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Designing for Emily Dickinson

Costume designer Samantha Jones has created unique and stunning outfits for Kate Fry as Emily Dickinson in Court Theatre’s The Belle of Amherst. Read about what she does to get those costumes just right for performance.

What is the costume design process like for you?

My design process is pretty straight forward: I read the play, think about it for a bit, and talk to the director to hear his or her thoughts on where they think this road might lead us. Then, I do a ton of research. (My Google searches are wild.)

I love the psychology of the characters, so I spend some time thinking of what makes them who/what/how/why they are for the bit of time a play allows us to intrude on their lives. Leading me on the hunt to find the right combination of words that give me a visual on the emotional, mental, and physical clues that are left by the playwright. When I complete some initial research, I pass it along to the director and see what he or she thinks of it, and refine based on those responses. We rinse, wash, and repeat until we land on something we are both happy with.

I then move onto sketching out that idea for the character(s), and repeat the same process again. Once the sketches are finished, the design isn’t done–a design is never really finished until the show is open and the design is living onstage. All the fabric-swatching, shopping, fittings, and alterations that come into it once designs have been agreed upon are all moments on the path that lead to that living moment at opening.

There’s only one real (iconic) image of Emily Dickinson in the world to work off of. Are there other things that inspired Emily’s costume changes?

Because of the limited visual documentation of the woman herself, I spent a fair about of time looking for images of the type of people who might be Emily Dickinson’s neighbor. I explored the type of society life her family would have been a part of, the fashions of the moment, and what a middle-aged unmarried woman might look like in Massachusetts. Though we only have one photo of her, we do have her famous white dress (which is well preserved and on display at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst). I researched that dress in detail, hoping to stay grounded in the reality of what clothing was for her later in her life and how we would interpret that for our production.

What’s the biggest challenge about designing costumes for a one-woman show?

Actor comfort. In a solo show, there’s no one to stall if a costume change gets hung up, or lend an extra hand with that stuck zipper, and there isn’t always a mirror onstage, so its important for me that the mechanics of the costume can be managed with a reasonable level of ease. I try to ask myself things like: Is the performer able to stand in the shoes I picked for the whole show if necessary? Is a corset really necessary, or can something else be substituted? Are all of the physical tasks we’re asking the performer to do in the course of the show achievable in what I’ve designed? I take all of these things (and plenty of others) into account during the design and production process, all the while being sure I’m still telling the story of the play with those costumes.

See Samantha Jones’s designs in person as Kate Fry plays Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst at Court, November 2 through December 3.

Posted on October 20, 2017 in Productions

2 responses on “Designing for Emily Dickinson”

  1. Lori Mulligan Davis says:

    I’m Samantha Jones studied The White Dress and that she also thinks about actor comfort. Sometimes I think the greatest acting is continuing to smile in spike heels or in spaghetti straps on frigid nights under the stars. Such thoughts tug me away from the story I’m trying to enjoy.

  2. I’d like to attend.

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