Designer uses experience to craft well-stitched attire
In the basement of the OU Fine Arts Center in a room called “The Costume Shop,” a former fashion designer ponders the production of period-piece petticoats.
As University Theatre’s head costume designer, he’s preparing to stage “Mary Stuart,” an Elizabethan-era production calling for corsets, hip rolls, high collars and an assortment of other once-fashionable clothing items.
Lloyd Cracknell didn’t anticipate ending up in this position, but now that he’s here, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I finally found where I belong,” he said. “Exciting is really the first word that comes to mind ... and challenging, because it is constantly changing.”
Cracknell began his professional life as a fashion designer, but he quickly found the work unrewarding.
“I didn’t care about the length of a skirt anymore, quite honestly I grew bored with fashion design,” Cracknell said. “The difference between fashion design and costume design is fashion changes seasonally as well as environmentally, whereas costume changes with every performance.”
He decided to return to school and earn his master’s in drama with an emphasis on costume design at OU, and took over as the head costume designer last year when Michael Buchwald brought a 40-year career to a close by stepping down with his shop manager Coopie Mason.
“They were a great team who taught me a lot,” Cracknell said.
Despite his experience in the fashion industry, Cracknell said he quickly found he had a lot to learn in his new profession, and there were a few blunders along the way.
He said his biggest faux pas was committed when he designed animal costumes for a show called “Ensorcelled.”
“I painted the leotards in various colors to resemble fur on woodland animals, and when we washed them all the dye came off, and I had to repaint all of them the night before we opened,” he laughed.
Cracknell may have become more experienced since those early days, but he said there are still challenges that present themselves during the design of each show.
“The greatest challenge of costume design is time — time and working within a budget. It’s rather hectic,” said Cracknell. “This semester alone there are four main stage productions, not to mention smaller shows in between.”
Not only the dynamic nature of costume design appeals to Cracknell, but he said he is drawn to the environment.
In the fashion industry, you make decisions that appeal to someone else’s tastes, but with costume design you meet and work with a team of people, he said.
That team-oriented environment extends to Cracknell’s work in the classroom, where he teaches several design classes within the OU School of Drama.
“I love to see the light bulb go off when someone thinks they can’t stitch and then they realize they can,” he said.
That enthusiasm is infectious, and leads to productive classes, costume design senior Christina Draper said.
“He is understanding in that he doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” Draper said. “Once we understand a concept we move on instead of going over and over the same thing.”
Master stitcher and stock manager Amy Kercher has worked with Cracknell since he was in graduate school, and she said his managerial style puts faith in those around him.
“I love working with Lloyd, and I love looking at his drawings,” Kercher said. “I’m honored that he trusts me to do my job and doesn’t feel the need to watch over my every move.”
Cracknell helps students realize their true potential, costume design sophomore Melissa Perkins said.
“We learn something new with every show, he makes us realize our talents,” Perkins said.
Cracknell does place an emphasis on education, but he also has expectations for well-produced results, he said.
“The costume shop is a mixture of an educational lab and one that which produces high quality products,” Cracknell said. “We like to say we create magic here.”
The theater’s latest piece of magic involves the costumes for “Mary Stuart,” and Cracknell wouldn’t have it any other way, he said.
“I enjoy designing period pieces very much,” Cracknell said. “Anything extravagant with lots of detail and texture makes the job of costume design challenging and exciting, leaving room for the creative mind to run wild.”
The next University Theatre production will be the Italian opera, “Don Giovanni,” which will call for a drastically different design than “Mary Stuart,” but Cracknell said that variety is what he loves most about his job.
“90 percent of the world is visual,” he said. “From the very moment a character steps onto the stage the audience starts to draw assumptions.”