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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: The world (worlds) of a versatile costume designer in our midst

Critic At Large

Kärin Simonson Kopischke

Peninsula Players Theatre’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” is one of many professional productions Kärin Kopischke has costumed. (Len Villano)


You get up in the morning, and you get dressed.

After Kärin Simonson Kopischke gets up, she’ll probably be dressing a horde or two.

She is a theatrical costume designer.

Often creating from scratch, she costumes casts whose characters wear clothing from anywhere in time. The casts are in productions near and far.

Kärin Kopischke looks on each of the “shows” as a world unto itself. That concept comes up regularly in this visit with her (by telephone) that is divided into two parts. This column is an overview, and tomorrow’s will consist of her thoughts on six productions she enjoyed costuming.

Kärin Simonson Kopischke

Prime for Kärin Kopischke is designing and teaching at Lawrence University in Appleton. Outside professional work is compatible.

A look at her calendar of design projects is telling. That calendar at present is affected by the coronavirus COVID-19.

“I have a couple of projects that have already been canceled, and this is kind of a scary thing, as for all of the people in theater right now,” she said from her home in Door County. “Everything is so uncertain, and I have so many friends who are at different points in theater productions – like from first day of rehearsal, first day of tech, first preview, so a production’s just being canceled within hours of going on.

“I had a couple of remounts from Minnesota Opera that are canceled. One was a production of ‘The Shining’ in Kansas City, and one was a production of ‘Rusalka’ at Cincinnati Opera.

“But as of right now, I am doing two shows at Utah Shakespeare Festival this summer. The first production is ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ and it’s set in the 1970s on a Greek island, sort of a la ‘Mamma Mia!’ The second is a production of ‘Pericles,’ which is a play I never read, never seen and it’s rarely done. So it’s exciting to work on it and a little daunting at the same time.

“And then I am doing two shows at Peninsula Players Theatre (in Door County), ‘The Unexpected Guest,’ an Agatha Christie play, and then ‘And Neither Have I Wings to Fly.’ So those are my summer shows, and I’m hoping that those go on as planned.

“I’ve been in touch with the production managers at both theaters, and I think everybody who’s doing summer shows are just sort of hoping that things will be better at that point and we will be able to do those.”

Now, for the nitty gritty of the interview:

“It’s always fun to talk about the costumes,” Kärin Kopischke said. “There’s a saying that if people don’t notice the costumes, the costume designer has done their job. But I like to think that people don’t realize how much the costumes have helped them to understand the story. Then, in that sense, I think I’ve done my job.

“I tell my students when a character walks on stage, you don’t necessarily want the audience to think, ‘Oh my gosh, that blue dress is amazing,’ but you do want the audience to think, ‘I think I know who that person is. I think I know what that person is about.’ I feel our job is to help move the story along and make the characters more understandable and recognizable to the audience.”

“Pippin” rendering by Kärin Kopischke.

The “pool” of theater in which Kärin Kopischke swims is of fine water – elite and/or respected companies. She is married to an actor, Alan Kopischke. Her brother, Eric Simonson, is a director and playwright.

Being that teaching is prime to Kärin Kopischke, here is her background on that topic:

“In 2011,” she said, “I had the opportunity of taking the teaching position at Lawrence, and for a number of reasons it was really attractive. Primarily because it was a steady income.

“Being a free-lance designer based in Door County was actually easier than I thought, but traveling was really difficult, based in Door County. So I was looking forward to a normal schedule where I could be around my family more and a steady income and health benefits.

“The extra bonus for me was that, once I started teaching, I actually loved the teaching. The students reminded me how much I love designing and why I started designing in the first place. It was just very exciting to be a part of seeing them discover theater and discover designing.

“And then there was the collaboration between the other professors at Lawrence and working on productions with young people who are just so excited to be discovering theater and be a part of collaboration at the next level up for them.”

For the students, it’s got to be interesting because they get a chance to work with the real deal – a teacher who’s active in the field.

