Day-Glo Dress Code: The Making of Closer to Heaven (Part 3)

Costume designs for Closer to Heaven by Janis Kunz

If you’re looking for costumes that can be seen from outer space, you’ve come to the right show. Not every show has a design brief like this one. If Day-Glo met highlighter markers met glow-in-the-dark paint met a 1980’s nightclub, you’d get the broad strokes that would define the style of Closer to Heaven, our latest MMP mystery. But broad marker strokes don’t begin to cover the depth in the designs Janis Kunz (MMP Hall of Fame Artist, Skeleton Key Award, two-time Diamond Mask Award, and 2019 Founder’s Award Winner) dreamed up as the lead Costume Designer for this production. Let’s learn about the secrets behind every sketch, stitch, and styling of our amazing 80’s threads in this behind-the-velvet-rope blog post.

DAY-GLO DRESS CODE: The Making of Closer to Heaven (Part 3)

Margit Stallings’ colorful 18th century Versailles confections for Eat Cake. Cat Kreidt’s glamorous rainbow for Foul Play. Beth Sparks-Jacques’ warm, earth-toned winter knits for Woman in the Walls. Master Mystery Productions has a passion and a reputation for gorgeous, detailed costume schemes. They are a form of theatrical sign language, a code we use to share details about the characters non-verbally. We love adding the layers that make our costumes stand out as the best in the area. And the standard of costuming excellence continues for Closer to Heaven in what will no doubt be another legendary scheme from newly-minted Costume Designer Janis Kunz in her first major production in this leadership position. Let’s hear from Janis on how this iconic scheme came to life!

Costume Designer Janis Kunz

“Three of my interests are the 80’s, fashion, and 80’s fashion, so when I was offered the role of head of costuming for Closer to Heaven I was, like, totally ecstatic! A difference that the director told me about for what he wanted for this show was that unlike previous projects that tend to be rich and fancy or have darks and earth tones, the scheme for Closer to Heaven was bright colors and neons mixed with trashy and rocker style. Well, that was right up my alley! I so wanted to make this look like an 80’s movie or music video. My fashion influences growing up in the 80’s were the grungy chic of Cyndi Lauper, the far-out costumes of Michael Jackson, and the colors and glimmer of Jem and the Holograms. Throw in some later influence as a teenager of clotheshorse David Bowie and his incredible theatrical fashion sense and I was primed to do this show.

I like to collect costume pieces and cool jackets and because I knew this project was coming up, I began to informally amass pieces that might work for an 80’s show. As it turned out, I wound up having so many costume pieces that would look good that we came up with the idea to include ones that didn’t work for the characters elsewhere in the show. The set designer and set dresser both liked the idea and now the 80’s clothes get to extend to the costume rack in the ‘dressing room’ part of the stage as set dressing and props and also be hung on the venue’s black-painted backdrop wall as fashionable art! There are also some story-driven moments that allowed for costume changes so having alternate choices was nice.

When designing the costumes one of my main goals was to make them look like clothes rather than 80’s tropes Halloween costumes – albeit larger-than-life awesome clothes! It was also important for each character’s costume to not only pop visually, but to also express other things about their emotional character and backstory. Creating an overall look and also individual character motifs has been a fun challenge and I’m really happy with how the costumes have turned out.

Closer to Heaven nightclub logo specially designed by Daniel Stallings to be made into club merch worn by Dawn Schuyler.

As Dutch philosopher Eramus said, “vestis virum facit” (“the clothes make the man”), and in theatre the costumes shape the character and how the audience feels toward them. For Closer to Heaven’s costumes that meant taking bits of each character and their story and incorporating it into their costume to enhance or showcase aspects about their personality, their journey, and their connection to other characters. Additionally, the costumes needed to mesh cohesively as a unit, that is, share motifs (like tears and slashes, heavenly/celestial symbols, etc.) and strong 80s vibes, while also having different textures, patterns, colors, and silhouettes in order for each one to be its own entity within the group.

Dawn Schuyler in costume
(played by Leslie Blake, photo by Michelle Stallings)

For the character of Dawn, the owner of the titular nightclub in the show, we wanted something that showed off both her ‘I am the boss and I get things done’ facet of her personality and her ‘survivor of DawnJackethardships’ facet. The former comes through in the bold purple and vibrant texture of her vintage 80’s jacket, club shirt, and striking epaulets strung with chain and rocker-esque studs. The latter is present in the distressed stonewashed jeans and paint-splattered hi-tops, a scheme which the director described as “battle-scarred yet imbued with beauty.” Her costumeCtH costume sketches.01 was handpicked and largely handmade as the epaulets and shoes were designed and styled just for her (the shoe design idea came from Dawn’s actress which shows how creative and what a good team the cast and crew are). The light glints coming off the metal chains and studs on Dawn’s shoulders, the shimmer of her jacket, and the galaxies and star pattern within her shoe’s splattered paint all embody celestial visuals that evoke the metaphor of the club, Closer to Heaven.

