Outfitting Chaucer’s characters combines fancy, foraging and fashioning fowl feet

In a small windowless room in the Guthrie Theater are stacks of zippers and shoulder pads and barrels of fabric, the raw materials to make costumes for the likes of Mozart, Cleopatra, and George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

This storage area was Tyrone Guthrie's original office.

Trays filled with brooches, necklaces and bracelets are stacked in one corner; in another are the bolts of silk organza used to make linings and ruffles.

The Guthrie buys the silk in bulk -- "50 yard minimum," said Maribeth Hite, the costume director. "We use tons of suspender buttons every year. We buy those by the great gross." (That's 1,728 buttons.)

Stacks of boxes line the walls, bearing labels for yarn, tailor wading, panty hose, trim/gold, trim/silver, belting, bias tape, coat fronts, tights, thread, tux shirts, fans, knee pads, purses, eye glass accessories, sequins and beads and something called "hug snug stock."

One box is labeled: "bra supplies/garter stock/bird seed."

Bird seed?

"For false bosoms," Hite said. "Bird seed gives the right weight for older women -- when you have a saggy character."

Welcome to the Guthrie's costume shop, where work is now well underway for the upcoming production of "The Canterbury Tales," which opens March 30.

The character book Each director hires their own costume designer, who works with the regulars in the Guthrie's costume shop to make whatever is necessary for the show, from suits and gowns to masks, shoes and wigs. Ulrike Engelbrecht of Wales is the designer for "The Canterbury Tales."

She begins the design process by reading the play, talking to the director (in this case her husband, Michael Bogdanov) and looking through magazines and books for ideas, she said. She may watch some period films -- but not a film of the play itself -- "to get in the mood," she said.

Engelbrecht then begins to assemble scraps of material and pictures she likes, perhaps old postcards, and begins to do character sketches.

"It is like a birth," she said. "You need a long time to go pregnant before it comes out."

The birthing, in this case, is a book of drawings of each of the characters in the play, complete with some written directions.

As a younger woman, Engelbrecht wanted to be a painter, she said. But the pages in her character book are not works of art but technical drawings.

"I want to give as much information into the drawing as I can," she said. "That is why they are not so artistic. If you see costume drawings from other people, they will look wonderful, character and everything, but I find you can't see so much how things are going to be built. For me, that is the most important thing."

Engelbrecht finished the character book for "The Canterbury Tales" in late January, and Guthrie staff distributed copies to the various departments in the costume shop so work could begin. Engelbrecht arrived in late February to help with the finer details -- the "this button, that button, this ribbon, that ribbon, this material, that material" decisions, she said.

Making chickens This production of "The Canterbury Tales" is set in the present; a group of amateur actors holds a competition on the 600th anniversary of Chaucer's writing of the Tales. The Guthrie production initially had five tales: "The Knight's Tale," "The Cook's Tale," "The Reeve's Tale," "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and "The Miller's Tale."

A late addition -- "The Nun's Priest Tale" -- created the greatest opportunity for the creative talent in the Guthrie's costume shop.

"The Nun's Priest Tale" is a fable where characters turn into animals, including a chanticleer and some chickens, Engelbrecht said. "The birds are the biggest challenge of the show."

The costumes' designs are elaborate -- with funny chicken feet, body pods covered with a feather-like material, and chicken-head hoods -- yet they have to allow actors to make quick changes. (One added wrinkle for the actors playing the chicks -- the chicks don't have arms.)

"You make everything open and close as fast as possible," Engelbrecht said. "Any quick change in theater should be made possible in three minutes."

The costume warehouse: The boneyard of make-believe Designers like Engelbrecht don't always have to start from scratch with every costume.

As some enterprising Halloween revelers already know, the Guthrie has a costume shop in north Minneapolis with 8,000 square feet of shoes, hats and rack upon rack of clothes.

"It is 20 years' worth of Guthrie Theater costumes," said Deb Murphy, costume rental manager. "What that translates into numbers, I don't want to know. Every show comes over here for stock, except 'A Christmas Carol.'"

Hite said that of the 44 costumes required for "The Canterbury Tales," all but 18 have their start in the warehouse.

"It is nice to have good stock," Engelbrecht said. "You want things to look worn. There are peasants here. You would like to have something that is old."

She doesn't want people to recognize the costumes from previous productions, however, and is using the warehouse to outfit minor characters, Engelbrecht said -- "I don't think I have chosen a significant costume from any show."

The clothes are all neatly catalogued by era and gender. One row is labeled "Women's Gothic to 1600s," another "Men's smoking jackets," and still another "Women's 20th Century daywear."

Each article is marked with size, and some indicate the show. A flashy pink and green coat, once worn center stage by Mozart in "Amadeus," is now tucked away in a long row of 18th Century suits.

On this day, Engelbrecht has made one last trip for a few items. She needs a hat for the reverend. (Audience members will be asked to pull names from this hat to determine in what order the actors must do the Tales.)