“That’s what I hope,” Kärin Kopischke said, “and I have a lot of interesting stories to tell them and interesting productions to show them or to share with them. Some students have actually gotten to design assist me on professional productions, which is wonderful for me to have a young person I can hire as a design assistant who I know very well but a great experience for them, too.”

“The Liar” rendering by Kärin Kopischke.

Kärin Kopischke was well in place at Lawrence when, lo and behold, the university did a big up-tick and hired an opera director.

“Oh, my goodness,” Kärin Kopischke said with a big laugh. “And that has been an interesting journey. Before we had Copeland (Woodruff), Tim Troy, the theater professor, would direct the opera. He had a very good feel for choosing an opera that was the right size with the theater piece that was being done in winter term. And so everything was very controlled.

“But once we had a separate opera director, the opera program separate from the theater department… Copeland works with the voice professors, and they basically choose whatever opera is appropriate for their singers and what the program is doing that year. So more often than not, we’re doing a huge opera with a huge theater piece. So winter term has gotten to be a marathon for me and for the costume shop.

“What ultimately makes it worth it is that Copeland is very different to work with than the theater professors and quite exciting. He always surprises me with how he wants to present the opera, how he wants it set. Even though when we’re in the middle of it, it’s kind of frightening, once it opens, we’re all incredibly excited about the final production. So it’s ultimately very fulfilling, but it’s definitely doubled the load.”

A perspective here: In this region, only Lawrence University is mounting full operas. A review of its most recent:

When working on a project, ground zero for Kärin Kopischke is mostly at home.

“I do some of my work at Lawrence, but I’m busy enough at Lawrence that I like to be able to focus, and at Lawrence there are too many interruptions. I have a wonderful library of books, but at this point I do my initial research online, and I look up either specific information or general images.

“The research is my favorite part of the process. I try to get a lot of images to look at, a lot of them to run past the director and really try to figure out as much as I can about the characters and the world.

“When I’m working directly with the actors, it’s always interesting to me. So often when I’m designing costumes – and I’m focusing on, let’s say, 20 different characters – I’m trying to know all of them as intimately as I can. But an actor is focusing only on their character, the one character. So sometimes the actor knows more about the character, and certainly more about how they’re playing a character, than I might know. But other than that, I really feel like it’s my job to really get to know these characters as well as I can.

“Once I get collages together and get those approved by the director, then I definitely am doing the sketching and the painting of the renderings at home. I can do the research just about anywhere, and I do a lot of it at Lawrence because I have access to my computer there, too. I do the sketching, rendering and the painting here at home.”

“Carter’s Way” rendering by Kärin Kopischke.

Kärin Kopischke is asked about renderings. Are they for her or somebody else or both?

“It’s helpful for the director,” she said. “Sometimes a director will have a hard time visualizing what the show’s going to look like. In that sense, it’s a necessary tool for the director.

“It’s definitely necessary for the costume shop manager to budget the show. And whatever is built from the ground up, for the draper, so they know exactly what we want it to be.

“Sometimes if the show is contemporary and the budget doesn’t allow you to build too much and you know you’re purchasing a lot of things, it’s not as helpful. In those cases, you can show a collage or general, very rough sketches, and that is just as good.

“But I’m kind of old school. If I don’t have a finished rendering, I sort of feel like I’ve not finished my job. And so I try to have something of a finished rendering, even when it’s a more contemporary show, so that we don’t get to dress rehearsal and the director stops everything and looks at me and says, ‘You never told me she was wearing a red pants suit.’ In that sense, it is quite helpful to have something down on paper that I can point to and the director and the costume shop know what it is.”

A big question concerns the prime sources of clothing material.

“Oh boy. That’s interesting,” Kärin Kopischke said. “A lot depends on the budget and the size of the costume shop.

“When I started out costume designing, I had to be thrifty and budget-conscious. As I’ve done it for a longer amount of time and as I get older and as we get into a world where resources are finite, I find myself trying to be as resourceful and green as possible even when the budget might allow me to spend more money on new things.

