production of Measure for Measure at The New Victory Theater. Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Locher had dreams of becoming a horse trainer as a girl, but discovered a love for costume design once she entered college. She's gone on to build a fruitful career imagining the clothing for over 100 productions. Her career highlights include design for shows like Fiasco Theater's Measure for Measure, Into the Woods and Cymbeline, as well as an experience as the Associate Costume Designer for the 66th Annual Tony Awards!
Locher currently serves as the Resident Costume Designer for Fiasco Theater and, since the company is in residence at The New Victory Theater as part of our LabWorks program, we've had the opportunity to get to know her a little better! Below, you'll find an interview with Whitney Locher, in which she offers a behind-the-scenes look at her creative process, lets us know what to expect from Measure for Measure, and offers some advice for aspiring costume designers!
What’s the best part about what you do? What’s the most difficult part about what you do?
The best part about what I do is the people! I love surrounding myself with intelligent, talented collaborators including actors, other designers, and the artists who work in costume shops to build the clothes. As soon as one show opens, I get to meet and work with a whole new group of people. I'm also fortunate that, with my job, I've gotten to see and enjoy many parts of the country. But my favorite part of my job is the first time an audience sees and enjoys the show we’ve been working on for so long. It is incredibly rewarding and reminds me of why I work in the theater business.
One of the more difficult aspects of being a costume designer is that shows can be very time consuming and take months to complete. Because of this, freelance designers find it necessary to take on multiple projects at one time, just to make ends meet. Designing costumes also involves a surprising amount of heavy lifting. I always look nuts running around NYC transporting loads of clothes, fabric, and shoes to rehearsal studios and theaters. At least looking a little crazy means I get plenty of space on the subway!
It is always interesting designing for Fiasco. In most productions, the director and designers decide what the show is going to be, sometimes long before the actors are cast. Fiasco deviates from this in that their process is actor and ensemble-driven. They have a basic idea of what they intend to do, but the real magic happens inside the rehearsal studio as they work together to evolve the play. It’s my job to support their process.
I help mold the look of the show and inform a character while still highlighting the actors. We are never confined to a specific time period in the costumes because my costumes are designed to help to support the great work the actors are doing, but not to overpower it. In Measure for Measure, it is important that we present these characters as people who live in a city. We want it to feel modern, urban, and fresh with a hint of reference to the Elizabethan Era. We actually refer to it as Elizabethanpunk, as opposed to steampunk. Who knows? Maybe it will catch on!
For this show, the characters exist in three realms: The Head (Escalus, Angelo); The Heart (Isabella); and The Gut (Mistress Overdone, Pompey). It’s my job to define these factions and to make it clear to the audience where each character belongs. Inspiration for the look of Measure for Measure comes from historical research and a lot of modern-day high fashion. We like to think of the looks for the play as a “collection.”
The cast is already masterful in changing character with their acting. Changes are usually from the waist up. No one ever leaves the stage, so changes are quick and clever. We might define a character with a hat, glasses, or different garments. Sometimes the costumes themselves transform, if it helps to serve the story and not become a logistical concern.
As for the rest of the show, you never know what’s going to happen! It’s thrilling to work with this group of artists in Fiasco because we are all willing to hold hands, run to the edge of the artistic cliff, and jump together. This group is fearless and committed to the kind of work they do, and that’s one of the many reasons I enjoy working with them so much. Audiences should expect a great night of theater with plenty of surprises!
Are there any specific challenges that come from designing for Shakespeare? How is adapting a classic different from designing for a new work?
Designing for Shakespeare is always challenging. I have designed quite a few, and they are all different, depending on what the director is trying to say about the content and how it resonates with a modern audience. The language can also be an obstacle in deciphering what Shakespeare was intending to say and why he wrote scenes in particular ways. Unfortunately, he is no longer around to ask, so it is up to the creative team to decide how to present his work. One of the things that Fiasco does that is so brilliant is to approach classic work as if they are doing a new play, really dissecting it and piecing it back together again so the audience can experience the heart of a story.
Can you give us a little more of a glimpse into your personal aesthetic - what inspires you at the moment?
These days, I’ve been listening to more podcasts than music. I like to listen to a story or learn something new while I work. Some of my favorites include Radiolab; Wait, Wait, Don’t tell Me; This American Life; and Stuff You Missed in History Class.
One of my favorite exhibits of all time was Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago. It was life-changing and definitely worth waiting in line for three hours!
If we have an aspiring costume designer reading, how might they get started in the field? When did you know you wanted to do this job?
I think young people today have so much more exposure to design. Television shows like Project Runway and Face/Off, have brought the concept of design to the forefront of people's consciousness. When I was a kid, I had no idea that any of these jobs even existed. The advice I would give an aspiring costume designer is to go out and immerse yourself in the theater! Volunteer to work on costumes at your local community theater, learn to sew, take a few art classes. Try to see and read as many plays as you can.
There is a wonderful book out there by Lynn Pecktal called Costume Design: Techniques of Modern Masters. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in costume design. It’s chock-full of gorgeous sketches and insightful interviews with the most talented designers in the biz. I found this book to be especially inspiring and informative when I decided to become a professional costume designer.
Do you have any parting advice for kids who might think they have an interest in costume design?
If you want to go into costume design as a profession, make sure you’re doing it because you really love it. It is an incredibly difficult and competitive field, and takes a lot of hard work, creativity, and self-discipline. At the same time, it can be one of the most exciting and rewarding jobs a person can have!