BY CARY GINELL
Lori Lee Gordon is one of those rare individuals whose talents can lead her in multiple directions, and she’d likely be a success in any of them. An exquisite singer and talented actress, she is also responsible for many of the costumes seen on Ventura County stages over the past decade. Whether it’s designing the elaborate costume for Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid, the towering, flowing gown for Fruma Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof, or the exotic outfits for the Caribbean natives in Once On This Island, one can always count on Lori Lee to do a thoroughly professional job, despite the meager budgets with which she is often presented. Since we haven’t had the opportunity to talk to a costumer yet on these pages, we thought we’d start with Lori Lee because there is no one better suited (if you will) for the job. She spends most of her time jockeying back and forth between Hollywood, Las Vegas (where she costumes revues and special events at various hotels), and Ventura County theater.
VCOS: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your background, where you went to school, aspirations, that sort of thing.
LORI LEE: I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest; I grew up in Eugene, Oregon and moved up to Seattle and lived up there for a little while. I was always into theater. I started acting when I was fifteen and was in my first touring company when I was sixteen. So I was going to be a professional actress. When I moved down here in 1997, I got a part on a kids TV show, so for the first couple of years I made my living as an actress, doing all kinds of different stuff like small parts on TV.
VCOS: Where did you get your degree?
LORI LEE: I got my degree in costuming from the Los Angeles Art Institute. I went back to school later. I’ve always loved making stuff. I’d always volunteer in smaller productions to help out with costumes because I loved fashion. Then one day I said to myself, “I talk about this all the time. I seem to know how to fix everything. I have all these bright ideas,” so I decided to go back to school and study it. I was intending to go more into the fashion world but my theatrical background just sucked me right back into theater, and I said, “Oh, of course this makes sense!” Being an actor, you know how you want to feel on stage, the practicality of what you need to do certain things.
VCOS: Do you feel any conflict between the two worlds?
LORI LEE: Yeah, but mostly schedule-wise because a lot of my clients that I built up need me at odd times so I have to be careful about what shows I choose to do. I really have to want to do a show, I can’t just do serial acting, being in one show and rehearsing for another at the same time. I can’t do that anymore. My schedule doesn’t allow it. Plus, I don’t really have the desire to do every show anymore.
VCOS: So would you say your passion is now directed more toward the costuming end of things?
LORI LEE: Well, it’s a career thing. I love what I do and it makes me super happy when I create something and make a client happy. It’s incredibly validating. But my first love is acting.
VCOS: How about as a singer? Did you ever sing in a non-contextual, non-theater sense?
LORI LEE: Like in the shower? (laughs) No, but seriously, it always has to be in a context. I really enjoy the fourth wall. That’s another reason why it took me two years to be interviewed (laughs). I don’t do karaoke, I don’t particularly like that (sings) “This is me and here’s my show!”
VCOS: You like hiding inside of a character.
LORI LEE: Right. It’s escapism, for sure.
VCOS: OK, getting into costuming now. There are people out there who might be interested in doing costuming as a career. What is your modus operandi? When you start on a show, do you have a routine that you go through or is it different from show to show?
LORI LEE: It depends on the genre. In the case of costuming for musical theater, I do have a process that I go through. First, get the script. Then I break it down, get the flow, understand which character is where, and then have meetings with the director, the choreographer, lighting designer, whoever is involved creatively, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. Then I choose the correct textiles, which can be based on the lighting. Lighting can completely change what you’ve chosen.
VCOS: Do you start before casting has been done?
LORI LEE: Yes. Usually. There have been some cases, however, where I’ve been brought in after the fact, but that’s usually a situation where they’ve lost their costumer or think of it too late, like, “Oh yes, I guess we can’t do this ourselves.” (laughs). But I’m booked far ahead of time for most all musical theater stuff. I know what all of my projects are through the end of next summer. And then I’m on a rotating basis with all of my individual clients. I usually deal with three at a time. These include an electric violinist who does aerial at the same time, to Cirque, to having to make leather pants for rock musicians. Sometimes it’s very last minute, like “We just got booked for something in two weeks and we have to go to France. We need something special for that.” So I have three weeks to come up with something and make it.
VCOS: In musical theater, once you’ve created your template, is there an order you undertake things? Do you do the principals first or the ensemble, because all of their costumes are similar? How do you work?
LORI LEE: I do more than one at a time. This summer, I was working on four shows at one time. That was maddening. And unadvisable. But I got through it. I won’t overbook myself like that again.
VCOS: OK, you just did Fiddler on the Roof in Simi. Where did you start?
LORI LEE: I have costumed Fiddler four times over the last five years, so I already had a very good idea of exactly what the flow is and what is needed where, who needs how many costumes. So at that point, it was who have you cast, where are you putting them? What other roles are they playing? It seems like in every musical, when you look at a build list, there are usually scenes where groups of people are all wearing something similar. And I’ll get an assistant and hand that off so I can concentrate on more detailed, larger pieces that need to be created. Every director is different. Some like to have their hands completely into the design element and some just say, “Do it. We trust you.”
VCOS: You probably like that best.
LORI LEE: Well, yeah. I do enjoy collaborating, though. I don’t have all the greatest ideas in the world. More than one mind is always better.
VCOS: Give me an example of a director giving you a good idea.
LORI LEE: One of my favorite directors to work with is David Daniels. He is an idea factory. He may just spout an idea out of nowhere and I just catch it out of the air. I think he’s just used to thinking out-of-the-box, working for Disney. And he’ll throw out the most random stuff and I would say, “Actually, I never, ever would have thought that way,” and it might not be the answer, but it will guide me in a different direction. I also work with him at Disney on promos and stuff. Other directors just say, “Let’s see what you can come up with.” So I sketch the characters and the costumes and try to give them a full look as to what is in my head and that becomes my talking point. For example, I’m doing Children of Eden, so I didn’t want it to be so Biblical. So I’m working on that now.
