Anyone who has ever participated in Halloween knows that a costume can make you feel like another person. The right wig, the right shoes, or even the right underwear can transform a life insurance salesman into Peter Pan, a French teacher into Marie Antoinette. But what if it was your job to play dress up every day? Enter Janine McCabe.
McCabe is a costume designer and she crafts clothing for stage actors, opera singers, and Shakespearean players. Trained at College of Charleston and the University of Virginia, she returned to the Holy City eight years ago after several years in New York working on costumes both off- and on Broadway — in the 2006 adaptation of The Wedding Singer, for example. Today she is the chair of CofC's theater department, where she mentors students and works on several productions a year.
But it's not all student productions for the established designer. She just wrapped My Fair Lady at Flat Rock Playhouse in Flat Rock, N.C. and has the upcoming Charleston Stage show The Underpants on docket in the next few months.
Given the range of projects she helps bring to life, it's no surprise McCabe has to be a jack of all styles. "Every play is a different challenge," she says. "The first thing I do is spend some time reading the play and getting to know the characters."
After analyzing the script, she talks with the other behind-the-scenes movers and shakers — the directors, the designers, the managers. With their notes and ideas, she dives headlong into research. "Even when it's not a period piece, I research the period — what was happening, what things were changing, what people were like, what events were happening, stuff like that," she says. Armed with that information she turns her attention to color palettes and fabric.
Once the play is cast, she focuses on the thankless task of sewing. "Being there on opening night and seeing it come together, it's so amazing because it's not just the work you put into it. It's this whole collaboration with other people. For me, it's so much better than any part you're just doing on your own throughout the process. It's like, "'Wow, we did it,'" she says.
Enthusiasm aside, she's more than a bit self-critical. "I'm the worst person to sit next to, though, because I'm always saying, "I could have fixed this. I could have done that.' I'm much less judgmental about the work of others."
Though she enjoys working on whatever productions come her way, whether it's a comedy like The Vibrator Play, a thriller like Sherlock Holmes, or a Greek tragedy like Love of the Nightingale, her favorites are musicals and new works. "When I get hired [outside CofC], it's usually a musical. They're usually larger, and it's interesting what you can do with the color story," she says. "It's also really exciting to be part of a production where you're there from it being written." One of her all-time favorites is Zelda, a musical about the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a play she worked when it was created in 2005 by Philadelphia Theatre Alliance.
McCabe, for one, is glad that Charleston is so supportive of live theater. "What's pretty exciting is how quickly it's growing. There are so many more companies, and it seems like it's such a close group of people. You'll see students performing all over, you'll see faculty from the college directing or designing at different theaters," she says. "It's just such a nice community of people who are trying to be really supportive of each others work even as everyone is trying to grow their own company."
Her job, McCabe says, is a dream: "I enjoy when we're creating a different world. Getting to be a costume designer, you get to do all this great research, work with plays, it's amazing."