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Costume Collaborations: Tammie Merheb Talks About Designing for Dance

Tammie Noelle Merheb’s designs cross from stage to screen, from marley floor to red carpet.

Currently, she supervises and teaches as Costume Manager at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts (LA) while contracting for theater, dance, opera, and film industry mainstays. In the past three years alone, Tammie has designed and wardrobed over 40 dance productions. It is from this proficient involvement with dance that NoHoArtsDistrict .com asks Tammie to kindly share her experience and perspective as a collaborator.

While many dance productions require their choreographers and teachers to also serve as costumer, the best scenario is to have collaborations between professionals working within their field of expertise. When you work with your designer or design team, you’ll have insight into their needs.

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Urban Animal, 2011, photo by: Stephanie Delani

KC: Delineate the specific demands of costuming dance and the performing arts.

TM: Designing costumes for dance and theater is a highly specialized field and as a designer you have to work closely with the choreographer/director, technical designers and performers/dancers. Your overall concept of the work, body movement and/or blocking, the demands of the choreography of a particular work and the effects of different fabric in motion all have to be taken into consideration. It’s a similar process I go through when I design for musical theater, but it’s a little more relaxed while designing costumes for contemporary performances.As You Like It” AADA 2014 photo by: Katherine Barcsay

KC: What is the checklist of critical information you need from the choreographer, in relation to concept and design?

TM: I usually compose a list of questions to present to a director/choreographer during the first chain of preliminary design/concept meetings. I would ask them the following questions: what is the mood of this piece? Is it important to see the shape and musculature of the body? How many dancers? Do you want the costumes to match? What kind of energy does the piece have? Is it bold, lyrical, a combination? What is the style or genre of dance? What is the story you are telling with this dance? Is there floor work, are there lifts, and are there inverted movements or other aspects of the choreography that require special consideration for mobility or visibility? Once I get all the information that I need, I then request a copy of the music for that choreography and create a mood board with a color scheme, pictures, rough sketches, and fabric swatches.Ancestors, TZDI 2014 photo by Ben Lecira

KC: At what point in the collaboration should you and the choreographer/director discuss the time line and logistics of accomplishing your designs?

TM: Once the final renderings are approved by the choreographer/director which is a 1-2 week time frame. After the final renderings are approved, I set a time to go over a time line and budget. Off that meeting, I decide what needs to be constructed, pulled, rented or purchased. It also depends on the time frame you are given and most of the time I am given a 3-6 week turnaround.

KC: Why is it important that you be in conversation with the other designers on the production?

TM: The Costume Designer has to work closely with the Set and Lighting Designers so that the colors, fabrics, textures, and other costume elements work harmoniously within the final production. You have to make sure that the set designer is not going to paint the set the same color you have your dancers costumed in and that the lighting designer is able to light the fabric you selected to construct the costumes. 

For example, a year ago, I was designing costumes for a small conservatory here in Los Angeles and our set designer would always be in and out of our production meetings. I would email him my color swatches (that were already approved by the director) and I still wouldn’t get any response. Finally, he showed up to our final design meeting with paint swatches and 3D model set. Everything looked great; however, the walls of his model were painted in the same burgundy color as the costume I designed for the lead actress. It would’ve have been a tragedy to have our lead blend in with the set walls! Fortunately, the set designer and the director agreed on another color to paint the walls while keeping the director’s vision of our lead precise.

KC: Fittings and rehearsals in the costumes are key to the production process. What can you share about the key phases of your progression? What do you look for?

TM: My key phase during my costume fittings is to make sure that the performer or dancer is comfortable in their costume and, more importantly, if they can move more freely without any restrictions. It’s also important to have the choreographer/director a part of the fittings since their feedback is very important during the process. I will do a course of 3-4 fittings followed by a full and final dress rehearsal. I begin with first fittings where I fit the performers in a stock costume (a costume pulled from a company stock) or a mock-up fitting (a fitting of a costume that was draped or patterned and constructed using muslin fabric). Then we schedule the second and final fittings to finalize any alterations and final construction of the finished costume. The choreographer and I will schedule a time to do a full and final dress to make sure that the costumes move and correlate with the dancers’ movement and choreography.

KC: Is it typical to expect the costume designer to also design the hair and makeup looks?

TM: It depends on the type of theater and Production Company. I know that non-profits, conservatories, and community theaters expect their costume designers to design hair & make-up (with no additional pay) mainly to cut cost by not hiring another designer or simply because they do not have enough budget. But, regional theaters, opera houses and production companies usually have their own hair and makeup designer. Some of us costume designers do have hair and make-up experience and most M.F.A Costume Design programs have hair and make-up design as part of the curriculum.

I’ve acted as costume and hair/make-up designer for both theater and smaller film productions because I enjoyed working in both departments. I was never interested in limiting myself to one platform only. There are a lot of designers out there who are like these Swiss Army Knives with an array of special skills in the industry, and you have to be in order to get more work, especially, in Los Angeles.

Thank you for your time and talent, Tammie!
For more about this wonderful artist, visit www.tammiemerheb.com

Happy dancing!

Luckie

Author: Luckie

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