Doing Costume Improv for the Troubies

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Molly Alvarez, Matt Walker, Steven Booth, Beth Kennedy, Rick Batalla and Lisa Valenzuela in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors"

My first experience with the Troubadour Theater Company was in 1998 while I was still in graduate school studying costume design.  Another student and I agreed to co-design the Troubadour production of Sh*tty Day. The process proved to be rather different from the one I was learning to follow in my classes.  Gallons of bean soup and multiple men’s suits were involved, and color palettes were tossed aside willy-nilly for the sake of a joke. I was hooked.

Over the next few years, the company’s productions were done without a costume designer, resulting in a delightful mish-mash of seat-of-your-pants costuming, and a distinctive Troubie look.   I never missed a show.  I would occasionally supply one or two pieces to fill out the costumes as needed, but mostly, I was a fan.

Sharon McGunigle

In 2004, while working full-time at the LA Opera, I was contacted by Troubie producer Timothy Groff.  The company was starting to do regular Christmas productions at the Falcon Theatre and needed a designer.  I jumped at the chance.

The show was Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Motown. The immediate challenge was to incorporate some sort of cohesive design into the show, when the company was completely used to the DIY approach.  I used a light touch to get the basic broad strokes of the looks together, while letting the actors continue to modify, customize and accessorize according to their character’s needs. This way, the show had a more solid design base but kept the Troubie flair. Actually, when I say I was “letting them,” I mean they were going to do it anyway!

Since then, I have developed my own way of coping with the slippery adventure of doing a Troubie show. So much of the characterization appears in improv during rehearsals, that I have to be flexible and not married to any of my ideas. I never know what will change.

I start with the text, music and any other source material, which is always fun because I usually get to mash-up two (or more) completely different styles, such as the 1920s with the Renaissance and Baroque for Two Gentlemen of Chicago, or in the case of the current Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors, 1968 rock and roll with Bass and Rankin’s animation.

(L) Matt Walker, Rob Nagle and Monica Schneider in "Two Gentlemen of Chicago." (R) Guilford Adams, Lisa Valenzuela and Joseph Leo Bwarie in "Alice in One-Hit Wonderland." Photo by Eddy Will.

I watch the dance rehearsals, discuss concept with director Matt Walker, and talk to the actors about how they are approaching their characters. Matt Walker and I have developed quite a shorthand after eight years, and nothing he requests could ever surprise me. Often the actors will have an idea about their physicality or movement that I am happy to facilitate — be it stilt-walking, knee slides, two-man high, or body padding.  Sometimes I will come up with a hare-brained idea for them and they will almost always play along, adding it to their character.

For example, I had the Queen of Hearts use a walker for a farthingale in Alice in One-Hit Wonderland. In Rudolph, I came across an ostrich hand puppet that I gave to the Misfit Cowboy, which eventually led Matt Walker to give this direction to Brice Beckham, “Just be aware that you have an ostrich puppet head pointed at Rick Batalla’s crotch.”

Dan Waskom and Paul C. Vogt in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors"

There are between 50 and 75 costumes in every Troubie show, so quick changes have become the first thing to consider.  Second, there are invariably some crazy requirements: Blacklight? Stilt walkers? Roller skates? Puppet heads? Costume gags? Aerial? Acrobatics? Doubled characters? Light-up costumes?  Check. Then the reverse engineering begins, and usually informs the design.

The Troubadour choreography is so demanding that the costumes need to be, first and foremost, dance costumes. Whenever possible, I give them lightweight, washable, quick-rigged, stretch costumes — which go through hell during a Troubie run, so I build a lot. With Rudolph I needed 11 reindeer and 10 elves. It’s not easy to find Troubie-proof costumes in those quantities at the rental houses. Also, I am not above putting a big fat zipper down the center front, for those quick changes that get whittled down to 10 seconds by the time we get to dress rehearsals.

Building so many of the costumes is time-consuming, but it allows me to create the right color palette within the given constraints, as well as giving the flexibility to improvise with the costumes myself. Often I will be alone in the studio at 2 am, holding a piece of fabric, just playing with it until it tells me how the costume should be. Sometimes it will reveal a magical sight gag.

Beth Kennedy, Dan Waskom, Andy Lopez, Matt Walker, Darrin Revitz and Liz Beebe

For Rudolph I had to make a quick design u-turn with the Misfit Toy scene. After many discussions with Matt about saving the blacklight effect for the finale, I had pulled a bunch of “Toy” costumes in primary colors. Then during a run-through, lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick said he wanted to use a blacklight wash for the toy scene and asked:  “Can we have the costumes kind of vibrate under the blacklight?”  Without blinking an eye I ditched all those costumes and started to build up a new palette with pieces from stock, adding fluorescent accents and then spraying them down as needed to give it a psychedelic, dingy, and scary look. In the end, it was a great choice.

I have to be open-minded about how the costumes will end up looking onstage. Sometimes I will give a character a “closet” and let them combine and play with the pieces as they see fit — or just accept the fact that Rick Batalla is going to glue fake chest hair to the outside of his Santa Suit. Luckily, it was not a rental!  I also had to ignore my cutter/tailor instincts and not repair a certain costume item that kept falling off an actor, in order to keep the costume malfunction bit in the show.

Kyle Nudo, Steven Booth and Mike Sulprizio

By far, the least flexible costume item in this show is Rudolph’s magical nose. After all, the narrative revolves around it blinking on and off at just the right moment. The first thing I did was commission Steve Collins (AKA Hippie NASA Guy), who worked on the Mars rover Curiosity and happens to be my partner, to engineer the nose for me. Without giving it away, let’s just say that it involves actual flight software!

Ultimately, my goal is to help create an on-stage world for the actors to play in, while allowing the wacky Troubie spontaneity to show through.  It can be a balancing act at times, but it is always a joyful collaboration.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors, Falcon Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed-Sat 8 pm, Sundays (and Sat Dec 22) 4 pm. Sundays Dec 16, 30 and Jan 6, 7 pm. Closes Jan 13, 4 pm. 818-955-8101.

***All production photos by Chelsea Sutton, except where noted.

Sharon McGunigle received an MFA in costume design from Cal State Long Beach. She is currently head tailor at Los Angeles Opera, where she has worked for 12 years. As resident costume designer for Troubadour Theater Company, she has designed 19 productions, beginning with Sh*tty Day in 1998. Ovation nominations include A Wither’s Tale and Frosty the Snow Manilow, with her 2010 award for costume design going to Alice in One-Hit-Wonderland Part 2: Through the Looking Glass. Other productions include Snoopy The Musical, Three Tall Women, Big: The Musical, Merrily We Roll Along, Bell, Book and Candle, and All Night Strut. She also designs and creates costumes for Los Angeles-based cabaret and burlesque performers, notably Prince Poppycock of America’s Got Talent. Visit her website at

Sharon McGunigle

Sharon McGunigle