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Rachel Laritz Customizes a Costume Design Career
by Marilou Carlin
It’s only been 10 years since costume designer Rachel Laritz graduated from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance with a BFA in design and production. And yet this one-woman enterprise has already created costumes for more than 50 productions—including plays, musicals, operas and television—while winning Chicago’s coveted Joseph Jefferson Award along the way. Not bad for an artist who came to U-M with no idea that theatre was going to become her life.
“I didn’t do theatre in high school,” said Laritz, revealing right off the bat that her path differed from that of most theatre students who study at SMTD. “I used to go to thrift shops and buy vintage clothing and change it up, make new things out of old things. That’s where my interest started. I didn’t really know how to sew; I just decided to wing it.”
What might have remained a hobby developed into a career path when Laritz, who began at U-M in general studies, decided to take a theatre course “because it was the closest thing to fashion.” The fashion industry didn’t appeal to her, but, as she soon discovered, creating costumes did.
“What was appealing about costume design was that there’s so much history to draw from,” she said. “I liked the research process of finding a beautiful garment and redoing it with a twist … discovering the reasons behind different trends in fashion or basic shapes and silhouettes.” In fashion, she feels that the focus is all on aesthetics, what looks pretty. What she came to appreciate and be motivated by is that “there’s meaning in costume design.”
Within a year of taking her first theatre course, Laritz, who grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, switched to being a bachelor of theatre arts major. Since a BTA is not as specific a degree, it seemed like a good way of testing the waters. Before long, though, she switched her major again to design and production.
Upon graduating in 2002, Laritz landed what would be a critical launching pad for her career: she was hired for the newly created position of assistant costume designer at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. It was a two-year paid position, a rare commodity in theatre.
The job provided tremendous hands-on experience. The company was presenting 15 shows a season and Laritz worked on about half of them, while also meeting a steady stream of theatre professionals from across the country. Among them was Jennifer von Mayrhauser, a New York designer who was also the costume designer for NBC’s popular Law & Order. She invited Laritz to a Law & Order shoot as an observer, which led to her being hired to work as an assistant to von Mayrhauser on two episodes. It was a great experience and resulted in her becoming a union member.
She continued making contacts over the summers when she worked at the American Players Theatre, also in Wisconsin, further increasing her exposure to Chicago artists. In addition, she designed for Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera and Renaissance Theatreworks. Then, when the Milwaukee Rep position concluded, Laritz took the plunge and set up shop as a freelancer in Chicago.
Initially, she took a day job in a gift shop while taking any work that came along, be it storefront theatre or working as an assistant. Meanwhile, she continued to make contacts and was soon hired as the designer for her first Chicago show at the well- regarded Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. The play was The Philadelphia Story and it remains one of her favorites due to the 1939 setting (she especially loves the styles from the 1930s and 40s). It got wonderful reviews and Laritz was nominated for her first Joseph Jefferson Award.
The following year, 2008, Laritz worked on a number of productions in Milwaukee and Chicago and returned to Remy Bumppo to design the costumes for The Voysey Inheritance, for which she won the Jeff a second time.
“I look at that show and I see menswear, menswear, dark, dark, black, black,” she said with amusement. She was shocked that she won the award.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, the play focuses on a family of adult children grappling with their father’s death and a complicated inheritance. Laritz engaged her passion for detail, ensuring that even the smallest elements, such as authentic watch fobs, were in place.
Since winning the Jeff, Laritz has been constantly employed, doing eight or nine shows a year. Among these were two productions of Sense & Sensibility (at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre Company and Louisville’s Actors Theatre), directed by Jon Jory, for which she created exquisite 19th century dresses and menswear with plenty of panache.
In 2009, she made her Off-Broadway debut in New York at the Pearl Theatre with Playboy of the Western World. But right now she is more than happy to continue making the Midwest the main focus of her career and living in centrally located Chicago.
“I like the Midwest,” she said. “I like the energy, it’s laid back. The thing about New York is, I don’t really like myself there. I’m an anxious person as it is and I get really stressed out and go go go. In New York that’s just heightened. I don’t like my own energy there.”
That hasn’t stopped her from returning to NYC for another production, however: Laritz just completed work on Moon for the Misbegotten, also at the Pearl. In addition, she recently designed costumes for the play Ten Chimneys at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, where she is now working on the musical Title of Show. Simultaneously, she is completing work for As You Like It (set in the 1930s) for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.
Laritz also returned to U-M this spring to design costumes for the theatre department’s production of Cloud 9. The show is set in two time periods—1880 and 1980—and explores sexual identity and sexual politics in a single family. There are a great number of characters and costumes, as well as cross-dressing. Laritz thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of working in two time periods in a single show that also included gender-bending.
Although she has enjoyed a steady stream of success in her career, Laritz admits that freelancing can be stressful. At the same time, she loves the freedom it affords and for now, she says, “I’m still in the mode of just keep doing what I’m doing.”
Since doing what she’s doing has made her one of the Midwest’s go-to costume designers, it’s probably not a bad plan.