If improv has an aesthetic it is one of cool effortlessness.
Whether it's the non-descript t-shirt and jeans, or the collared shirt dress-up-dress-down, improvisers often take the stage wearing an outfit that exclaims "oh what? This old thing?". And when troupes do try to coordinate it often comes off as horribly forced: the classic everyone-in-matching-t-shirts-that-say-our-name, or the daring different-colour-matching-t-shirts. It is an understandable dilemma. Costuming has been intrinsic to theatre since we first put on masks and danced around the campfire. But how do we create a costume when we don't know what character we'll be playing on stage?
A costume is anything you wear when you walk on stage - whether it's been carefully chosen or not. Have no doubt that the moment you walk on stage the audience is looking you up and down and judging you as a performer, an artist and a person by what you are wearing.
For the past two years I've been doing the costuming for our improvised theatre troupe Paper Street Theatre. We do genre-specific work (everything from Beckett to Tarantino), so although we don't know what characters we'll be playing on stage, we know the style of piece we'll be doing. And I've learned several things about costuming for improv through this process that can apply throughout the discipline.
The first thing I've learned is simplicity. By keeping the costumes simple, and non-descript, it allows the improvisers to play either a Dickenisan rich landlord or the poor tenant in the same black suit. This means no accessories like hats or handbags or jewelry. It also means steering clear of costumes that pigeonhole characters. For example, if you dress as a nurse, the only character you can convincingly play now is a nurse. You've limited your options by being too specific with your costuming choice.
The best example of this is our just-finished Improvised Quentin Tarantino. We put the entire cast - male and female - in black suits, white collared shirts and skinny black ties. It's super simple, but it's also immediately identifiable as Tarantino (it's his signature look). The audience get a feel for what we're doing, but the improvisers are totally free to build characters as needed. The costume is simple enough it becomes a blank canvas.
One of the main things that I'm concerned about as I build costumes for improv is comfort. As we discussed above, the last thing you want to do is limit an improviser's choices on stage, and that includes their range of movement. I want to make sure that the costume doesn't restrict an improviser's ability to fall down, jump up on a box, hunch over. Usually, costumers know exactly what an actor will be required to do on-stage and will build the costume accordingly (quick change etc). Because I don't know what my improvisers will get up to, when I design costumes I try to go for elastic, stretchy fabric, longer hemlines (when dresses are required) and looser fits.
And excellent example of this approach was our Improvised Charles Dickens. Victorian clothing is quite restrictive, whether it's men's ascots or ladies' corseted, fitted jackets. So I ironed interfacing into the women's jackets instead of using boning, and made the jackets fit without anyone having to wear a corset. For the men I made ascots that only tied in the front instead of wrapping around the neck several times. Everyone looked Victorian, but no one passed out because they couldn't breathe.
However, when designing costumes, what I'm most concerned about is group cohesion. I want to make sure that no matter who's on stage and what they are doing, that the cast looks like they belong on stage together. I want to make a good stage picture. To accomplish this I tend to use a similar palette, so that the cast look like they belong together, without matching. This gives the group consistency. I tend to stay away from loud patterns both because it makes cohesion hard, and lacks simplicity. Again, if everyone looks similar, then their costumes coalesce into a "look and feel" of the piece, instead of standing out as individual fashion statements.
I had a wonderful time in our last show An Improvised Jane Austen with this concept. I built four regency dresses, each out of a different shade of pastel. I used a simple broad cloth, and then added a touch of lace to each dress to differentiate them slightly to the audience's eye. The dresses looked wonderful on stage, no matter what combination, and complimented our white set pieces very nicely.
But why do costumes in the first place? We have a friend who does stand-up, and when he tours, he takes these giant banners of his own face and the title of the show to put on stage because he says people want to see where their money went. Now, he could just walk on stage with a mic and stool, but he wants to give them a show. Costumes help give a show production value, they show planning and forethought. They say to the audience, "yes, we're making this up, but we put time and effort into practicing getting it right. We've designed an entire experience for you".
Because in the end, costumes in improv should be about evoking. Evoking a style, a mood, a feel. Costumes are an integral part of theatre, just like set pieces and lighting that can be used to create a specific experience for the audience. Now, our genre work makes choosing costuming much easier, but the principles of simplicity, comfort and cohesion will work for any troupe looking to improve their presentation on stage.
In addition, part of the joy of improv is that costuming go beyond simply building a look on stage - it can inform and be inspired by form. This spring touring through Calgary I saw Stephen Kent and Kovy Holland of One Lions perform a wonderful set where they came out in full suits and preceded to remove an article of clothing after each scene, allowing the story to unravel from formality to intimacy as they progressively disrobed down to their boxers. One Lions thought about all elements of their show, including costuming, and created a holistic theatre experience.
So whether you are going for t-shirt casual or full-blown Shakespearean robes, you should be thinking critically about what you wear on stage. Because your audience is definitely thinking about it, and if you aren't, then you're missing out on an opportunity to shape that moment.
Tips on how to improvise in costume:
Costume as offer - Listen to your body - how does the costume make you feel? I know it was super easy to get into character when I was wearing my Victorian dress, I just wanted to sweep around the stage being rude to servants in it. Or hitch up my skirt and act like a snarky washer woman.
Costume as canvas - But remember, the costume is there just as a suggestion, not as a straight jacket. It's up to you to make strong character choices, regardless of what you're wearing, and sell them to the audience.
Costume as prop - One of the biggest learnings we've found using costumes in improv is to ignore their physicality when playing. DON'T use the costume suit jacket as a jacket, because now you have created a reality where you have to use your shoes as shoes (and take them off when you enter a "home"). You've limited your options to ONLY those costumes pieces you have available. Instead, mime taking off your jacket and leave your costume jacket on. The audience will get it.