Robert Anderson's I Never Sang For My Father is an intimate look at the lives of the Garrison family. The play also takes place in the early 1960s, at a time when fashion had a distinctive flair. For these reasons, Backstage wanted to feature the work of Linda Roethke, costume designer, in the designer portfolio. We asked Linda to give a glimpse into her process and talk about her work, beginning with how she discovered her design vocation.
When I was an undergraduate, I did a double major in performance and studio art. I couldn't decide if I wanted to be a studio artist or an actor. Then I took a directing class, where I was asked to do some costume sketches. My teachers took one look at my drawings and said, "You should be a costume designer." Costume design is the perfect place for a visual artist who also has an acting background, because it's about exploring the character and subtext through a visual palette.
Really, though, the clothes are the very last thing I see. I usually see space first, which is why it's so important for me to work with the scenic designer all along. I need to know the costumes' connection to the world of the play. The space and the clothes have to be in harmony and balance — there's nothing I hate more than watching an actor walk on stage and seeing their costume, being aware of it as a costume.
I don't make decisions for the actors at the beginning of my process. I try only to think about the possibilities and then call the actors to hear what they're thinking. We won't necessarily even talk about clothes, our conversation really depends on what the actor wants to say. I'll start with what they're thinking about the character. "Have you had any visceral responses to playing this role? Do you have any things that are important to how you see the character that I can support with the costume? What do you feel confident about physically? Where do you feel this character leads from — the heart, the head, the gut...or somewhere else entirely?"
At this point in my process, I start to do costume research about the period, about the specifics of the world. I get to know the character through my research. I'm looking for lines or silhouettes or specific clothing choices that would be something the character would pick and would be of that world. This play is set in the early 1960s. It was first produced in 1968, and the stage direction at the beginning say, "A few years ago," so anywhere from '63 to '65. Photography is very important to [director] Anna Shapiro's concept of this production. I have found some beautiful images done in New York at that time period. There's a book called New York '65 which is photos of real people in the streets. That's been really helpful to give us a sense of what the people in the period REALLY looked like. Just looking at the pictures, I know it will be a beautiful show.