“I will always start with looking to see what the theater already has that might be useful and then looking at things that might exist already that don’t have to be done from scratch that can either be used as is or can be repurposed or changed in some way.

“Theater is so finite – especially sets – it’s ridiculous. But with costumes, we’re creating something, putting a lot of money into a costume that might be onstage for three, four, maybe six weeks, and then it’s not on stage ever again. So I really try to find resources where we’re not completing everything from scratch.

“If we don’t have it in stock and if there’s a way that I could first of all possibly do thrift store shopping and possibly bargain shop it – at let’s say, Target or T.J. Maxx or Marshalls – then I move my way up the food chain. I might look at regular department stores or online.

“There are resources where you can get re-enactment clothing for the Civil War or like Williamsburg or like 1700s Revolutionary costumes. There are some Medieval Renaissance faire costumes you can get online. When I exhaust those possibilities, then I look at, ‘This is so specific we need to build this piece,’ and go from there.

“Quite often I’ll be discussing options with the costume shop manager because they will also have a very good idea of how many hours of labor they have that they can give me, what the budget is to buy material or to buy accessories or to buy clothing for the show.

“Sometimes they’d rather build something from scratch, and sometimes they’ll say, ‘You know what, let’s look through our stock first because we have a lot of things from the 1800s,’ and they let us know what you don’t find elsewhere. And they will have also looked at the renderings and said, ‘And by the way, let’s make sure we costume our leads’ or ‘We’ve cast this man who’s 7 feet tall and his waist is 30 inches, so we’re going to have to build a costume for him even though he’s in the chorus.’

“So it really depends on so many things, but I do try to look at all the options and ultimately get the most bang for our buck and also be as green and recyclable as possible.”

“The Mikado” rendering by Kärin Kopischke.

Speaking of finite, where does her creation stop? – designing shoes or headwear or accoutrements or underwear?

“I’m actually in charge of everything,” Kärin Kopischke said. “One thing that I’m happy to hand off is make-up and hair.

“I usually have a fairly general idea, if not a specific idea, of the ultimate look, but the actor brings their face, and in modern-dress shows quite often their hair is used. But in period shows when wigs are used, if there is a wig designer or wig master, I’m happy to collaborate with them but then ultimately hand it off to them because I just feel it’s different enough where I have enough on my plate dealing with the clothing and what’s below the neck. I’ll certainly have an opinion about make-up and hair, but if I don’t have to have a strong opinion, I’m just as happy.”

One final topic for this column: She has seen it: What happens to an actor in costume for the first time vs. non-costume rehearsals?

Kärin Kopischke said, “Always one of my biggest compliments is when an actor comes in to a fitting – they usually get the fitting after they’ve had at least a week of rehearsal, sometimes a little more – and when they put on the costume for the first time in the fitting they get this look on their face, and they just go, ‘Oh my gosh, now I know who this person is.’ And that’s the biggest compliment I can get.

“Sometimes I get the opposite. Sometimes they put a costume on and go, ‘Awh, this wasn’t at all what I was expecting.’ And then we have a conversation and we try to figure out between the two of us what doesn’t quite feel right to them or what we could do at this point on.

“But when I’ve done my homework and have a strong feeling and the actor brings to the fitting what they’ve learned about the character and it makes sense, all of a sudden the actor… it just helps finish the actor’s work. You can see how they stand differently, they move differently, they just sort of start to inhabit that character.

“During rehearsals, we will send pieces over to the rehearsal hall so the actors can start wearing the exact shoes or wearing an accessory that will help them get used to that costume piece, but also it really does help them become that character even more. Once we get into first dress rehearsal, that’s when hopefully everything just falls into place, and you can see everybody just move one step forward and everything starts to gel and you can see things coming together.”

Tomorrow: Kärin Kopischke’s observations on costume designing includes a look at six productions – or “worlds” to her.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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