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A painting for the stage
Costume designer Jeanne Crawford sees inspiration in everyday life
Costume designer Jeanne Crawford designed this silk kimono using a Japanese technique called shibouri. She also used the technique to create costumes for a production of "Oedipus Rex." - photo by Michael Phillips

Jeanne Crawford was deep into creating water-appropriate costumes for the production of "Metamorphoses" when the phone rang.

It was another client with another unusual request. Atlanta's Peach magazine was throwing a first anniversary party and they wanted Crawford to make couture garments for Atlanta ballerinas who would be entertaining - out of the covers of the magazine.

As a guest artist going on her fifth year with the Gainesville Theater Alliance, Crawford and her costume team of some 30 people were in the final stages of costume production for last year's GTA play, "Metamorphoses."

"One of the biggest challenges I had with this production (was) ... a large percentage of the pieces had to be ready in two weeks," Crawford said. "And there were over 70 costumes in this production."

Despite this daunting task, Crawford said she felt that she could also take on the additional costume request, even though it was something she'd never quite done before. As with all of her costume work, Crawford said she approached the assignment as a challenge.

"What I try to do is to bring something to the design ... that is a way to push the envelope for myself so that I can experience something new," she said.

During her junior year at San Jose State University in California, as Crawford was approaching a Bachelor of Arts in fine arts and drawing, she said she "recognized that if I took a costume design class, I could utilize my love of fashion and love of color."

"To me, (costume designing) is like painting on stage."

She transitioned from working in the costume department at San Jose State to working with top West Coast costume designers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she learned how to recreate the authenticity needed for period pieces.

Since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Crawford has incorporated a variety of life experiences and passions into her design projects. From her days as a librarian, Crawford said she has learned the importance of research in creating designs.

"I pull from photos, paintings, drawings ... anywhere I can get the information, and then I hone it down by character," she said.

Her interest in textiles led her to discover another one of her passions, a Japanese technique of silk dyeing known as shibouri. Crawford uses her love of color to transform a canvas of blank white silk into a watercolor landscape.

Crawford said her favorite part of the costume designing process is seeing the costumes take on a life of their own within the context of the plays.

When she found out that the shibouri costumes she created for a traveling troupe's production of "Oedipus Rex" were part of a performance in the play's birthplace, Epidarius, Greece, "It was like - Whoa! My work is on stage!" Crawford said.

But each show has its own set of challenges. In "Metamorphoses," much of the action took place in a large pool in the middle of the stage, so Crawford had to design costumes that enabled the performers to move around freely, stand up to the water and look like they were dry minutes later.

"‘Metamorphoses' was one of the most synergistic, fluid, organic productions I've worked on because of the methodology with which the artistic team approached the water and doing this kind of show," Crawford said.

Crawford recently designed the new look for Gainesville's local superhero, Captain Conservation. As for "Snowdragon," an upcoming Gainesville Theatre Alliance show with challenging costume requirements, Crawford said she is also looking forward to working with new sculptural elements.

Gay Hammond, director of Wonderquest, GTA's program for young audiences, said Crawford is one of the best costume designers with whom she has worked.

"She's really inventive, collaborative and creative," Hammond said of Crawford.

During a recent production of "The
Emperor's New Clothes," Hammond added that Crawford's costumes provided something for both sides of the performance.

"The children adored (the costumes) because they were colorful and alive, and the actors because (the costumes) were so much fun to wear," Hammond said.

Crawford said she was happy to help expose kids to the world of theater, even if it's just with fabric.

"It's just so wonderful to think for me that in some way, like that hat or the way these dresses move ... (can be) part of the first theater a kid experiences. It's huge."

Her daughter, Leah, a rising senior at Gainesville High School, has also been nipped by the theater bug. She recently won the Best Actress award for her performance in "What I Did Last Summer."

Crawford advises aspiring costume designers to take risks.

"In the process, you're going to make some incredible discoveries," she said. "You don't need to be afraid in the costume shop."

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