January 16, 2023
by Kristen Schweizer
When I hear “she is a costume designer” I picture a fastidious woman hemming a heavy Shakespearean gown in a room filled with colorful bolts of fabric and racks of ornate, old-timey garb. While I cast my imagination backward, costume designer Regan A. McKay looks ahead in her ecologically-conscious work.
“It’s common knowledge that the fashion industry is one of the worst culprits [regarding carbon emissions, toxic waste, and the exploitation of people and animals], but theatrical costumers have been excused in that conversation. Yes, we re-use a lot, yet, [costume shops] also buys fast fashion, we throw away a lot of scraps, and we do way more laundry than the average American. I am a young professional; I’ll be designing twenty years from now, so I want to be part of finding sustainable ways to practice this art form today for the sake of tomorrow.”
I sat down with McKay to discuss her recent work on North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of Blues in the Night and found her heart for sustainability within the theatre and passion for collaborative excellence to be just as compelling as the musical revue.
The song cycle features four characters – a woman of the world (Karole Foreman), a lady of the road (Anise Ritchie), a man in the saloon (Elijah Rock), and a girl with a date (Ciarra Stroud) – who share the same 1930s Chicago hotel. Without an explicit story, McKay counted on director Yvette Freeman Hartley’s vision to shape and root the world for herself and the other designers to create and play within.
McKay spoke reverently on the collaboration process within all her work. “As a designer, I work toward a director’s vision over time. I read a script, I meet with a director, casting often occurs after initial drawings, and eventually, I’m in the fitting room with the actors. The actors live and breathe the characters so they can give me insight that never could have occurred to me and it’s part of my job to weave that into each look. The work isn’t done until it’s onstage under the lights on opening night.”
On top of the look and fit of each garment, she must consider their functionality. “I find a lot of pride in beautify work, of course; but by that I can mean the hidden rigging that makes a quick change go flawlessly. Audiences assume we use a lot of velcro, but in intimate spaces you can hear that distinct sound. Depending on whether a piece is coming off-or-on, it can be invisible zippers or smart snaps.”
McKay’s expertise is found in the diversity of her work. From period pieces like Blues in the Night and her graduate thesis project Steel Pier (a 22-person cast with over 100 costumes, including pieces created out of PEVA shower curtains as an eco-friendly alternative to vinyl), to her recent, modern work in The Pleasure Trials at MOXIE Theatre, to online productions which required fittings via Zoom.
“[The Pandemic] required an entirely new approach to the design process. It was like using a different part of my brain.” From 2019-2020, McKay was the inaugural recipient of the Willa Kim Costume Design Scholarship from the Theatre Communications Group, which allowed her to use the time without work to take life drawing courses.
“Costume designers often have a large volume of work – many costumes for many bodies – so having the ability to sketch quickly and e-mail work out quickly to a director or team keeps the conversation going. I want to produce good work without agonizing over, say, hands, so I had a specific goal with [the scholarship and graduate school] to better. The Pandemic provided time without real world projects for that practice.”
As a 2022 graduate of San Diego State University’s Masters’s program in costume design, McKay had a few off-stage projects. “SDSU has a terrific historic clothing collection, and since we were not able to do theatre work during the pandemic, I worked with it. That was also when I did a project in textile creation from raw cotton fiber to the finished cloth, so all the fiber waste was compostable. It’s not possible – budget-wise or time-wise – to operate like that, but the exercise helped educate me on how we can make better choices, like re-using something instead of buying it or choosing organic cotton muslin rather than bleached muslin for our mock-ups. Sometimes Amazon’s two-day shipping is the best option, but in my line of work I know that the little choices can matter.”
McKay’s detail-oriented art shines within Blues in the Night. Her sensual fabric choices amplify the crooning, wistful, devilish sound of the Blues and her tailoring is superb. Much like Regan A. McKay’s hope for the future, Blues in the Night up-cycles nostalgic songs to create something fresh for today’s audiences to appreciate again.