by LAURA HAYES
One day, Rebecca Bernstein was on social media when one of her friends shared a link to a documentary — the body of King Richard III was found in 2012 beneath a parking lot in England. Experts at the University of Leicester reported that there was evidence that Richard had scoliosis that would have made his right shoulder higher than his left.
Bernstein, who was designing costumes for Great River Shakespeare Festival’s (GRSF) production of “Richard III,” quickly reached out to GRSF Artistic Director and “Richard” Director Doug Scholz-Carlson. “Richard III” is one of Shakespeare’s history plays that tells the story of Richard’s plot to take the crown.
At first, they didn’t know how Richard’s scoliosis would translate to GRSF’s production, but Bernstein said that the information got them thinking about how Richard would move. The result, thought up by lead draper Heather Hirvela, was a hump made from placemats sewn into Richard’s doublet.
Bernstein grew up in San Jose, Calif. Her mother taught her how to sew, and she loved visiting fashion exhibits at museums. When her middle school became an arts magnet school, Bernstein was randomly assigned to a costume design class. “It’s like the skies opened and the angels sang. This is what I’m meant to do,” she said.
This is her third season with GRSF. Bernstein said she loves working with the festival. This season, she designed the costumes for “Richard III” and “Shipwrecked: An Entertainment.” When designing costumes, Bernstein said there is always a new world or problem to explore. Scholz-Carlson, Bernstein and actor Christopher Gerson, who plays the titular character, Richard, met to discuss what was physically possible. “We got thinking … how does Richard get power?” Scholz-Carlson said. He explained that characters often underestimate him and later get duped.
The cast and crew play this up by emphasizing the curve in Richard’s spine and having him walk with crutches. “We wanted to do something that allowed [Gerson] to not torque his body …,” Bernstein explained.
The hump is built into Richard’s doublet. It was created by Hirvela — one of 14 people who worked in the costume shop. Bernstein explained it is made of plastic placemats, plated together. The plastic is perfect, she said, because it stays rigid, doesn’t collapse, but is thin enough to go through a sewing machine. “It really feels like a spine, and it hinges and moves. He has full range of motion in it,” Bernstein said.
Gerson, she said, was interested in Richard’s gait and suggested having Richard walk using crutches. “When he’s onstage with people that he’s trying to get sympathy from, he uses both crutches and leans very heavily on them, and a lot of times when he’s on stage with characters on his side, he’s only leaning on one,” Bernstein said. By the end of the show, Richard fights without his crutches.
How does she design costumes? Bernstein starts by reading the play several times — at first, trying to make sure she understands the play and later to pick up certain clues about how a character looks and how to convey a character’s story through clothes. Sometimes, she said, it’s obvious, such as when another character makes comments about what the person is wearing. Bernstein then meets with the director and discusses the setting of the play. GRSF directors often set the bard’s work outside the traditional Elizabethan time period — Scholz-Carlson pointed to the 1920s backdrop of this year’s production of “Comedy of Errors.”
Back in December, Bernstein, Scholz-Carlson, and several of the other designers met to discuss the setting of “Richard III.” Scholz-Carlson explained that the goal is to tell the story as clearly as possible. Because “Richard III” is one of Shakespeare’s historic plays, Scholz-Carlson said the play had to be set — on some level — in the same place in which it was initially written.
The play, Bernstein said, is based on Richard’s time in the late 15th century. “But it is far from being historically accurate,” she added.
The GRSF creative team added some modern twists. “If we can use some modern costume elements, the language we speak to the audience is more direct,” Scholz-Carlson explained.
Part of it was for practicality. There are 13 cast members in “Richard III,” and around 60 named characters in the play. Scholz-Carlson condensed and combined characters. Some of the actors are playing three or four characters, and Bernstein said the costume staff needed to come up with a way to allow the actors to change characters in seconds.
All the characters have the same base costume of a black shirt, pants, and boots. “Each of their characters have pieces and parts that go on over it,” she explained. Scholz-Carlson said the color of the costumes indicate what characters are on what side. The dresses close at the bodice and are open in the skirts. Bernstein said this made costume changes lightning fast and emphasized how tough they were. During fittings, Bernstein encouraged the actresses to “stomp” through the skirts of their dresses. “None of the women are delicate fainting wallflowers. The female characters are incredibly strong, powerful women, which is exciting because a lot of times in Shakespeare, there’s not a place for strong, powerful women,” Bernstein said.
Costumes are vitally important to the theater experience, Bernstein stated. As an actor, Scholz-Carlson said costumes have helped him understand who his character is. “For audience members, too, it’s the first thing you know about somebody,” Bernstein said. “Almost never do you hear someone speak before they step on stage.”
“Richard III” closes on July 29. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by calling the box office at 507-474-7900 or going online to http://grsf.org/buy-tickets/.