She is also looking for a dress for a lady-in-waiting in "The Knight's Tale." She pulls one blue-and-gold dress from the medieval section, created as part of a past staging of "Richard II."

She tells assistant Amelia Cheever it might be "too nice;" they select a few more, and return to the Guthrie for fittings.

The drapers: Sizing it up In the main sewing room, Douglas John Stetz talks to Engelbrecht about how the chicken suits will fit together. He has the ribs-and-fabric outline of the chicken body, pre-feathers. They discuss where the pants should attach, and how the hooks and zippers should work to make changing easy.

"If we need to, I will mull the whole thing with ice wool," Stetz said. (Ice wool is a knitted, hairy material, a type of batting he could use to round out the body and hide the suit's ribbed skeleton.)

Stetz heads one of the Guthrie's three teams of drapers. The drapers develop

the costumes' patterns from the drawings they get from the designer, Hite said.

They have assistants and stitchers to make the costumes.

A large show like "The Canterbury Tales," requires three full-time draper teams, totaling 15 people, she said.

Costume crafts: Hats, shoes, crowns and masks D.J. Gramman II of Lyndale stands before a table of chicken feet.

Gramman works in the custom crafts, and is assembling the big yellow feet for the chanticleer, hen and chicks for "The Nun's Priest Tale." He is building them from wrestling shoes, shoe crepe, Scott foam, lining and jumbo Spandex. He demonstrates the quick-release clip connecting the back of the shoes to the slip-on chicken foot.

"They can just step in," he said. "They change into the chickens in like a minute and a half. They put the feet on first then pull up the body pod."

His shop does not have standard issue material, like coat linings, fabric or buttons, Gramman said. It all depends on the project.

The shelves are decorated with works from previous shows, like a thermoplastic fish mask from "Amadeus," a wig made of insulation tubing from "Merrily We Roll Along" and a feather headdress from "School for Scandal" -- made of twisted copper and lamp parts, he said.

The nun's habit is a work in progress, Gramman said. He shows how the habit will be a single piece sewn into a hood with a quick-release Velcro tab in back.

He is also working on several hennins -- the tall, pointy hats worn by medieval damsels.

"The knights have to change into ladies-in-waiting," he said.

Dye shop: Solving the color problem Doreen Johnson is doing what she called "swatching a pallet."

The fox costume and the chanticleer costume in "The Nun's Priest Tale" were both a rust color, and the designer needed to change one to make the two more distinct, said Johnson, the Guthrie's dyer.

"When there is a problem with color, we try to figure it out here," said Johnson of West Calhoun, a 20-year costume-shop veteran.

To help the designer make her choice, Johnson dyed a series of complementary colors on different fabric swatches. "She has to go browner or redder," Johnson said.

As part of her work for "The Canterbury Tales," Johnson had earlier dyed nylon cord a steely-gray color. Others will knit it together to look like chain mail.

On this visit to her tiny one-woman shop, the fox costume is boiling away in the murky dye-filled waters of an industrial-sized soup kettle. Behind her worktable is shelf upon shelf of dyes -- acid dyes, synthetic dyes, fiber reactive dyes and household dyes, each with its unique properties.

She has a hot plate to dissolve powdered dyes and a rack full of dye-stained rubber gloves. She has loose-leaf notebooks filled with various experiments, where she has dyed special strips -- made up of different types of cloth -- so she can see how the different materials absorb color.

She had yet to dye the fabric for the chicken feet and any number of pairs of tights.

"There are a lot of tights in this show," Johnson said. "They have to be colorfast and durable."

The wigmaster: Assuring a good hair day Ivy Loughborough, the Guthrie's

wigmaster, gets a bit of a break for "The Canterbury Tales."

"The show only has two wigs, which is very small for us," she said.

Loughborough is working on a wig for the show, but the character's name escapes her, perhaps it's Emily, she said, "It's for a beautiful young girl."

She deftly takes a few strands of hair from a loose stack and wets it -- "so the knots stay tight," she said.

"It's like latch-hooking a rug," Loughborough said, using a long, slender tool to attach the hair to a special nylon-lace material that serves as the scalp. The nylon material hides the edge of the wig better than store wigs, she said.

It can take her a few days to make a wig -- or more than a week, she said, it all depends. "The bigger the head, the longer the hair -- it adds up a lot," Loughborough said.

She has an assistant, Heather Volkman. Others work at night putting the wigs on the actors, she said. When things get busy at the main stage and the Guthrie Lab, they might have seven to eight people working wigs.

In dressing room 21, she shows some of the colorful wigs left over from "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

But most of the old wigs are stacked in file drawers in her office -- perhaps a collection of 200 to 300 to reuse, she said, "and we are always making more."

The final stage At curtain up, Engelbrecht's role winds down instantly. "After the premier, you are out of it. I find if you do return, you are not part if it anymore," she said. "You have given the actors their set, their costumes, and now they have taken over and they carry on the show. You are a nice visitor."

The Guthrie Theater's production of "The Canterbury Tales" runs March 30-April 28.