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    Photo by Mickie Winters

    On this May morning, 10 days before the annual Kentucky Shakespeare Festival will begin at Old Louisville’s Central Park, costumer designer Donna Lawrence Downs and her team of three are in a room above the Brown Theatre downtown, working on costumes for Richard II. (Also on Kentucky Shakespeare’s new stage in July: Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar and a high school production of The Merchant of Venice.) Downs still has 42 costumes to finish, though she says the “bed-sheet togas” for Julius Caesar will be pretty easy. One seamstress lays tissue-paper-thin sheets of a pattern across upholstery fabric — formerly a couch — and looks from various angles to determine which direction the pattern should go. Downs says they try to use lightweight, layered fabrics for outdoor performances but sometimes that doesn’t cut it for gaudy kings.

    They also must maintain the one-of-a-kind garments through 66 performances in 11 weeks. “We can’t just go to Penney’s and buy them,” she says. The costume team is always on-hand backstage with a repair kit — scissors, duct tape, safety pins, needles and thread, a hot glue gun. “Anything that will work that the actor won’t get killed or get tetanus from,” Downs says.

    Downs has been working with Kentucky Shakespeare for 25 years. She says most actors are careful with their garments; during a past production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, fairy king Oberon’s thin, blue mesh cape only snagged some leaves along the hem. But sometimes the garment can’t be saved, as was the case when an actor wearing paned sleeves managed to rip every single strip of fabric. “Duct tape put it back together to get him through the scene,” Downs says, “but we actually couldn’t save that garment. We took it out back and shot it.”

    This originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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