VCOS: Are there times when you are asked to go completely against tradition?
LORI LEE: I have been in meetings like that, where a director has some really fancy idea, like, “Oh, we’re going to do Twelfth Night, but we’re going to do it in steampunk” or something stupid like that. Just for the sake of doing something different. I’m never on board with that.
VCOS: Well, Orson Welles got his start by doing Julius Caesar with the characters as jackbooted Nazis.
LORI LEE: That’s true. But I tend to think more classically. When people come to the theater, they expect a certain look of things and I want to give that to them. In Into the Woods, they want Little Red Riding Hood to look a certain way. They don’t want her to look like something from Bladerunner. They want that storybook to be opened, with all those lush colors and everything looking velveteen and dark. They want the Grimm’s Fairy Tales look.
VCOS: Do you have an inventory of materials or do you start from scratch with each production?
LORI LEE: I start from scratch on every show. I mean, I have a small inventory of stuff, but honestly, I’m not in the rental business. I don’t enjoy holding onto stuff. It’s expensive. I get a new budget for everything that I do, then it becomes their property.
VCOS: Doesn’t that bother you sometime when you work for weeks on a costume and it turns out to be a masterpiece and you want to keep it for yourself?
LORI LEE: In the situations where it’s a brand new client or a company that’s looking to hire me and want me to bring examples of my work, I can only bring photos.
VCOS: Is that enough?
LORI LEE: Usually, but sometimes they want me to bring in costumes. I mean, are they going to judge my stitching? (laughs).
VCOS: Tell me of some of the unique challenges you’ve had to undertake.
LORI LEE: Designing for acrobats and aerialists or contortionists – things for people who do extraordinary things with their bodies. There’s a lot of stuff that you have to think about in the construction that you don’t see, mostly for safety reasons. It just depends on the act.
VCOS: How about in the theater?
LORI LEE: The hardest thing is just the amount of work that needs to be done. I can’t think of anything that I’ve built where I’ve said, “Oh! This was so hard!” Besides maybe for Drowsy Chaperone, where I had to put 78 magnets in Janet Van de Graaff’s skirt so that when she sashays across the stage, it unravels properly. And then trying to reconnect all those magnets after the show. But I can usually figure anything out.
VCOS: What’s the hardest kind of show to costume?
LORI LEE: I think shows that are set in modern day. You would think that this is just street clothes, right? Well, I don’t know. It seems like it’s a little bit harder. People who are allowed to have opinions have more opinions about clothing that they’re used to looking at every single day. A director will have more to say about what’s been chosen for a contemporary piece for that reason. Most of those are in Hollywood, though, more experimental pieces that have more to say.
VCOS: What’s the greatest number of costumes you’ve had to make for one actor in a show? Is that for a lead character or someone in the ensemble?
LORI LEE: Usually the ensemble has more changes. As an actor and a musician, I can look at a script and know how much time a person has to change and what kind of special accommodations need to be made in order to make that successful. An actor might look at the script and freak out: “I only have 10 seconds to do this!” And I would say, “I’ve seen it, and you have twenty. You can totally do this.”
VCOS: Do you do layering of costumes?
LORI LEE: Sometimes.
VCOS: Have you bought stock in Velcro?
LORI LEE: I hate Velcro. It ruins costumes. If it’s not closed properly, it rubs against the fabric and messes it up. I would rather use snaps or magnets.
VCOS: Any costume malfunctions that you’d like to talk about?
LORI LEE: (laughs) No, actually. But in Fiddler, on our first night, I think it was Rehyan Rivera who completely ripped out his pants. Irreparably.
VCOS: He does the Russian dance in that show so I’m not surprised.
LORI LEE: Exactly. So I said, “Let’s try a different fabric. Something a little more rugged.”
VCOS: Did you have an idol in the costuming business?
LORI LEE: Colleen Atwood. She is an Oscar-winning costume designer who’s done a ton of stuff. She just did Into the Woods and Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp. I just love her aesthetic. I think ours are very similar, design-wise. She has a very “fashiony” kind of eye. Her mind is brilliant. She comes up with stuff that is just inspiring. Of course, she has the budget to use things like real silk and all these wonderful gorgeous fabrics, professional embroiderers. If the budget’s right, anything can be done.
VCOS: What’s your ideal situation?
LORI LEE: I’ve never been anywhere in this world. And I just got my passport. I don’t have a gig and I don’t have anything taking me anywhere, but I totally feel it. I want to travel so bad for work. I was just talking with one of my clients yesterday. And she said, “I think we need to go to Dubai.” And I said, “Yeah, we do.” She has all these clients from that area. “I’m going to book us in Dubai at the beginning of the year,” and I love that. She’s an electric violinist named Jennifer Spingola and she’s fantastic. She’s Mick Jagger on a flying “V.” So I have to rig something up so her violin doesn’t smack her in the face. Body suits, flying capes, all of her stuff looks like Beyonce.
VCOS: Are you the kind of person who is aiming at getting an Oscar or a Tony somewhere down the line?
LORI LEE: I don’t care. I just want to make a living, see more of the world, meet more people, and keep creating. And hopefully make more dough doing it.
In addition to costuming the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center’s current production of Fiddler on the Roof, Lori Lee Gordon will be appearing as Alice Beineke in the Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi’s upcoming production of The Addams Family. See the VC On Stage Calendar for dates and showtimes.