Costume Designer Reba Senke: From the Particular to the Universal
by Tony Dallas
I have worked in the theatre as a director for most of my working life. I have also worked for many years as a theatre reviewer—first for Public Radio, then for my own theatre blog http://tonydallastheatrereviews.blogspot.com/ (I have reviewed over 150 productions). As a reviewer, I don’t generally spend a lot of time focusing on costumes. But this past summer while watching Lynn Meyers’ moving production of Next to Normal at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, I found myself becoming captivated by the costumes. Reba Senke, ETC’s costume designer, had clearly outdone herself.
Her costumes were not outrageous, nor did they draw attention—they were contemporary and conspicuously off the rack. But each outfit seemed to my eye oddly and particularly right for each character. What amazed me was that there were so many of them. Each character seemed to have on a different costume each time he or she reentered onto the stage. While I doubt the general theatre-goer was as consciously aware of how many costume changes there were (“millions” was Senke’s rough tabulation), I do think the changes worked on the audience at a subconscious level. A pop opera with a high-pitched score, Next to Normal flew like a juggernaut, or at the speed of a bi-polar woman who has pitched her pills. Lights shifted floor to floor on the electric set by Brian c. Merhing, but the entire set never went dark. Passage of time was ephemeral, marked only by changes in costumes. The costume changes marked not only shifts in time, but shifts in a character’s mood: either to dress up to feel better, or, as with the daughter, to dress down to draw attention—sound an alarm. As a director, having often been disappointed with the results of costume designers I have worked with (where “good enough for the stage” was sometimes the explained standard), I couldn’t help feel how these costumes nourished the production, fed the psyche of the actors. The right costume can shift an actor’s motivation, instruct whether to walk or swagger, sit or stand, stand ramrod straight or slouch and lean.
Since Next to Normal, I have seen four other ETC productions—Good People, Mrs. Mannerly, Freud’s Last Session, and ETC’s current production, Black Pearl Sings. For each production the costumes seemed both idiosyncratic and pitch perfect. By March I was sufficiently impressed with Senke’s work to ask if she would sit down with me for an interview. She obliged.
Following high school, Senke enrolled at the Minneapolis School of Art and Design to study painting and sculpture. Fiber arts were just beginning to be recognized as a legitimate art form. Because her mother had taught Home Ec. and “dealing with fibers and sewing was something I had always known and liked,” Senke’s interests shifted in that direction. She transferred out of the Minneapolis School of Art and Design to the Chicago Art Institute, and then transferred again before finishing up at Southern Illinois University. A class in costumes in the catalogue looked “interesting from a fiber slant.” It was summer, the school had a summer theatre program, and the day she went to inquire about the class, “somebody called up and said we have an extra scholarship for the summer, so if you want to hire somebody for the shop, it’s free tuition.” Senke was hired, and she has stayed in costume ever since.
“It was very interesting to play with somebody else’s money to do a project,” she told me. With theatre “there was a lot of ‘given’ to solve the problem within.” From one production to the next, the problems are different, but the method is always the same. In addition to designing ETC’s costumes, Senke works in the costume shop at CCM and is the Costume Coordinator for the Cincinnati Opera.
Over the many years Senke has been designing, she has discovered that she most enjoys designing for contemporary plays—“where what’s important with the costumes is that you really don’t notice them…I don’t mind disappearing into that.”
When working on a play, Senke will first read a script through just to read it—to feel its impact, to have its images wash over her. Sometimes the influence of other things she’s been reading or thinking about will influence the direction of her thoughts. Preparing for Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, she had been reading about Van Gogh, and his “Starry Night” pushed its way into her consciousness. When she reads a script through a second time, she sticks in Post-it notes to mark costume changes and costume requirements—a pocket needed here, etc. By the time rehearsals start, she’ll have read the play through three or four times. When there are actors that she knows, she imagines the play with their voice in it. “I always love to go to first read-through. Then you hear them in it, and that tells you a lot.” She loves to talk with the actors about their parts. “Whereas you’ve maybe been thinking about, ‘I’m only going to get 45 seconds to do this,’ they’ve been thinking about their character in depth. “
Time management is crucial. “You look at all your sources. You figure this is the amount of time there is for this. The amount of hours of help you’ll have.” For Next to Normal, she bought many of the costumes from Snooty Fox, a consignment chain store, some costumes came from ETC’s stock, a couple of items were pulled from stock at CCM. As they have a common need, theatres in the area share from each other.
“You start out with the road map: I need this kind of thing.” But she doesn’t like to get too particular at the beginning. She’s discovered if she’s looking for something too specific, she “might walk by something that might be even better.” So she begins collecting various outfits, each often quite different from the other. “As soon as you get a couple pieces for that character, then they stack up pretty easily.”
Senke’s most impressionable design, of all the work of hers I’ve seen, was for Jeffrey Hatcher’s Mrs. Mannerly. I wrote in my review of the production, “the actors, in my mind, took on a kind of iconic existence—like John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.” Raymond McAnally, the actor playing the lead, played both a ten-year-old Jeffrey Hatcher and Hatcher as the grown man telling the story. McAnally is a large man in all ways. He must be close to six feet tall, with a square build. Senke outfitted him with a beige wool sports coat that was too big and suit trousers that stopped at the calf, creating this delightful psychic bridge between rapidly growing child and grown man. Her outfit for Mrs. Mannerly—a teacher of etiquette to small children and a fixture in the river town of Steubenville, Ohio (played by the talented Dale Hodges)—was equally perfect: a bright red wool skirt and top with black trim and brass-colored buttons, black spiked heels, a pearl necklace, and dyed blonde hair (a feminine affectation akin to a man wearing a toupee). According to Senke, “Depending on who played Mrs. Mannerly, I think you could go off in many different directions. With Dale playing it, a Channel suit seemed right to me and seemed right to Ed [Stern],” the play’s director.
With every production I have seen Senke design—whether it was Freud’s bulky wool suit and C.S. Lewis’s purply-blue sweater-vest and casual sport coat in Freud’s Last Session or Annie Fitzpatrick’s gold and brown loose-fitting silk bohemian dress and Torie Wiggins’ brightly patterned concert dress in Black Pearl Sings—the preciseness of Senke’s choices always went beyond the cosmetic to illuminate something deeper, an inner life, a life marked by the particularities of a character’s experience. And that to my mind goes to the heart of when theatre illuminates—for only by route of the particular do we truly arrive at the shared experience of the universal.
To read Tony Dallas’ theatre reviews, visit his blog site at http://tonydallastheatrereviews.blogspot.com/