For Rorschach Theatre’s ‘Neverwhere’ at Atlas Performing Arts Center, costume designer has otherworldly job


The Door costume for Rorschach Theatre’s “Neverwhere.” (Deb Sivigny/Rorschach Theatre)
August 15, 2013

Deb Sivigny may have 99 professional shows under her belt, but that doesn’t mean she has costume design down to a science. All plays present new challenges, and her 100th, Rorschach Theatre’s “Neverwhere,” has plenty.

As a frequent Rorschach collaborator and the wife of co-artistic director Randy Baker, Sivigny knew what she was getting into when she agreed to work with director Jenny McConnell Frederick (Rorschach’s other artistic director) to tackle the stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved novel and television series.

“We read it,” Frederick says, “and it had all of the things we want in a play, because it seemed pretty much impossible to present. And we love that. That’s what we live for.”

Among the daring elements are the many scenes, most of which take place in different, often otherworldly locations, and the cast of 12, many of whom play multiple roles. That means a “huge number of costumes,” Frederick says.

And how many exactly?

“Oh, lordy,” Sivigny says, thinking for a moment. “It’s upwards of 45.”

The story follows a Londoner named Richard who happens upon an injured girl named Door. Helping her sets off a series of events that lead him into an alternate universe known as London Below. Magic abounds in this world, but so does darkness in the form of a pair of assassins; people who do the bidding of rats; and vampire-like villains.

Frederick and Sivigny decided to dress each group as if they had time-traveled from different periods in British history. There will be punks and mods, an earl dressed like Henry VIII and medieval friars. Yet the clothes should never outshine the actors.

“I don’t like it when my costumes wear them,” Sivigny says, “even though in this particular show they’re large and fantastical and strange.”

In other words, the togs have to be era-spanning and fanciful, but not so much as to overpower the play. And that’s not all. They also have to be easy to put on and take off.

“They’re elaborate, they’re gorgeous,” Frederick says. “But the actors are playing four and five roles, so to switch them in and out is going to be exciting to say the least.”

Luckily, Sivigny has picked up some tricks of the trade.

“A lot of Velcro,” she says with a laugh.

Other options are hidden zippers, snaps and even “overdressing” — when an actor wears multiple sets of clothes at once. Much of Sivigny’s experience in rapid-fire attire came from working at Theater J, which, she says, has “a lot of breakneck-quick changes.”

The designer calls it her niche, but another of her specialties is working closely with the actors whenever possible, especially before she begins designing. And for her 100th show, Sivigny is collaborating with the cast more than ever. She sat with them a couple of times before sketching. She also had them fill out questionnaires in character, asking about their powers and favorite colors, among other trivia.

“It’s almost like a crowd-sourced design,” Sivigny says.

Ryan Tumulty, who plays Vandemar, one of the assassins, responded that his favorite color was blood red, which seemed to align with his deadly character.

“But he writes me about 10 minutes later and says, ‘Vandemar’s other favorite color is lavender,’ ” Sivigny recalls. “And I was thinking that’s genius. So I’m going to use that, even if it just pops out for a fraction of a second and he blows his nose on a lavender hanky.”

Other standout costumes include a sheer black hoop skirt worn by the character Lamia, a deadly seductress. It took Sivigny about 16 hours to complete.

“You’ll be able to see through to her legs to get a sense of this very sexy silhouette under a sort of don’t-touch-me cage,” she says. “That’s been a challenge, because I’ve never done that before.”

But Sivigny is keeping other surprises concealed. Frederick hinted at an illuminated wardrobe for one character; Sivigny mentioned one with “special effects” and another involving both internal engineering and the work of a fight coordinator.

“I hope the payoff is good,” she says. “If I get a gasp or two, we’ve won.”

Neverwhere

Through Sept. 15. Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993. www.rorschachtheatre.com. $30; pay-what-you-can Friday and Saturday.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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