For the recent production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the Great Lakes Theater costume shop was tasked with creating clothing that was joyous and colorful to reflect the mood of the production. From left, Mr. Page (actor, Jason Eno), Anne Page (actor, Kechanté), Mrs. Page (actor, Jodi Dominick) and Fenton (actor, Jerrell Williams) share their happiness at the end of the play. (Photograph by Roger Mastroianni)

Every year fashion designers across the globe invent new, exciting articles of clothing plus shoes, hats, and other accessories for us to wear. Now imagine doing that five or six times a year, creating or recreating an entire time period or world. On stage, this kind of fashion needs to be inventive, flattering, and durable, but it also has to be intentional, helping an actor play a part, and helping the audience suspend disbelief, as in: this man is not a 21st century American, he’s a 16th-century English king, or bard, or barkeeper.
The creative process of costuming takes many steps, many hands, and as much money as the theater company can budget. At the helm of all of it is the Costume Director. At Great Lake Theater, that person is Esther Haberlen. The Syracuse NY native has worked for GLT since 2003 and its sister companies Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival since 2011. She has also worked for the Cleveland Play House/CWRU MFA Arts Academy, Balwin Wallace Conservatory, Cleveland Public Theater, and more as a designer, dresser, draper, and wardrobe supervisor.
Haberlen describes the months-long development of bringing costuming ideas from brainstorming sessions to opening night. “We start by working with the director and what they want to highlight about the play, the actors, or the general vibe. We look at what the world needs from this particular production,” she says. GLT’s most recent production was Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedic battle of the sexes. “[Director Terri McMahon] wanted this to be bright, joyous, and colorful,” she adds. “We work in tandem with the set designer. The scenic and costume elements work together to create the visual world of the play.” For Merry Wives, the scenic designer was Jeff Herrmann, and the costume designer was Daniele Tyler Mathews.
For professional theaters like GLT, the season can tilt from a moody, claustrophobic vibe set in the early 20th century (“Murder on the Orient Express”) to Dicken’s London for “A Christmas Carol,” to an earlier England for Merry Wives, then back to the 20th century for the season’s last show, “Always…Patsy Cline.” For the costume shop that means creating pieces from the Jazz Era – sophisticated suits and sheath dresses, to Victorian England with silks and wools, Shakespeare’s era with linen, cotton, and leather, then back to the US for dresses that are all rhinestone and beads. Just as one show is about to open, the shop is busy consulting and planning for the next production, and even the one after that. The GLT shop in the Hanna Building is one busy place.
Back to the process, Haberlen describes how the designers and the director talk about images and what they want from the text. “In Merry Wives there were a lot of sight gags – Falstaff in disguise is an example, and later he gets thrown into a river, so we had to create two costumes, one regular and a second one looking muddy and distressed.
“There are also fewer people in each production these days, so some actors play several roles, and we have to consider quick changes from clothing to shoes to wigs,” she adds. Based on these discussions, the designer makes preliminary sketches. “We have the casting by this time, so we know sizes and complexions. This informs the conceptualization too. We collate all the research and ideas, and then I get a budget breakdown.
“You should see my spreadsheets and all my forms,” she says. “Each character has several pieces, for example, to achieve a certain shape for the women in Merry Wives, the actors were corseted. I make a list of everything we need, and then we go through our collection to see if we can pull something or purchase something, or if it’s important for the character, we create something so they can wear something new, fresh, and completely different. This informs my budget.”
For Haberlen, the biggest challenge is the business side of costuming, the budget. The regular costume staff includes draper Leah Parker-Loar (costume construction and cutting), draper/firsthand Tina Spencer (cutting and sewing), and crafts artisan Zachary Hickle (shoes and building prop-like pieces that are worn, in this case, a pair of horns for Falstaff). If additional staff is needed, Haberlen has a network of pros in the area she can hire to do extra sewing or crafting millinery or armor, as needed.
On the flip side, the biggest joy the staff receives is from actor feedback. “When an actor tells us their costume made them feel like their character, that’s when we know our collaboration has been brought to a new level. It’s very gratifying. I love First Dress (the first dress rehearsal) when everything comes together on stage after weeks, even months of working on costumes just in the shop. We love seeing all the finished pieces hanging on the racks, and we love seeing the actors in their clothes all together for the first time.”
Great Lakes Theater presents “Always… Patsy Cline” at the Hanna Theater, Playhouse Square April 25 through May 19.