For over twenty years Kathy Roberson has been the wardrobe mistress or costume designer for New Federal Theater, Morningside Players, HADLEY Players, Black Spectrum Theater, NYC Shakespeare Festival Theater, AGM Theater Company and many others. She recently dressed the cast for Five by Tenn, five one-act plays by Tennessee Williams for Out of the Box Theater Company. Ward Nixon, the director, told me, “Kathy worked her magic with the fifteen characters in the show with clothes from the mid 1940’s to the early 1950’s.” Janet Mitchell, Artistic Director of AGM Theater Company, said, “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kathy on several productions and have never been disappointed with the quality of her work.”
As a playwright, I have worked with Kathy and among her many professional attributes, her acute attention to detail is phenomenal. In my play, Nobody Knew Where They Was, five of the characters are escapees from a chain gang in 1949 and wear prison uniforms until they are given regular clothing as the play progresses. When she brought in the prison uniforms during rehearsals, the cast were stunned, the uniforms were dirty, grimy, tattered and you could almost smell the brutality of the character’s tortured lives. That is why Kathy is always working. Directors know that her costumes are always going to assist actors in the development of their characters. We met at a Harlem restaurant. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Roger: As a child did you dress up in your Mom’s clothing?
Kathy: Oh yeah, and I saw how my mother and Aunt Esther dressed. At my mother’s death, she was wearing white gloves because that was being a lady. I always had dolls. Still have them. Never dress them in jeans. Always dressed up. May have to move out(laughs). Have so many in the house.
Roger: What inspired you to become a costume designer?
Kathy: When I was about 13 or 14, my mother took me to the theater. Saw Diana Sands. Pearl Bailey doing Dolly. Saw what they were wearing and Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, was best friends with my mother and Aunt Esther. They dressed. Never wore pants and my mother and Aunt Esther lived long enough to see some of the shows I dressed.
Roger: When I met you in the early 90’s, you were working at Bronx Psychiatric Center. Did that work experience influence your costume designing?
Kathy: You see real life. You know what’s real and what’s fake and that stirs my imagination.
Roger: What attracts you to the world of Theater?
Kathy: I was a dancer and without words saw how clothes enhance the performance. I always liked watching people.
Roger: What’s your process for working in a production?
Kathy: My availability, what kind of show. Discuss the salary which sometimes takes so long to get, I forget I’m getting paid(laughs). Then they send me the script. Get actor’s measurements and make sure costumes are within the context of the script. Check out if actors have any fabric allergies. Collaborate with the Director. Really make sure costumes align with the period the play is set in. Research at libraries for period pieces is important because bosoms may not be prominent in certain periods. I’ve had actors not wearing any undergarments at all(laughs). Making sure colors blend with different scenes. Correct glasses and jewelry are also important. Based on budgets sometimes I dress actors with wigs.
Roger: I don’t feel that the behind the stage folks like stage managers, light designers and costume designers receive enough recognition. What are your thoughts about that?
Kathy: I feel directors and producers don’t let costume designers do what we do. They don’t let us do our jobs. Sometimes they don’t know what we do. Awards time I feel we’re recognized.
Roger: What’s your “secret” for dealing with various temperaments and egos?
Kathy: I’m crazier than they are. My mama always told me I was a Queen and beautiful. A famous actress locked me in a wardrobe closet because she was wearing production shoes home which wasn’t allowed. She said, “I want to slap you.” You have to have a sense of humor. They let me go but called me back to do all their Black shows.
Roger: What costume designers have influenced you?
Kathy: Judy Dearing. She started as a dancer, and I did too. So, we just connected. Also, June Terry who is now 91.
Roger: Do you find young folks interested in becoming costume designers for the theater?
Kathy: No. they feel costume designing for the theater is beneath them. They want to do fashion designing and movies. Want to make beaucoup dollars. They should have internships starting in middle school. I interned at Mobilization for Youth. Woodie King did theater. Garrett Morris and Leon Pinkney were there. They also had music and dance. Many opportunities for youth. Don’t see that same support for costuming now.
Roger: What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
Kathy: A Cotton Club show and Moulin Rouge. The colors. Would love to do it. G&S
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