Stella Spencer (played by Janis Kunz) fitting

When it came to Stella, the character brief heavily informed her look: “A sprinkle of preppy and Princess Diana fashion sense keeps this fish firmly out of the water.” A powder-pink turtleneck, high-waisted dark blue denim, and a pastel pink almost-suit-jacket speaks to her inexperience with the L.A. fashion scene. We added in a zebra-print belt and rainbow-checkered Vans to allude to her desire to branch out from her timid Montana upbringing. Stella has two costume changes within the show. In one she gets a denim vest, reminiscent of How I Met Your Mother’s mallrat popstar Robin Sparkles (another creative contribution, this time from set dresser Heather McGaha). We adorned the vest with vintage 80s pins, such as one for the 1984 L.A. Olympics, and with pins crafted into commemorative pins of albums from the 80s just for the costume. The vest gives a visual 80s pop, but it also helps tell the unspoken story of Stella’s makeover by the Angels. The other costume change is a jacket she wears in the end and it tells something of where her character is now at. And it does this by being drastically different in cut, style, and attitude of the jacket she wore in the beginning.

A taste of what’s to come…

Erin Costume DesignCostuming Erin Rochester, the hired Madonna look-alike, had the challenge of needing her to dress like a convincing (at least in a dark nightclub) Madonna and also like Erin, a woman with her own tastes and personality. Because the show is set in 1986, the core look is inspired by Like a Virgin era Madonna, full of leather and lace, covered with pearls, and ending in black military-style boots. But showing throughout her costume are little bits of color á la Erin. The costume designer already owned the black lace top, ruffle-edged black leather jacket, and boots because, hey, who doesn’t want to dress cool like Madonna? The white tulle and lace skirt was sourced and custom made by the team. Those pieces came together perfectly into a vision of the 80s songstress that didn’t look like a Halloween costume off the rack. Next it was time to take the outfit beyond the body double origin. A blue scarf and blue fingerless gloves here, a pair of neon pink shorts there… and voila! It’s Erin as Madonna.

Detail of Erin’s jacket and top.
Crystal Cunningham (played by Nicole Johnson) initial fitting

The character of Crystal is another example of needing to show two sides of her character. She is both the horror movie fanatic and the valley girl in equal measure. The actress sourced much of the costume herself. The base of her costume is a Freddie Krueger sweater dress and then we bedecked it with, like, TOTAL color, you know, to make it just POP! Neon yellow leggings, hot pink legwarmers, pink jelly shoes, neon pink fingerless gloves, and a wide yellow belt electrify the muted red and green of the Freddie dress. Finally, hockey mask earrings a la Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th franchise add another pop of slasher horror. Her costume says she knows what she likes and she’s not afraid to show it! The two juxtaposing elements of her personality shine brightly from this combined costume and create a unique whole that isn’t like your average characters on stage.

Detail of the pattern of Hallie’s jeans

The idea for Hallie’s costume began as a snazzy jumpsuit she could wear in the nightclub that would tie into her aerobics instructor job and her “overcaffeinated lightning storm” personality. Hallie fittingBut as we were going through articles of clothing already in our collection that could pass for the era, a new idea arose: semi-androgenous, loud and proud, David Bowie- and Elton John-esque rocker chic. It still worked with her athletic and energetic nature but now had a fun party edge to it. Her collage-patterned jeans have all the colors of her other outfit pieces (the blue top, the ruffly-sleeved yellow jacket, the turquoise Converse…), which nicely melds the whole look, and all together it screams, I will be noticed. And just like with all the costumes, the jewelry designer and costume designer collaborate to make sure everything complements everything else. The silvery metals in Hallie’s jewelry paired well with the costume and furthered the rock star vibe. Plus, Hallie’s actress had her own starburst-shaped necklace which also completed her costume.

Detail of Lucas’ suit

Lucas CostumeYou’ve heard the saying ‘one of these things is not like the other.’ Well, that is definitely true of Lucas Carrington; he is not one of the Angels and his costume states this very clearly. He doesn’t have lovely neon colors or soft pastels or cool rock star elements. But what he does have is a splash of devil red in his tie and shoes. The red shoes are an example of a costume coming together as the production goes along and director, costumer, and actors work together to find what will be right for that character. Lucas shoesLucas’ actor was wearing his own red shoes when trying on the tailored suit and the visual of him walking out in a 3-piece suit and soulless black dress shirt accessorized with the red tie and red shoes was a ‘Yes! We are going with that!’ moment. Actually, most of the actors are wearing their own shoes because they already owned ones that went hand in hand with the decade that was BIG on cool shoes.

