In his script for his 1980 play “True West,” Sam Shepard goes to considerable pains to describe how his central characters, two ostensibly very different brothers, are dressed.
Austin, the timid screenwriter, is wearing a light blue sports shirt, light tan cardigan sweater, clean blue jeans and white tennis shoes.
Lee, the older brother, wears a filthy white T-shirt; tattered brown overcoat covered with dust; dark blue baggy suit pants (from the Salvation Army); pink suede belt; scuffed, pointed, black forties dress shoes with holes in the soles; no socks; no hat. That’s not to mention the apparent need for long, pronounced sideburns, Gene Vincent hairdo, beard (two days’ growth) and bad teeth.
Kaye Voyce, the costume designer for the new Roundabout Theatreproduction of “True West,” starring Paul Dano as Austin and Ethan Hawke as Lee, didn’t feel at all limited by Shepard’s seeming specificity. For starters, she has Lee wearing a shiny maroon dress shirt under his tattered coat, at least at first, and gives Austin a pair of glasses.
“I don’t feel like the details he gives are prescriptive,” she says, of Shepard. “To me, they are beautiful clues to the characters and the world, and a great starting place. And those clues will mean different things to each team of designers, directors and actors. The clues helped to remind me to push for the extremes in these humans.”
Voyce describes the art of costume design, in collaboration with the director, actors and other designers, as a kind of “active collage process.” “With more contemporary clothes, it’s all about hunting down the right pieces, being open to surprise and how things are put together,” she says.
“And often, something just feels right or really wrong on someone’s body. If an actor doesn’t feel comfortable in a garment it’s really hard to believe it as a costume. Sometimes you want something to be ill-fit or a little strange—but the actor has to make the connection physically.”
Sometimes, the effect of costume design might be illuminating in a subliminal way. Asked if there was an aspect of her work on “True West” she found personally satisfying, she mentioned an aspect that, first and foremost, served the actors in their performances.
“In our conversations, we realized how central the absence of the father is in the play,” explained Voyce. “There are elements of Lee and Austin’s costumes that relate to their ideas of this man. Nobody should know it, but it means something to me and the actors.”