Women & Shakespeare Spotlight: Rebecca Bernstein

Women & Shakespeare Spotlight: Rebecca Bernstein

Today’s spotlight focuses on Rebecca Bernstein, one of the costume designers here at Great River Shakespeare Festival.

Rebecca Bernstein, GRSF Costume Designer. Header photo: Michael Fitzpatrick in Cymbeline, GRSF 2019, which featured costumes designed by Rebecca.

Rebecca has spent many years as a costume designer for GRSF, but her interest in and knack for costume design goes all the way back to childhood.

This is really all I’ve ever done or wanted to do.  I always loved clothes (I still have the coloring book of historical fashions I got as a child) and loved theater. Discovering that there was a way to put them together set me on the path. When I was in middle school, my district went through a massive desegregation restructuring, and my school became an arts magnet.  There was actually a costume class to do the costumes for the school plays…  I figured I’d try it, since I did like clothes and sewing.  And here I am now.

Rebecca continued to design all the way through high school and college, where one of her most notable mentors, her college costume shop supervisor, instilled in her the pragmatic philosophy of “just figure it out.” From her, Rebecca learned that once you have the tools, you have to try and fail, try and refine, and keep trying to figure out what works for you.

Rebecca’s costumes for Richard III (GRSF 2017) had to not only convey the time period of the play, but be easily removable as several actors played multiple roles – many of which involved running, fighting and getting the costumes “bloody”. Shown: Stephanie Lambourn and Katie LeSuer. Photo by Dan Norman.

On how she ended up with GRSF, Rebecca pointed to Tarah Flanagan, veteran acting company member. Rebecca and Tarah went to high school together in California, and have been friends since they were just 14 years old! Rebecca was initially invited to join the festival in 2011 by Paul Barnes, but she was expecting her first baby at the time. In 2015, after she moved to Minneapolis, Rebecca was finally able to join the company. She’s been a crucial member of the artistic team ever since.

We asked Rebecca about her artistic process when it comes to designing a specific show. Like many aspects of theater, it’s much more complicated than you might imagine:

Read the play, read the play, read the play again.  I need to understand all of the characters deeply, and know who they are before I can figure out how they present themselves to the world. And I then research everything.  I still love all my books, and have a massive library, but being able to do research online is great for exploring all of the random tangents I think of.  I learn about the styles of the period, the society of the time, and study the characters deeply.  I collect images that speak to me about each character.  I chart out each actor’s path through the play, so I know what character they play in each scene, note any specifics about what they need to be wearing in a particular scene, and track places where there are quick changes so I can incorporate that need into the design.  And then read the play again while thinking about what I’ve learned so far and then do more research.  By the time I sit down with a paper and pencil, I’ve been thinking about these people (characters) for a long time, and I know what they should look like.  If I find myself having trouble drawing something, I know that I haven’t figured out that character yet, and I repeat the previous [process] until I understand them.

Rebecca’s dedication definitely shows. Year after year, for GRSF and other theaters, Rebecca has consistently produced gorgeous costumes that are both visually stunning, but also aid in helping the audience understand the play. Everything is in service of telling a good story.

For A Midsummer Night’s Dream (GRSF 2018), the costumes Rebecca created conveyed both the natural “magic” of the forest and the scrappy DIY spirit of the Rude Mechanicals. The coats for the fairies were constructed of specially-made fabric that Rebecca designed using prints of bark and flowers. Shown: Benjamin Boucvalt, Antonio Duke, Leah Gabriel, Anna Sundberg, Anique Clements, and Andrew Carlson. Photo by Dan Norman.

One of her favorite things about working in theater, Rebecca said, is discovering something new with each project. “Each [play] requires delving into a new place and time, learning about all the the facets that will create the world,” she explained. She also loves the camaraderie that comes of working with other theater-makers.

Rebecca created the joyful, colorful and sturdy costumes for The Servant of Two Masters, GRSF 2019. These costumes had to stand up to running, swashbuckling, dancing, and a lot of sweating!

It’s not all fun, drawing, and sewing, however. When asked what she wishes were different about her job, Rebecca commented that she wishes it was seen as a “valid” career. “I wish [theater was seen as] a necessary component of society, and funded accordingly. Under the best of circumstances most of us barely make enough to get by, leaving little cushion,” she commented. This is evident now more than ever, with countless artists suddenly unemployed and thousands of people cooped up at home. Rebecca continued, “Think about what you’re doing now that you need to spend so much time at home: watching TV and movies, listening to music, streaming performances and virtual tours of museums. The arts are vital.”

Ultimately, Rebecca loves her job – and it shows in the beautiful costumes she produces year after year. What she wishes people knew about the work she does is that it is not easy:

“It’s fun and I love it… but it is actually work!”

Be sure to check out Rebecca’s designs this summer in The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest! And to learn more about “how it’s made” at Great River Shakespeare Festival, click on the button below to see a video we made last fall about costume creation.