Backstage: Carmichael wears her chosen profession well

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Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid covers the process of costuming the College’s year-end shows with Costume Designer Shannon Carmichael.

Shannon Carmichael was knee-deep in crinolines, and wishing there were some students available for measurements this sunny weekday afternoon, but the veteran Canadian College of Performing Arts costume designer wasn’t complaining.

“There are so many things happening at the College right now so I’m working in other ways,” Carmichael, surrounded by pink and orange and fluff, noted cheerfully.

Although opening night for West Side Story, the College’s 2018/19 season finale, was only three weeks away, Carmichael exuded a “What me, worry?” attitude that has served her well during decades of creating and acquiring costumes for stage and screen. It’s matched by resourcefulness, an attribute she is relying upon again as she slips into her role as costume designer for the legendary musical that opens April 19.

“Movie work is definitely a luxury in terms of time or money and what is available for materials,” says Carmichael, reflecting on screen gigs that have included making shirts and pants and providing hats with Celtic designs for Viking villagers in The Thirteenth Warrior, the B.C.-shot 1999 historical adventure starring Antonio Banderas.

Its worlds away from costuming for theatre on a fraction of a Hollywood budget.

“I’m used to working with CCPA’s budget and the talents that are here, and the kind of happy surprises I have when I get to work with students who have interesting costumes, and when they are able to help me make something,” says Carmichael, who has mentored many aspiring student costumers in the “Company C” Studio Ensemble.

“I really enjoy their discovery of the process, or abilities they didn’t know they had.”

She came by her love of costuming honestly. Her mother, a kilt maker, made clothing for her children, and would let her into her closet that was chockful of fabric.

Carmichael went to the University of Victoria and got a degree in biology but being from a performing family – song-and-dance man Dan Costain is her uncle – she ended up switching to theatre and studying costume history and design before joining the College.

Since time and money is comparatively tight for College productions, Carmichael employs what she describes as an “amended process.” Her streamlined approach involves using photos as references for period pieces more than traditional drawings.

“I’ll do a little drawing if I need to but generally the director and I have some good conversations about what they like and what’s going to happen. I’ll take their ideas and go home and mull and do my research and history and figure out what’s going to be available and affordable and what’s going to fit and how soon can I get things.”

It’s a process that Carmichael, who has done costuming for the College since its second season 20 years ago, has grown happily accustomed to. Her memorable projects include Working, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, The Great Gatsby, Smokey Joe’s Café, Young Frankenstein, South Pacific, Ragtime and Into the Woods.

“I was very young when I started,” laughs Carmichael, noting the College’s costume loft has grown significantly since she worked on several revue shows in its early days.

“They were a way for me to get my chops,” she recalled. “When we started the school there was nothing in the loft – a couple of black crates [co-founders] Jacques and Janis brought from the Spirit of a Nation tour and that was it. Pretty much all the stuff in the loft has been acquired over the years from shows we’ve done.”

Carmichael dispels the misconception that the costume designer makes all of a production’s wardrobe items, although she has made her share over the years.

“I can’t make everything. I’m just a small team of people, which means me,” laughs the designer who sources costumes from local stores and “all over the world,” praying that items she has ordered online arrive on time for alterations and fittings.

“It’s harder to find things in Victoria now, and that is a big change since I’ve been in this business,” she says. “There have been little niche stores where you were able to find this and that but now they’re gone and it seems you have to order everything.”

West Side Story, set in New York in the 1950s, is a period piece with its own set of challenges, including research to figure out what certain characters wore, and why.

“Take for example the jewelry the women wore that came out of just finishing World War II,” she says. “Plastics were a new invention and, after the war, had become commodities, so a lot of women’s jewelry was plastic because of that. You need to understand the cultural context of what happened for a few years before that, and what that meant for what was available, what people liked, and what was trendy.”

Carmichael says she enjoys period pieces because she loves nostalgia, and because of how they show how much things have changed. The 1950s youths in West Side Story were more naïve and less sophisticated than their modern counterparts, for example.

“How do we convey that innocence and naiveté but still balance what’s going on in their hearts and minds, being in gangs in opposition to other people?” she says. “So I have to make my costume choices very carefully to support the story and do it in a very visual way that people don’t always notice, but if it’s not right they notice it.”

She’s particularly excited about costuming the first act’s big community dance.

“It’s a party that goes on and there’s this sense of nostalgia, of women in dresses and men in blazers and ties but if you went to a club today you’d never see that,” she said. “You have to figure out who’s who. I like the finery of it – the corsages, the sashes – and you have to figure the choreography into that too. We’re doing these amazing Spanish flared dances and if the dresses don’t dance that’s going to be a problem.”