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Try These Hacks For Costuming On A Tight Budget

Costume Design, Theatre Costumes, Theatre Nerds

Working in student theatre has taught me a great many things including but not limited to, how to iron crayon out of a carpet, the cure for stage fright, and what to do when there is a lice outbreak during the second performance of a three show run thanks to a cast member’s younger sibling . True stories all of them. But I think I have learned the most about how to facilitate a show on a tight budget, especially in the area that often sucks up the most money: costumes. I have become somewhat of a wizard in this arena. Like the cool Harry Potter kind. Think Hermione shocking everyone by pulling everything they need out of that ridiculously tiny bag.

Here are a few ways to costume your show on a very tight budget:

Thrift Shops

When I worked at a summer theater camp where we were costuming five shows a summer on an extremely tight budget, the staff at the local thrift shop knew me by name. It’s a great place to pick up specific pieces or even find items that can be used to make what you need. I once bought twenty oversized white t-shirts for $1 each and made them into togas for an entire youth cast of Hercules by cutting off the neck and left sleeve and adding braided rope for a belt. Three-quarters of the cast were costumed for under thirty dollars! Which segues nicely into my next suggestion…

DIY

Get your inner Martha Stewart on! Pinterest is chalk full of ideas if you are finding it hard to imagine how to make a specific piece. Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel; you are busy enough. Once, after several attempts to make a Paper Bag Princess costume out of a lawn bag only to have it tear each time, I turned to Pinterest and found trick involving velcro and a duct tape shell. It worked like a charm, and that singular paper bag dress made it through three dress rehearsals and four shows with no rips or tears.

Donation List for the Cast & Crew

You would be surprised what people have lying around at home that they are willing to donate or loan you. I once had a girl bring in a pink dress that her grandmother was generous enough to donate that was almost identical to Liesel’s dress in The Sound of Music. Not only did we use it for a production of Sound of Music, but it also went on to be used in three other shows. I’ve found it helpful to give your cast and crew a list of costume or prop pieces needed and see what is brought in. You might be pleasantly surprised. Plus, they’re free! Win!

Cheap Supplies

Dollar stores are your friend. They don’t have completed costumes, but they hold the elements to make them cheaply if you can get creative. I once made a Mike Wazowski costume using two green toilet seat covers, cardboard, elastic and fun foam, all for the low price of four dollars. Dig deep and use your imagination. If you find you do need something from the higher priced craft stores, scour the Internet for a coupon first. My favorite crafting chain often offers fifty percent off on any regular priced item. Some stores will donate if you explain what it’s for and offer to thank them in your program. While trying to build a bridge for one of our shows, I went to Home Depot to purchase plywood. When the sales associate helping me heard what I was buying the wood for, he showed me the pile of scrap wood they can’t sell and told me to help myself. It didn’t cost a cent.

Renting or Borrowing From Local Theatre Companies

Some places will be very generous and loan them to you for free (sometimes with the incentive of a name drop in the program as thanks). Others will rent them to you for a discounted rate. If you are smart about it, this can be worth your while. A friend at a local theater company loaned us a lion costume one summer and to make the most of the opportunity, we staged Wicked, High School Musical and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe all in the same summer. That lion costume showed up in all three shows. Even if you rent or borrow just one piece, decide what you can get the most use out of and go for that.

Get Creative

I think I’ve emphasized this a few times already, but the most important thing is to be creative with what you’ve got. Part of what I love about the stage version of The Lion King is the creative way it is costumed. Instead of people in animal suits like mascots, the costumes are made up of unique elements that support and tell the story with each performer’s movement and expression. Don’t be frightened away from staging the show you want because it has ambitious costumes or props. After weeks of wracking our brains for how to make our version of Defying Gravity have as much impact as the Broadway version, without a budget for rigging, we opted for a very tall ladder. Draping it in yards of black fabric and attaching more black fabric to Elphaba’s back, which crew members pinned to the side curtains to hold them up, it actually looked pretty impressive. No, it wasn’t the same way it is performed in the original show, but many members of the audience couldn’t tell it was a ladder and commented after that it was their favorite part of the show because of the way we had staged it.

Have another idea we missed? Leave a reply below…

Written by Katelynn Johnston

Katelynn is a writer and elementary arts teacher from Toronto. From acting to choreographing to directing, she has been fortunate enough to take part in a variety of shows.

4 Comments

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  1. In PA we have yard sale web pages where we can post on what’s needed. I think we used that for a couple of our high school productions.

  2. Great ideas on cheap costumes!

    But how did you get the rights to perform Wicked? Just curious because I know a couple theaters that would love to get their hands on the rights to that show.

    • Thanks Meagan!

      Not a full scale production of Wicked (I wish). Just a student musical cabaret that included Defying Gravity another number from Wicked and a couple of numbers from the Wizard of Oz, amongst other things. It would be amazing if the rights to the show became available! It’s such a fantastic musical!

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