A fitting session with costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings begins to look a lot like Christmas. She hauls racks of clothes and boxes of shoes to Diversionary Theatre’s small dressing room, where the four actors in The Little Dog Laughed await their outfits. Gittings — nicknamed JBG — unhooks a slinky, floor-length crimson gown and hands it to an actor. She opens two boxes of shoes for another. “Try this,” she says to Bryan Bertone, who plays Alex, a hustler/rent boy. He dons a black leather jacket with two white, horizontal racing stripes across the front. Gittings steps back, shakes her head. “It’s him,” she says, “but if you wear that for two hours, I’ll get sick of it.”
She hands Bertone a black canvas Rogue jacket, so distressed it reads brown, with a mandarin collar. The look is more street, more Alex. “Work okay?”
“A little warm-ish.”
Karson St. John, who plays Diane, a cynical Hollywood agent, comes back in the red gown. Not happening: “Diane should look stunning and elegant,” says Gittings, “not slinky-glitzy, not mistaken for an actress. We can do better.”
Two actors ask if they can buy costumes after the show closes. Gittings doesn’t say, for two reasons: she’ll have to return the rejects (“trouble with thrift stores: no return policy; place like Marshall’s: you aren’t happy, bring it back”); and many theaters sell costumes to actors at 50 percent of what the designer paid. But sometimes the company will want to keep an item in stock and may not make that decision until the run concludes.
Kelly Iversen, who plays hip, world-battered Ellen, falls for a pair of burnt-orange flannel heels trimmed with satin bows. “I WANT these,” she says. “What were they, $80, $150?”
No reply. Gittings is too busy checking the shoes against her image of Ellen, whose despair expands by the hour. Something this warm, Gittings decides, “hints at bright spots in her future. Her colors should darken and lose chroma as she descends.
“Seven dollars at Payless,” she adds, taking the shoes back. The difference between the eye-appeal and the cost pleases her. Little Dog is a fashion-conscious play. But she must “create a Neiman Marcus look on a T.J. Maxx budget.”
Even before she won the 2008 Craig Noel Award for costume design — Diversionary’s Scrooge in Rouge — Gittings has been one of San Diego theater’s most in-demand designers. “JBG’s my favorite collaborator,” says Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, artistic director of Moxie Theatre. “I call her ‘story girl’ because her attention to storytelling and play analysis often keeps the team on the right path. I love the way she collaborates with other designers. It’s amazing. She’s completely focused on costumes but fully aware of the big picture.”
Gittings has a BA in theater arts from UCLA and an MFA from Rutgers in scenic and costume design. Of every character she asks: “Where would this person shop?”
She shops all over and relishes “the thrill of the hunt,” finding designer clothing for less than designer prices. Among her discoveries for Little Dog: “gorgeous” Helmut Lang pants and a black, silk satin, Badgley Mischka corset, both for 90 percent off. With every show, though, individual pieces may have been built, rented, pulled from stock, or purchased, Gittings strives for a cohesive look. One goal with Little Dog: “People can’t tell the Payless heels from the Elie Tahari’s.”
Many a colleague has asked to ride along when Gittings shops, but she prefers to travel light. She knows when stores close and makes her rounds accordingly: before 9:00 p.m., before 10, midnight. When she’s at home, with husband Chris and 22-month-old son Oliver, she’s often “ripping.” She pours through magazines, catalogues, ads, newspapers, tearing out images of fashion, make-up, hairstyles for her “visual library,” a file cabinet loaded with rippings from ancient Egypt to the 21st Century, the latter having six thick folders.
“Our house rule: no ripping when Chris is asleep. Then I use scissors.”
In a preproduction meeting, Gittings and director Robert Barry Fleming shared ideas. They also suggested current references. Ellen, for example, reminds Gittings of Lily Allen. The British pop singer has “a surprising amount of emotional baggage for someone 22 — a total train wreck. Then in the end Ellen becomes all Katie Holmes — and, like, yayyyyy!”
Gittings has designed for various periods. With contemporary plays, she says, “a designer receives a lot more input, which may or may not be appropriate for the storytelling.” Gittings tries to keep things in context: costumes reflect how characters “present themselves to the world,” their mood, thoughts, aspirations, background. “An actress told me once, ‘I can’t wear that color. I’m a spring.’ I just smiled and replied, ‘I understand, but your character is a winter.’”
Douglas Carter Beane’s “comedy of contemporary manners” pits personal dreams against The Dream. The four characters have a near pathological aversion to happiness. Like the people in Beane’s hilarious As Bees in Honey Drown, Mitch stands at the cusp of fame. But will the award-winning movie star choose what everyone’s supposed to want — the white-bread, Tinseltown ending — or admit to yearnings he’s kept sealed away?
The play moves from winter in New York to sunny Southern California. “That’s two color worlds,” says Gittings, “so it’s high fashion on both coasts.” New Yorkers, she adds, don’t dress like Sex and the City. “In cold weather they wear neutrals, especially people who walk to work and want to hide the grime: so grey, blue, and black, and no enhancing colors.”
Little Dog allows Gittings to use two approaches to costume design: “character at once” and “layering.” In the former, when an actor walks on stage, “you get it.” For Scrooge in Rouge’s 28 costumes, everyone knew the Dickens story. So she parodied that expectation. Fezziwig, for example, wore exaggerated tartan plaid pants, goofy buckled shoes, and bright teal green cutaway coat with red buttons. “And he’s drunk as hell at a party.”
In Little Dog, Alex, the rent boy, changes least. “He is what he is,” says Gittings, who gives him a “character at once” look: the Rogue jacket with the mandarin collar, tight jeans, scarf, “hoodie.” The one debatable point: should he wear socks with his black tennies?
“Socks aren’t sexy,” says Gittings. “It’s hard to look sexy if you’re standing in your underwear with your socks on,” which Alex does in Act one. Although New York males would certainly wear them in winter, even in dishabille, “here’s an instance where the aesthetic wins out over the practical. No socks.”
“Layer” design, says Gittings, is the opposite of “character at once”: costumes reflect ongoing changes. In Little Dog, everyone starts with a veneer that conceals their turmoil — and that slowly cracks. “So you begin with clothes that reflect the surface, then chip away.”
Mitch, the movie star, almost changes completely. “He’ll always have a tailored silhouette,” says Gittings, who starts him in a modern tux — “but one Johnny Depp might wear, not Martin Scorsese” — then gradually shifts to a lighter palette in California.
Diane, the agent/wannabe producer, has a “power silhouette,” says Gittings. “She’s all pulled together in a slick, high-money look.” Even her spiked shoes reflect status. “The richer you are in New York, the less you have to walk — thus, the higher the heel.
“Costumes should support the actors and the story,” says Gittings. “The focus should always be up here” — she waves a hand across her face. For this reason, after a careful discussion, Gittings and Karson St. John decided to tone down Diane’s flashy nail polish to a less upstaging hue.
Little Dog roars with ironies, including one for Gittings. Amid her countless choices and fine-tuning of 19 costumes, the last scene throws her overall design for a loop. “Costumes should support the characters, right? Well two of the outfits, believe it or not, must break all the rules. They should actually look like costumes!”