There is no shortage of artistic inspiration in our 068 New England haven. From galleries on Ridgefield’s Main Street, to inviting storefronts and colorful paintings in restaurants, art abounds. Beyond these obvious displays of art, the thriving theater scene in our area is also a rich source of creative talent, specifically the artistry that is used – from set design to makeup to costuming.
Award-winning makeup artist Amanda Gabbard is particularly spectacular at bringing performers to life in this way, from beautifying actors on the Ridgefield Playhouse stage, to bringing the Broadway Unplugged series of ACT of CT to life, to transforming people into “gory, horrifying corpses” for Keeler Tavern’s Ghosts of Ridgefield show.
She explains theatrical makeup is “hands down the most dramatic and fun to do.” She enjoys transforming walk-on-roles into the time period reflective of whatever the play calls for, including her work with ACT of CT’s Guys
and Dolls musical, which called for 1950s’
“From an enhanced, full strip of lashes to thinly defined eyebrows to rosy cheeks, and finished off with a bright red, pink or berry lip color, that era called for bold and fun,” Gabbard says. “One of my favorite tricks when doing exaggerated stage makeup is to highlight and outline every feature with a bright white eyeliner, a light shade of concealer, and finish off with bright setting powder.”
She emphasizes that actors must look like the best version of themselves when they’re getting into character, whether they’re walking into an audition for a stage performance or preparing for a TV commercial.
Heavier makeup products such as Dermablend, Era, Dermacol, Ben Nye, and Mac are stage essentials that need to hold up against every type of lighting, sweat, quick changes, and stage kisses. “The stage lights emit a lot of heat,” Gabbard says. “Add a few dance numbers in weighted costumes, plus racing around backstage, and you are a walking sauna! Live stage makeup needs to be able to withstand any and all conditions.”
Being up close and personal with the performers is one thing when applying stage makeup, but what about from the audience’s point of view, especially for patrons seated in the last row? For makeup artists and set designers, all angles and perspectives must be considered.
“When sitting in the audience watching a play or musical, we want to be able to see the performer’s facial expressions no matter how far back we are seated,” Gabbard says. “If the makeup is too light or too subtle, the performer will look flat and washed out.”
For this reason, features need to
be “enhanced, highlighted, and bold”
through exaggerated contour to define the face, vivid blush to make the face pop, and
“bold strokes of eyeshadow both on the lid and in the crease” to create the illusion of larger eyes.
Valerie Henry, a local costume designer who has done work for New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre and Free Shakespeare Company (among others) emphasizes that costume design also plays an enormous part in telling the play’s story accurately.
“A costume designer will sit in on rehearsals and talk to the director to get a cohesive feel for the play,” Henry says. “There’s a lot of research to find out what makes the character, including intricate details of their wardrobe that will reflect the character’s personality.”
She provides the example of constructing a garment for a firefighter who has been working in his field for 20 years — needing to craft work pants that tell his story and distressing the fabric on the knees and around the waist band.
Thinking of that character as a true person and getting as realistic as possible is the first thing any wardrobe designer must do. Where do all of these materials needed to make a production a visual success come from? Henry explains it truly is “a modge podge” based on the needs of the play or performance. It ends up being a combination of local fabric makers and fashion houses overseas that may have a certain type of beading or other raw good you’re looking for.
Henry says making things that are historically accurate is equally challenging as it is rewarding, which was the case during her work with Apple TV+’s show Dickinson, where she made Edwardian hoop skirts that reflected the vast social upheaval of the 19th century. “You need the garment to be structurally sound and historically accurate,” she says. “Paying attention to the actor’s skin tone is also very important when considering colors and hues you’re picking out.”
Whether there are racks of costume options or you’re making something from scratch, the goal remains the same — to present the clearest representation of the character so the actor can be completely transformed into his/her role.
When it comes to set design, Ridgefield Theater Barn’s Executive Director Pamme Jones describes the process as a “magical time in production,” explaining there is a whole heap of elements that go into the design process, including adhering to the play’s budget and scheduling for materials and staff to come in and actually build the set.
Stage sets can be static (staying the same throughout the entire show) or may need to change with every scene, which calls for an extra set of hands backstage that must work quickly. Sometimes, sets need to be multi-level and equipped with custom stairs.
From carpentry and scenic painting to projections and mechanicals, Jones explains the energy and excitement is always palpable. “On the days leading up to production, you will find carpenters, painters, props masters, costumers, and any number of other production and creative staff racing to have everything done and in place,” she says.
“There is nothing more exciting than that first technical rehearsal, with not-quite-dry paint and a hundred other small details completed and coordinated for the first run of the show,” says Jones.
The next time you sit in one of our local theaters, take a moment to appreciate the behind-the-scenes and on-the-stage artistic talent that brings that performance to life.