Feature: Dressed Up

Costume designer Abra Berman in demand at Bay Area theaters

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2003
Abra Berman costume designer Bay Area
One of Abra Berman's first steps as a costume designer is to make sketches, like this one, of what actors will be wearing in productions. Illustration by Abra Berman.

By Flora Tsapovsky

As with fashion, spring and fall are the theater’s peak seasons. This is when new productions debut, subscribers dust off their suits and dresses (or, in San Francisco’s case, The North Face jackets and fine jeans) and the buzz begins. Theater seasons may be subtle and not as widely celebrated as fashion weeks around the globe, but there’s still plenty of excitement to be had—and lots of incredible, timeless fashion. If you plunge deep into some of the Bay Area’s theater bills this spring, from San Francisco to San Jose, and look for the costume design credits, chances are you’ll see the same name over and over again: Abra Berman. Working all over the Bay Area, season after season, Berman is one of the busiest costume designers around, and she does it all while being based right here in Marin County.

Berman grew up in Mill Valley, lived in Novato for 15 years and currently resides in Tiburon, where she works from her home. She fell in love with costumes through ballet, preparing to become a professional ballerina all the way until high school, and even going through the typical Bay Area ballet child rite of passage—participating as an extra in the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker.

“I was a little soldier and even got a $10 paycheck!” Berman says with a laugh. After high school, her original plan was to audition in Europe, while her love for costumes led her to obtain some sewing skills in the process. She travelled to Basel and Gothenburg to try her luck, but found that she was “nearly not good enough.” Berman returned to California, certain that she’d be a costume designer for rock bands, “with no preparation or training!”

Finally, Berman’s parents convinced her to study fashion design, so she attended the Louise Salinger Academy of Fashion in San Francisco, an institution no longer in existence. There, a professor named William Eddelman influenced Berman’s sensibility and vision.

“I started seeing I really didn’t have it in me to produce five to six collections a year, and that the feminist in me couldn’t live with convincing women they have to buy a short skirt this season and a long skirt another season,” Berman says. “[Eddleman] encouraged me to pursue costume design in grad school.”

Out of the 10 leading schools in the country offering such a program, Berman got into nine, and chose UCLA, “because I thought I might go into film,” she says. It was, according to Berman, amazing. “I did everything I wanted to do.”

During her M.F.A. in Costume Design, Berman learned theater history, sketched endlessly, participated in actual shows and worked with fellow students.

Berman’s first job out of college was at a bridal salon in Pasadena, helping women get into elaborate gowns. The next steps were moving back to the Bay Area and taking a job at a couture bridal shop, as well as joining, back in 1998, Theater Bay Area, a local network for the industry.    

“It’s not a union exactly, but it’s a great meeting point,” Berman says of the network. She landed her first gig with the Palo Alto Players “and just kept going.” Her impressive resume now includes work with the San Jose Stage Company, San Francisco Playhouse, Ragged Wing Ensemble, Berkeley Playhouse, Marin Theatre Company, West Bay Opera and even Alonzo King LINES Ballet; having trained with the company briefly, Berman jumped on board when the group staged a new production of Scheherazade.

“I got to see my peacock tutu on a giant billboard in San Francisco!” Berman says excitedly.

Currently, the costume designer’s main companies are San Jose Stage Company, San Francisco Playhouse, West Bay Opera in Palo Alto and Pacific Repertory Theatre in Carmel. Audiences will soon see her work in The Memory Stick at San Jose Stage Company and Noises Off  and La Cage Aux Folles at the San Francisco Playhouse, plus Salome at West Bay Opera.

Additionally, it’s Berman’s second year teaching costume design, makeup and improv at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), across two campuses.

“I love that all sorts of people show up, taking a chance,” she muses about CCSF. “I’m working on a certificate program for City College actually, which will specialize in costume design.”

With jobs that take her across county lines, Berman travels a lot. “My poor car—she has 256 thousand miles on it,” she says with a smile (the car is undergoing a major repair as we speak). “I do a lot of schlepping, carrying bags of costume around.” And Berman’s teenage daughter, she says, “has been going to the theater since before she was born, seeing all the craziness.”

The job of the costume designer is varied and never dull—each day is spent differently, some researching in a library and some backstage, with endless nuances in between. Some companies, like Marin Shakespeare Company, have an established relationship with Berman, and she gets to choose the productions she’s interested in for the season; others offer one-time projects.

“I’m always a freelancer, so theaters get in touch with me to check availability, then they send me a script, a contract,” she explains, “and from there I’ll set up a meeting with the director, go do my research, meet with the production director again to see what works and what doesn’t, and then it’s time for sketches.”

After a number of tweaks, Berman usually has around two to three weeks to prepare the actual costumes, sometimes making them herself or shopping for vintage or modern items, according to the theme. Occasionally she’ll have assistants, if the budget permits. After dress rehearsals and opening night, her job is done. The work is, apparently, very ego-free: “It’s not about a spectacular design, sparkles and feathers, but about telling a story,” Berman says. “And you must love research and be a team player.”

On her resume, drama, opera and comedies mix, and medieval times meet the ’60s, fantasy-based looks intermit with accurate representations of the era.

“For My Fair Lady at the San Francisco Playhouse,” she says, “we put Eliza in pants, because we figured she’s a progressive woman.”

Another favorite is Samson and Delilah for West Bay Opera. “I’ve started noticing trends,” Berman says. “Recently there’s been a Game of Thrones styles to costumes; you can see that with Camelot at the San Francisco Playhouse. Then, there was a steampunk year, lots of named people; these trends are influenced by culture and politics.”

Berman recalls, for example, working on the San Jose Stage Company’s Disgraced, a play which pretty much predicted Donald Trump’s ‘muslim ban.’ “It was life imitating art, surreal and tragic,” she says.

With New York still shining as the country’s prime theater capital, celebrity productions, big budgets and all, one must wonder if Berman ever wanted to make the big leap.

“I never believed that with fashion or theater you must make it in New York,” she says. “I’ve always loved the Bay Area and Marin, so I decided to make it work here. I’m not even a city person.”

How does she regard the local theater scene, compared to the rest of the country?

“The theater here is world class,” Berman says, without a doubt. “A.C.T., the Berkeley Rep, a lot of shows like Angels in America originate here and then go on to Broadway. In general, it’s a really rich community for such a small demographic.”

And in it, Berman is clearly a mainstay.

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