The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 4, 2001


Period costumes for Concord Players’ The Rivals take center stage

Clothes make the man—and the woman— in the Concord Players’ latest production, The Rivals. Set in the 18th century, this play features elaborate period costumes, including ladies’ corsets and billowing sack gowns, and men’s tight-fitting waistcoats, breeches and military uniforms. Dressed in all this finery and speaking the elegant language of the 1700s, the actors transport the audience to another time and place. Performances continue on May 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 6. Attiring the cast of twelve actors in period costumes required hundreds of hours of work by an extensive, all-volunteer costume crew. Costume designer Kathy Booth of Carlisle and co-designer Patricia Till of Concord assembled a team of experienced seamstresses, finders, alterators, and decorators to meet the challenge: Dolores Carabillo, Betsy Connelly, Joan Cordell (Lexington), Gladys Foremann, Diane Graham, Pat Kane, Judy Perkins, Jean Reinhard, and Pamela Sturgis, Leslie Wagner (Carlisle) (all of Concord unless noted otherwise).

The process began when Booth met with director Marcy Campbell to discuss the play, the characters and the director’s vision for the production. They brainstormed to determine how the costumes could best convey the tone and essence of each character. For instance, the character of Mrs. Malaprop (played by Margaret Roberts) is outrageous and comical, so the colors of her costume follow suit: they are lime green and purple.

Next, Booth did research on the look of the period, using reference materials such as The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Costume and Fashion to determine what would be generally appropriate for the time and setting of the play and specifically appropriate for this play’s characters. Were they rich or poor? Serious or silly? Citified or country folk? Civilians or soldiers? Would they do anything special, such as sword play, where the costume couldn’t be too restrictive?

She drew up sketches of her ideas, went over these with the director, using fabric swatches to give a sense of how it would look. Once she got approval of the overall plan, she conferred with producers Bob Carter and Jan Taylor about the costume budget, to determine how much could be spent on each character’s outfit(s).

The next step was to look in the Concord Players’ costume closet. Over many years, the theater group has assembled an extensive costume collection. Sometimes pieces can be re-used or converted for the current production; but very few in this case, unfortunately. The closet has a lot of costumes from Victorian, Colonial or Roaring Twenties periods, but not from the 18th century. Most of the costumes for The Rivals had to be rented or created from scratch. Many were borrowed from the Arlington Friends of the Drama.

Then the costume crew swung into action. Each of the primary seamstresses (Carabillo, Kane, Graham, Till, and Booth) took on at least one major character’s outfit. Others in the costume crew searched high and low for shoes, boots, hats, and other items such as swords or purses. Sometimes major issues arose, such as the rented dress for one character, which was so old it exploded at the seams and fell to the actress’s ankles during a technical rehearsal. More often minor problems cropped up, such as having enough extra long shoe laces to bind up the ladies’ corsets. Just keeping track of where all the items were was a challenge. The devil was in the details, the costumers found.

“Often costuming is about illusion, not about wearing the genuine article,” Booth emphasized. “If we have a shoe that is close to the right image, but not perfect, we just adjust it here or there. If we can’t find just the right color or pattern in fabric for a costume, then we get one that’s close and paint it. If boots aren’t available to fit the larger men, we can make chaps to put over the leather shoes that do fit them. The secret is doing everything in such a way that the audience doesn’t face any anachronisms, which might distract them. They need to be able to accept the way everything looks as being true to the period.”

The costumes had to be ready in time for the actors to practice wearing them. Wearing and moving around in corsets, panniers (pillows that are tied around the woman’s waist to create the billowing effect of the skirts), petticoats and lacy sleeves is very different from what women experience with contemporary clothing. Even breathing can be difficult for women in corsets and men in tight waistcoats (jackets). The actors had to adjust to their costumes in order not to faint or stumble around embarrassingly on stage.

“I was very fortunate to have a fine team of really talented seamstresses and creative people who helped bring this about,” said Booth. “Working with these women has been so inspiring and fun. They pulled it all together and made it happen.”

To see firsthand their fine bit of craftsmanship, check out Rivals, playing this weekend and next at 51 Walden Street. Tickets are $12 and may be purchased by calling 1-978-369-2990. To find out more about The Rivals or the Concord Players, check out their website at

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