In contrast to spotlight-craving actors and directors, the designers who work in theater usually go unrecognized, toiling away in the background. Sometimes, the hours of work they spend creating costumes, constructing sets, or setting up lights don't even gain them a credit in the show's program. But these behind-the-scenes artists are integral to the success of any stage production.
If you've seen any of Theatre IV's richly designed children's shows, you've probably seen the work of costume designer Tom Hammond, who has been outfitting some of the most remarkable shows in Richmond for the past 20 years.
From the title character's familiar zigzag stripe in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" to the color-coordinated socks on the munchkins of "The Wizard of Oz," Hammond brings to his work an attention to detail and an insightful sense of character that keeps him in constant demand.
The soft-spoken and somewhat reclusive Hammond is perfectly suited to his behind-the-scenes role. But this spring, his work on "Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly" for the Richmond Triangle Players (RTP) will propel him reluctantly into the spotlight. The veteran designer couldn't pass up the chance to tackle this show, which is legendary for the bizarre and fantastic outfits created by costume designer Crabtree. "It is extremely rare that a show is conceived by a costume designer," Hammond explains. "I haven't done a show like this in a long time, if ever."
Hammond has done larger shows; he mentions a production of "The Music Man" at Collegiate School that had a cast of 50 and more than 100 costumes. The five actors in "When Pigs Fly" change into only 56 costumes. But, according to Hammond, it's not the number of costumes that is the challenge, but how many different kinds of costumes there are. And that some of them are required to "do tricks" transforming from one look into another, or hiding things that are revealed at a later point in the show. "The costumes are fairly outrageous," Hammond says. "One of the songs in the show is 'Over the Top,' the idea being that with some things, you can't go too far. As a designer on this show, you have to free yourself, open up your imagination to do whatever the costume requires, trying to make it as visually interesting as possible."
According to John Knapp, who will direct "When Pigs Fly," Hammond jumped at the chance to work on the show. "Tom sees the challenge of tackling such an extravagant show," Knapp says. "He's done some of the best costuming in the city, and I think he sees this as almost a career-defining project, a chance to really make his mark."
"When Pigs Fly" is a playful collection of musical sketches that Vincent Canby of The New York Times called "exceptionally cheerful" and full of "hilarity, wit and outré humor" when it opened in New York in 1996. Designer Crabtree was lauded for taking costume design to new heights, with outfits like chorus-girl dresses with vanity tables built into them.
Knapp says Richmonders have been after him to get RTP to do the play almost since its debut. "A lot of people had seen it in New York, and it got a lot of publicity because of Howard's death," says Knapp. (Crabtree died of AIDS just days after completing work on the show.)
Doing such an elaborate show within RTP's modest production budget has been unthinkable, however, until recently. The so-called "fringe" theater is on a roll, producing an unparalleled string of hits since "Key West" last winter. "We're in a good position financially," says Knapp. "Even if we lose our shirt on ["When Pigs Fly"] which we won't do we'll still be OK."
Even as flush as the company currently feels, the extravagance of this show is daunting. The producers of the original New York production offered to sell Knapp the costumes for the show for $22,000 more than four times what an entire RTP production might usually cost. Hammond's original estimate for doing the show still was twice what RTP wanted to pay.
But budgetary issues have since been worked out, and Hammond says that, if anything, he has been encouraged to be even more outrageous in his costumes than he was planning to be. "I'm used to doing children's theater where there is a certain decorum required," Hammond explains. "But this one is strictly for adults, and while there's nothing salacious, I have more freedom to take an idea as far as I possibly can."