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In the Costume Shop

May 11, 2018

Portrait of Brandi Mans.

Portrait of Brandi Mans.
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

Design and technology master of fine arts (MFA) graduate and Minnesota native Brandi Mans has been involved in theatre since high school. Now, at the University of Minnesota, her early enthusiasm has become a career.

Mans has acted and been part of the stage crew, but regardless of the role, she could be found in the costume shop taking every opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade: designing, stitching, draping, painting, and more. After declaring her theatre major at Ripon College in Wisconsin, she had the opportunity to be an assistant designer for Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice in 2010. That was her first time designing outside of a class project, and she sees not being cast in that play as a blessing in disguise because it set her on a new career path.

Since completing her undergraduate degree, Mans has worked extensively in the Twin Cities metropolitan area designing costumes for theatre companies and programs. In fact, she was drawn back to Minnesota for its vibrant art and theatre community. “Having one of the highest theatres per capita in a single city paired with studying with professors that have connections to all of the theatres here made the program [at the University of Minnesota] extremely appealing,” says Mans. 

In The Next Room

Mans is particularly fascinated by designing for period pieces. She enjoys the challenge of creating detailed realizations of clothing that are outside of our everyday visual vocabulary. “Even when a show requires a strict adherence to the historical design, it is necessary to make adjustments for the modern eye,” says Mans. “This is what I find most interesting about historical costume design: taking the historical and combining it with a more modern sensibility so that the audience can better relate to the character.”

Mans’ MFA design thesis was for the fall 2017 production of three-time Tony Award winning comedy In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. Modern playwright Sarah Ruhl combines comedy and drama in this late nineteenth-century depiction of female sexuality and medical practice at the dawn of the age of electricity.

Within the confines of his laboratory, a fictional character named Dr. Givings innocently develops a curious electrical device to treat women diagnosed with “hysteria,” a catch-all term to describe a woman behaving outside of the prescribed feminine ideal. These treatments were actually attempts at inducing female orgasm, ironically termed “paroxysm,” a medical term that erases the attachment of sexuality to both the practice and women as a whole.

“It was a general notion that women didn’t have a sex drive,” Mans says. “A lot of what was happening is that these women were sexually frustrated and not fulfilled by the very narrow life that they were forced to lead. Dr. Givings invented vibrators to aid in treating women for hysteria while avoiding practical injury.” The events and dynamics of In The Next Room are rooted in historical facts, which called for all design aspects to be authentic.

Challenging Costumes

Interpreting Victorian history is “a whole different beast than doing a modern show,” Mans states. Characters are seen in both the traditional Victorian living space and Dr. Givings’ laboratory at various times of the day and in varying amounts of clothing—factors that together present complex logistics for costume designers. “It was a lot of fun to dive into a clothing language that’s completely different from our own,” Mans says. One of the biggest design challenges of In The Next Room was the fact that most of the actors had to undress on stage, all the way down to their Victorian underwear—which modern audiences see as fully clothed. “There are all of these layers that go into creating the silhouette of Victorian dress, so instead of cheating the way that we frequently do in theatre by eliminating extraneous layers and combining layers so it’s easier to get undressed and dressed, everything had to be really historically accurate,” says Mans.

Another aspect of Mans’ job is to help audiences identify and understand a character’s personality and agency through what they wear. “For me it’s usually kind of psychological. Every detail of a costume tells the audience something specific about the person wearing the costume. If I have done my job well, when an actor walks on stage you should have an idea of who this person is before they say a word,” she explains. 

Mans says that she draws ninety percent of the inspiration for her designs from a play’s text, but that she is also tuned in to inspiration from unexpected sources: everything from from social media to museum galleries. “Even though this play was Victorian, there were details that came from more modern, high fashion runway stuff,” she says. “There were a couple details where I pulled inspiration from modern sources, but for the most part it was all historical. I really tried to look at extant garments as opposed to fashion plates from the time.”

Compromise was key in developing these historical garments for stage, especially  because Mans had to consider both the inner and outer layers of the costumes. She was faced with maintaining both structural and aesthetic authenticity. “Historically, you can see all of the seams and boning on the inside of the garment, which I thought was really interesting, and I didn’t want to cover up anything,” Mans states. “But we also didn’t want it to look unfinished to the audience. We ended up sort of compromising and doing what’s called a Hong Kong finish, where each of the individual seams has a strip of fabric that’s wrapped around the edge of it and it’s stitched, so it still looks more finished than a raw edge. You still get to see all of the architecture that goes into these garments, which I think is fascinating.”

What’s Next?

After finishing graduate school this spring, Mans will be working at the American Players Theatre (APT), a renowned outdoor theatre company in Spring Green, Wisconsin. She is excited to join APT’s tight-knit team of talented artists to produce plays for their 100,000 annual attendees.

Mans’s versatility in theatre technology and costume design paired with her passion for collaboration makes her a chameleon for success. “The nebulous, free-flowing exchange of ideas and inspiration is the part of the theatre-making process that I get most excited about,” says Mans.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.