MICHELE REISCH doesn't like to sketch.
While many costume designers show up at first rehearsals armed with detailed character drawings and swaths of fabric, Reisch prefers to listen to her director, get to know her actors and let her design evolve collaboratively from there.
Reisch's process seems to be the outgrowth of a rather unorthodox career path. Although she attended George Washington University (she admits that her academic commitment was such that she can't even remember her major), local girl Reisch spent most of her college days hanging out with Georgetown University's theater crowd until one of her friends made a bold move in the early '70s: "He dropped out and went back to New York and got a job at the New York Shakespeare Festival," Reisch recalls. "He called me two weeks later and told me to get off my dead [let's say 'posterior'] and come to New York. I did and I never looked back."
Reisch, who had designed costumes for high school and college productions, soon landed a gig as a wardrobe mistress for Shakespeare Festival impresario Joe Papp. From there, she took a job as a "shopper" for a New York costume house, locating wardrobe pieces for Broadway and regional theaters. "I paid my dues shopping for two or three years," Reisch says.
Finally, Reisch caught a fateful break: "I was at a union meeting, and the woman I was sitting next to was the designer of 'All My Children' and she needed an assistant," she says. "Literally, it was a chat and I was hired. And that's how soap operas began for me." Reisch went on to design for "Another World" and "Ryan's Hope," winning an Emmy in 1982 for her work on the latter.
Eventually, Reisch had her fill of daytime television and, she says, was more focused on writing until she started spending more time with her family in the D.C. area two years ago. Since then, she has steadily racked up design credits on the local theater scene, including the current "Henry V" at Washington Shakespeare Company.
Her Emmy Award notwithstanding, it may not, at first glance, be obvious how Reisch's experiences on the soundstages of daytime television would apply to Shakespeare mounted in a Crystal City warehouse. She is happy to provide the link: "You wind up, from a soap, learning a lot about working with people," Reisch says. "Unlike a lot of designers, who are much more into the pretty picture and all of that, I'm very aware that I do genuinely want my actors comfortable in my clothes. Truthfully, they'll perform better; it's an extension of the character they're creating."
Reisch also draws on her costume-house experience to find off-the-rack solutions for smaller companies who, like WSC, don't have the resources to build costumes. "For example, there are turtlenecks in ["Henry V"]. I took the turtlenecks and I rolled them down so that, instead of grasping the neck, it's more of a tube encompassing the neck, which is reflective of a medieval silhouette," she says. "The actors wear their belts over their sweaters -- again just a reference to that medieval silhouette: slightly blouson and with a little bit of a skirt." These devices fit comfortably into director David Jackson's meta-concept of the play: "Henry V" performed by a scrappy company of traveling actors.
If Reisch's career hasn't followed a predictable trajectory, or if her approach to design appears idiosyncratic, that suits her just fine: "If an actor doesn't like -- or a director doesn't like -- the road that I've tried, it's like, 'Well, fine, there's another road.' I'm not frightened by that, whereas I think some designers do get a little bit stuck in their commitment to, you know, 'This is the ultimate costume,' " she says. "There is no ultimate costume."