DESIGNING WOMAN: RACHAEL KRAS, WONDERBOUND COSTUME DESIGNER
Marie Antoinette is known for several things –gravity-defying powdered coiffures, lavish tastes, a falsely ascribed quote – the least of which being seen as an actual person. Rachael Kras, resident costume designer for Wonderbound, says that when Garrett Ammon, the company’s Artistic Director, approached her with his idea to examine the French queen through a contemporary lens, she was “terribly excited.” Even 200 years after her death, Kras says, people still talk about Antoinette, Versailles, and the French court. But her goal, she says, is to show the real woman behind the stories and objects Antoinette left behind.
Wonderbound’s production aims to draw specific parallels between Antoinette’s era and our own. Kras sees Hollywood and society’s microscopic hyper-vigilance of those in it as our own modern-day version of the French court, the 1% as the current iteration of royalty. Like Sophia Coppola’s 2006 film, Marie Antoinette, Wonderbound’s interpretation will feature the same pastel palette with creams, peaches, rose, pale blue. But contrary to Coppola’s film, which juxtaposes Antoinette’s historical setting with contemporary music, Wonderbound will set its performance in a contemporary scene (inspired by the drama of a fashion runway) to period music performed live by the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado. Wonderbound will explore the psychological, social, political, and romantic complexities surrounding the queen.
As a girl, Kras piled her paper dolls with her custom-designed clothes and accessories to the point where she had to keep them flat in order to play with them. Learning to sew at age ten, she says she always wanted to be a costume designer. While her family of artists supported her creativity and talent, they also reinforced the importance of earning a living. She graduated from college around the tech boom and worked in IT for several years. It wasn’t until Kras got involved with a community theatre project that she got back into costume design. A few years later she met the costume designer for the Arvada Center ‘s production of Les Miserables in 2007 and was hired on as a stitcher which started her career in the professional performing arts. Her big production credits include Miss Saigon, Sweeney Todd, Evita and Nine. Kras first worked with Wonderbound in 2011 when the original costume designer left for Los Angeles to work on a TV show. After that initial fill-in gig, Ammon asked her to design the fun, flirty, and sexy costumes for Love in the Digital Age. Since then, she’s been Wonderbound’s resident costume designer.
Unlike many designers, who first learn to design clothes before they can create them, Kras came to design through sewing. As a result of that sewing background, she understands the architecture of garments and knows how to build clothes properly. But, she says, there are two ways to create clothing: the right way and the theatre way. The theatre way builds in easy-access points, stress relief, enough fabric to let out a seam. This kind of knowledge gives Kras an edge in the design process because she can think through and avoid potential problems in the sketch phase of a design.
Every component of a costume purposefully provides context and elicits an emotional response from the audience. While, Kras admits, theatre allows a costume designer to play more with fabric, embellishments, and accessories, all of which instantly orient the audience about a character’s class, personality, and time period, she relishes the minimalistic challenge dance poses to a costume designer. Due to the very real safety hazards of certain costume elements, say a hooked, then broken finger caused by a loop of fabric, a cut from a swatch of sequins, feet tripped up due to ribbons, Kras must more often than not fake it by alluding to an object without actually making it. Any type of decoration, for example, could never adorn the waist because it could injure the dance partner. As a dance costume designer, Kras has to think not only about the message she wants to convey to the audience but also the functionality of the costume and its ease of wearability. Her goal, she says, is to make a costume become invisible to the dancer so that she can focus simply on her movements. And, of course, her favorite part of designing dance costumes is never having to worry about shoes.
You may think that costume design is easy when it comes to dance: a leotard here, some tights there and you’re set. But quite a bit more thought and effort goes into each and every one of Wonderbound’s costumes. The process begins months before the curtain opens, when the upcoming season is set. It’s not usually until the season’s photo shoot and teaser performances that hints at and initial concepts for the performance start to take shape, but even these rough ideas can be quite involved. The Marie performance teaser, for example, included a seven-second sequence in which Antoinette’s dressmaker and two best friends present her with three “random” looks. Kras steeps herself in research before sketching. With Marie, for example, she read biographies about the queen, studied Versailles and the 1700s, and listened to period music. She says, certain elements will begin to “jump out” during the research process. Pre-costume concept, she and Ammon meet. During the course of their dialogue they will identify what the performance is and, perhaps most importantly, what it is not about. Kras will then develop sketches that turn the “nebulousness” of the work into something physical. From there, Kras builds, maintains and cares for the costumes, helping out back stage during shows, cleaning and fixing the costumes between performances, and storing them once a show run is over. Generally the process takes about six to eight weeks, including sewing time (Kras predominantly creates the costumes herself and will occasionally hire outside seamstresses for more help), but has been called upon in the past to crunch some projects into a mere twelve days.
“Every artist you’ve ever met has been through the wringer in some way,” Kras says. She maintains that making it in the performing arts requires a tremendous amount of hard work, the ability to learn and grow from failure rather than succumb to it, and the courage to seek not just a creative environment but a healthy one like Wonderbound where she has a safe and collaborative environment to experiment, fail, and, ultimately, persevere. The key to making it in performing arts, Kras says, is to never give up. And, above all, to always keep your head.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog, Daily Serving and KYSO Flash.