Like Erin, the character of Angel had a predefined look to mimic. Angel is a Miami Vice devotee who dresses in whites like he’s the second coming of Sonny Crockett. But just as we desired with Erin, we wanted his costume to still showcase who Angel is as a person distinct from his fashion inspirator. The jewelry designer, the phenomenally talented Leslie Blake who definitely has an artist’s eye and a wealth of creativity, chose a silver necklace of dangling metal feathers for Angel to wear. The feathers work nicely with the collective motif of heavenly symbols and deviate from Crockett’s fashion choices. Another element is a brown belt to further define Angel’s own outfit. The coral handkerchief and sea blue pocket square accents were chosen for their Miami Vice colors but also the blue reiterates the blue in the costume for Erin, the character who Angel shares things in common with.

Gabriel’s initial design concepts, divided among two jean options.

Gabriel is “an aspiring SFX makeup artist who loves to bring his work everywhere with him.” Hence, we needed to costume him in something that was 80s, visually striking, and showed off his love of his craft. The first, visceral choice was Michael Jackson’s look in his extraordinary “Thriller” music video. But how do you get a red leather “Thriller” jacket that will fit your six-foot-plus actor’s frame and not cost an arm and a leg? (Although the zombies might be willing to donate for the cause!) Luckily, the bargain hunting skills of the costume team came to the rescue and we were able to source Gabriel’s costume centerpiece.

Next we needed other pieces that would fit with the stylish coolness of the jacket and ones that would tell more of his story. An internet search for inspiration later and we found what we needed. He would wear one-of-a-kind distressed jeans that looked like SFX themselves with red-veined pleather handsewn inside and showing through the gashes in the denim, which caused a skinless flesh meets veins and arteries effect.

And his shirt would be (once again handcrafted) an iconic “Choose Life” t-shirt, which is era-specific enough to give any ‘Eighties babies’ a jolt of nostalgia but it also slots in with his backstory. One last touch was a white bandanna around his head, giving Gabriel an overall blend of fashion influences from Michael Jackson to WHAM! to Bruce Springsteen. But the bandanna is also functional: It protects Gabriel’s SFX makeup from perspiration under the hot stage lights.

Ariel in costume
(played by Libby Mitchell, photo by Michelle Stallings)

For Ariel’s costume we wanted something that would be fun but also go along with her cunning sneakiness. The inspiration for her color scheme was all the fruity neons of the 80’s matured with black accents that let you know she isn’t your typical ditzy office assistant type. A neon yellow-green summer dress and pink denim jacket were chosen as her costume base to suggest her position in the trendy nightclub; she’s surrounded by the fashion but not necessarily dolled-up because she’s working. Her denim has pins and buttons added too, to bring in that 80’s trend again.

The Killer’s design sketch by Janis Kunz

For the costume of The Killer we wanted something that was creepy as all get out but with a new wave flavor to it. Enter an all-black hoodie and sweats, broken by just a stripe or two of rave-worthy neon, and a grinning, neon-colored full-face mask with dead, staring eyes. Possibly the most challenging for technical reasons in the show such as needing to be able to go on and off quickly over other outfits, this costume also had to have a mask that would still allow for safe movement by the actors. A plastic mask with see-through mesh over the eyeholes achieved the effect of a scary nonface of a masked villain while also providing for safety. Several chilling inspirations can be seen in this costume, like Michael Myers, the Unabomber, Ghostface… We just put a new wave spin on it!

Giving a “killer” costume a neon hit.

It was an amazing feeling to bring out the pieces and start trying them on actors and see the designs come to life and look fantastic. Plus, the actors had their own cool ideas and pieces they owned or bought that went perfectly with the original ideas. It was super easy to approve the costumes because everything came together so well. That’s something that’s been happening throughout this project: Everyone is on the same fun, creative wavelength!

On the technical side, shared costume pieces, along with a costume that has to work for actors of disparate heights, and multiple costume changes made for some further design challenges. However, I like a challenge and problem-solving for stage, so this only made the project more exciting. Several costume elements had to be created by hand because it wasn’t possible to get what we wanted right off the rack. But with an ultra-talented team, the handmade pieces have come out even better than on paper and in my mind!

To say this has been a fun experience working as head of costumes for the first time would be an understatement. I would do it again in a heartbeat because this has been total Heaven!”–Janis Kunz, Costume Designer

Those are the totally bitchin’ threads we get to wear, but no 80’s experience is complete without some totally radical makeup. Learn how our talented Makeup Designer Olivia Holm created everything from Valley girls to Madonna to a full zombie in “If Zombies Wore Neon Eyeshadow: The Making of Closer to Heaven (Part 4)”!

And we’re so excited to see YOUR costumes as you attend the show! Guests are fully encouraged to break out their own legwarmers and denim vests for this amazing weekend. Join us at Closer to Heaven this May! Tickets are on sale now at Red Rock Books.

–Master Mystery Productions

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