“You have to wear a lot of hats sometimes.” That’s how Kevin Copenhaver—without a trace of irony—describes his job as resident costume designer at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. In that job, which he has held for a quarter-century, Copenhaver typically oversees the costumes for about a dozen shows a season, including two or three world premieres. That means everything from designing what the actors wear (clothes, wigs, accessories) to finding fabrics (“that’s the most fun for me,” he says) to shopping for clothes for contemporary shows.
Copenhaver, who grew up in a small Ohio farming town and always loved the theater, didn’t realize where his destiny lay until he got to college, where he switched his major from oboe performance to costume design and started learning technical skills while making costumes for college productions. After doing a summer internship at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and returning there after graduation, he saw a DCPA job announcement for a costume crafts director (in charge of accessories like hats, masks, armor, shoes, boots, and jewelry), got the position and later was promoted to costume designer, too. “It’s a really fun job because it’s always different; it’s constant learning, which is exciting.”
Describe the process of creating costumes for a DCPA show.
I get a script, and meet with the director and the other designers, like the lighting designer and set designer. The director will say, “I want to set the play in this period,” or “I’ve been looking at this particular artist,” explaining the visual world they want. You figure out how many characters you’ll have to dress, the number of scenes they are in, their socioeconomic status, their hair, as well as how everything can change through the play to reflect the passage of time.
Where do you get your inspiration?
All kinds of places: books, artwork, color, sometimes nature, and of course, film. For example, the director of the show Tommy and I are both film fans, particularly of the director Guillermo del Toro. We understand his visual language, so we can chat and say, “Remember that scene in Pan’s Labyrinth?” and we’ll both get it. For Sweeney Todd, I looked for inspiration to some contemporary bad-boy fashion designers, like Galliano. I love to create this world that’s never been seen before.
Then what happens?
Often I start by doodling. I’ll do rough sketches and show them to the director and talk about color and pattern and whatnot. And he or she will say, “That’s great” or “Can this character be a little more this or that?” For example, originally I had the Acid Queen (from Tommy) in sort of period underwear, like a corset. But then I started talking to the director and heard how he was envisioning the character; we were setting that scene in a derelict theater, so I came up with this notion of dressing her like a fallen burlesque queen.
How accurate do you have to be?
If it’s a museum piece, where the director wants to be as period as possible, we do our research and try to accurately represent the year it’s set in. There are certain things an audience member will never catch, but I know they’re there and so does the actor. I love detail, so if we have the time and the budget, I try to be as detailed as possible.
How much do you have to worry about the logistics of a costume?
We try to provide actors with rehearsal garments so they can get used to a long skirt or a train or a cape. And because of quick changes, we use snaps and magnets and, heaven forbid, Velcro rather than buttons.
Does a costume affect the performer?
It really helps to enhance the character. A great compliment from an actor is when you’ve gone through a series of fittings and they finally get to the point of putting on the actual finished costumes, and they say, “Oh, now I know who this character is.”