinematographer, and production folks – a vague idea of where I’m headed,” she explains.

Normally, the first step involves detailed renderings and technical drawings provided by outside designers before rehearsals even begin. Carney and staff use that information to make lists of which costumes will be pulled from their own stored supply, sourced or bought, or built from scratch. After taking measurements of each cast member, Carney’s staff constructs versions from cotton muslin fabric followed by rounds of fittings during the first few days of rehearsal. Then, the muslin drafts are used as patterns for the fashion fabric which has been bought and shipped – usually from New York City. “Normally, we have a second round of fittings and then sometimes a third round,” says Carney. Once the production is underway, she adds, the wardrobe department takes care of laundry, wig maintenance, dry cleaning, and repairs.

“The entire creative timeline is truncated and yet we are ambitious in our to-do list!” Carney explains of this year’s production. “I have one skilled assistant for a few weeks – shout-out to Meg Donnelly, my right arm – instead of a shop of eight people for two months. The costume budget is a fraction of what it normally is, and then I’m working in a digital film performance medium that is a new frontier for my theater brain.”

The real challenge, according to Carney, is making the design user-friendly as many scenes will be shot by the actors in their own homes. “We’ll be doing many of the costume alterations ahead of time or putting trick elastic in waists so they can easily cinch. I’ll be getting the costumes prepped and labeled so the actors can do it themselves without the assistance of me or typically a wardrobe crew.”

With a smile Carney says, “So basically: less labor, less money, less time, with more solutions to find truly unique circumstantial issues. That makes it sound dreadful but honestly, my favorite part of my job is problem-solving so my creativity is currently kicking into overdrive.”

Virtual tickets will be available to all at no charge, but registration is required.

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