When Erin Reed heard she would be in charge of costume design for “A Devised Piece,” which opens at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts on April 4, she was both excited and nervous.
“A Devised Piece” is created entirely in the mind of the actors. Instead of a script, the actors are given a theme with which to create improvised scenes, the best of which will be added to the show. This year, the play’s theme is memory.
Reed found out in January that the show was hers to design, and in a few short days she was sketching outfits for the actors. However, she frequently had to start from scratch. Reed said the play, the setting and other elements often change during rehearsals.
“We’re not creating characters; that’s the challenge. We’re sort of creating players, like chess pieces,” Reed said. “Actors switch roles depending on the scene. So I can’t dress them to be specific people, but just to be in the world of the show.”
Reed and her assistant designer Ryan Moore said it is challenging to create costumes for this production because the play is created over the course of the semester with no characters and no script.
“There are no rules, but then there are all of the rules. It gives us nothing to go on, which is really hard. It has to be everything at the same time,” Moore said.
Moore said creating the scenes from scratch has tested the creativity of the crew because things can change from one day to the next.
That struggle continued until Moore and Reed decided to have the actors wear neutral colors. When one actor became the protagonist, they would be given colorful accessories. The pop of color on stage, Moore said, will let one actor stand out from the other eight.
The week before the show, Moore and Reed put finishing touches on the nine costumes and accessories to accompany them. But there is still another challenge. Reed said normally she only has to please a director, but now she has to please the cast as well. While she sits in on their rehearsal every night and contributes to the ideas on stage, the actors also critique her design ideas backstage.
Moore said despite the challenges that have come with designing the play, he sees it as a way to prepare for what comes after he and Reed graduate in May.
While the costume designers are tested, Moore said the rest of the cast and crew find similar challenges. For them, this is just one more step to the real world of theater.