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Guthrie actors 'borrow a sense of grace' from the costumes
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The Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice, which opens Friday at the Guthrie. (Photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy of the Guthrie Theater)
The new Guthrie Theater season opens this week with the adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel, Pride and Prejudice. The play centers around Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, who are searching for suitable husbands for their five daughters. The story takes audiences to England in the year 1813. It was a time of manners, romance -- and great dresses.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Bianca Amato plays Elizabeth Bennet. At a fitting in the Guthrie costume shop, Amato says clothing is a key element in helping shape her character and her performance.

"They are so important. I always look forward to the time to be able to work with them, because they really inform your physicality and they inform your sense of personality as well -- much more than one would expect," says Amato. "I often find that I develop -- you know, I'll be working at a certain pace, and once I get the wardrobe in, the character takes a leap forward."

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Image A ballroom scene

So there's a lot at stake for the costume department. Designer Mathew LeFabvre has to make about 65 costumes for Pride and Prejudice. He knows first-hand how important costumes can be for an actor, because he once trained to be one.

"I think that my approach to the design is much more sort of an actor-friendly approach," LeFabvre says. "I think about the costume sort of from the inside out, as opposed to just what it looks like. It has to make psychological sense."

LeFebvre says design work is underway long before rehearsals even begin. He starts with a thorough reading of the play. But LeFabvre is careful to avoid jumping to make too many design decisions.

"If you do that -- if you start designing it as soon as you start reading it -- you kind of miss a lot of things," he says. "You might put too much emphasis on one thing that doesn't really serve the overall arch of the play."

LeFabvre meets with the director to get a sense of the feel of the production and the director's vision. Then it's time for yet another reading of the play.

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Image In seventh heaven

"I'll go over it, and I'll start making notes and highlighting things ... anything as simple as this character has a coat, this character has a walking stick or this character smokes a cigarette -- to paying attention to what characters say about each other, or what the characters say about themselves," LeFabvre says. "All of those things are important to the way that the character will look."

Once the characters and their costume pieces are set, LeFebvre goes on what he calls "a mad fabric swatching trip." That means he looks at hundreds of bolts of fabrics in a store. He snips small samples from fabrics he thinks will work well with the costumes he's sketched.

For Pride and Prejudice, LeFavbre traveled to New York and various shops in the Twin Cities to hunt down fabrics.

LeFebvre says he'll "swatch any fabric that speaks to him of the play." It's an exhausting but satisfying process. Many of the fabrics used in the dresses for Pride and Prejudice come from Hopkins, a company in London. Hopkins is known for its floral fabrics -- perfect material to outfit the Bennet sisters.

I get so many more ideas of who I want Elizabeth to be, looking at her in this outfit. The physical etiquette is so important .. automatically you almost feel what the body would do. You sort of borrow a sense of grace from the wardrobe.
- Actress Bianca Amato

It takes about a dozen people to make the Pride and Prejudice costumes. The staff includes several drapers, or tailors. Each draper works with what they call a "first hand, " who helps sketch the patterns for the gowns. Two or three stitchers are assigned to each draper team.

The staff also includes a fabric painter or dyer, two wig people and several craftspeople who work on the shoes and accessories. LeFabvre says the Guthrie treats each costume like it's a work of haute couture.

The team makes a mock-up of each costume in muslin. This helps save possible mistakes with expensive fabric. Each completed mockup is fitted with the actor who'll wear the finished costume.

"We'll look at line and we'll look at the scale of the shapes," says LeFabvre. "We'll take all of that into consideration. We'll have the real fabrics in our fititng room so we can look at that next to the muslin mockup."

LeFabvre says the biggest challenge for him in Pride and Prejudice occurs in the play's two ballroom scenes. There's a large number of actors on stage -- and the fancy ball gowns have to allow the actors to move and dance.

He says some of the costumes for the extras in the ballroom scene are being pulled from the Guthrie's stock, or are being rented for the production. LeFabvre says this is also proving to be a bit of a problem.

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Image Dancing

"This is a period -- 1813 -- that there are not a lot of plays that take place in that period. So a lot of places where we would rent costumes, or even in the Guthrie stock -- which has always been beneficial as far as pulling costumes to add into the mix -- it makes it more of a challenge because there are just not that many costumes out there," says LeFabvre.

Once the muslin mockups have been fitted, the expensive fabric cut, stitched and tailored, it's time for the actors to look in a three-paneled mirror and see themselves in the costumes LeFabvre has envisioned and created.

Bianca Amato is delighted.

"Oh it's lovely," Amato says of her costume. "I get so many more ideas of who I want Elizabeth to be, looking at her in this outfit. The physical etiquette is so important, and it's mannered. To be able to have the costume and get a sense of what -- I mean automatically you almost feel what the body would do. You sort of borrow a sense of grace from the wardrobe." Amato looks once more into the mirror, and seems transported.

"This is a little girl's fantasy," she whispers. "I'm in seventh heaven."

The Guthrie Theater's production of Pride and Prejudice is currently in preview, and officially opens this Friday night.

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