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Second career as costume designer brings creative juices into play

Joe Kassner pursued costume design after a career

Joe Kassner pursued costume design after a career in other creative jobs. Here, he's doing fittings for an Off-Broadway production of "Fringe Deaths" at St. Luke's Theatre with actor Tiffan Borelli. Credit: Corey Sipkin

Joe Kassner, a costume designer who works with many Long Island and New York City theaters, had a challenge: to provide a dress that a character in “Peter and the Star Catcher” would wear before — and after — a shipwreck.

“I made one that’s perfect and one that looks like it was destroyed in the shipwreck,” he said at home in Greenlawn. “Even though it looked messed up and dirty, it was actually nice and clean for the actress to wear.”

Kassner “distressed” the shipwreck dress for the St. Bart’s Players’ spring production at the Hudson Guild Theater in Manhattan, shredding fabric with scissors, a fork and pliers. Then he spray-painted it to make it look dirty and ran it through the washing machine to further shred the cut ends.

“There’s a lot of detail work,” Kassner said, touching the weathered dress with a floral pattern.

It’s just this sort of detail work that appealed to Kassner, 58, who began focusing on costume design as a career a few years ago. Before that, he had done a range of creative work starting in 1993 — project manager, photo editor, art buyer, illustration editor — for various Manhattan graphic design firms. When he was laid off in 2014 after four years as an art buyer and image editor for Oxford University Press, he decided to leap into costume design.

“I’m happier doing this than I was doing anything else,” Kassner said. “I like seeing everything together. Up until that point, it’s in my head what it will look like together. That’s when you get to see it in motion on stage and on the actors.”

In theater, costume designers are at once the most obvious and invisible part of a production. Their work is everywhere, but the designer doesn’t typically take a bow.

“It’s part of making the actor look like the character. A costume isn’t just a piece of clothing,” Kassner said. “It has to be right for the time period, for the season. It has to be right for the character.”

Kassner is one of relatively few costume designers who work for some of Long Island’s larger theaters. Kate Keating, director of education for the Argyle Theatre in Babylon, said she discovered Kassner several years ago when she performed in shows. She now taps him for numerous productions.

“When I was an actress, I loved the costumes he made for me,” said Keating, who leads children’s theater at the Argyle. “I’m very petite and a lot of times costumes won’t fit me well. He took the time to adjust my costumes and fit them well.”

Laura Longobardo, who with her husband, Arthur, in April acquired Broadhollow Theatre, where Kassner has done more than 50 shows, credits him with giving productions much of their look.

“He makes a beautiful show,” she said. “He makes his own things, pulls what we have and alters them. He just has a really good eye.”

Kassner recently got his first Off-Broadway gig, designing costumes for “Fringe Deaths,” which began previews June 28 and ran until July 14.

“We picked him because he’s very bright and has taste,” said Rider McDowell, writer and director for the show at St. Luke’s Theatre. “It’s a minimalist set. The costumes are everything.”

On-the-job training

Being a costume designer can be a tough if not thankless job. It involves many details, pleasing the director, the actors and, eventually, the audience.

“Of all the jobs, I think it’s the hardest one. There’s so much to think about,” Longobardo said. “One person can have 10, 12 costumes. There can be hundreds of costumes in a show.”

The process is part scavenger hunt and design, part fashion and function, assembling costumes from scratch, thrift shopping, adapting theater collections and discovering materials online.

“You can’t just buy certain things,” Kassner explained. “A lot of times if you buy it, it looks like a costume. I want them to look like real clothes from the time period.”

Budgets up to a few thousand dollars mean in that Kassner often must build, beg and borrow from other designers — who return the favor.

“We needed someone resourceful who could think on their feet . . . ” McDowell said during the planning stages of “Fringe Deaths.”

Kassner creates, combines and uses theater collections to produce sometimes lush looks — especially for big musicals. “That’s part of the trick, too,” he said. “Make it look expensive even if it isn’t necessarily.”

And costumes don’t just get worn — they can get worn out. “To be able to withstand the dancing and running around in a show, that is essential,” Keating said.

Kassner has to work quickly, moving from show to show, sometimes doing several at a time. Likewise, he and other designers have to come up with ways for the actors to quickly transition between costumes.

“Many costumes have to be rigged so they can be taken off quickly,” Keating said

While many people are bitten by the theater bug, Kassner became enamored of acting and costumes. He was born in Queens, moved to East Meadow and graduated from East Meadow High School in 1978, acting in and doing costumes for such shows as “Kiss Me Kate” and a revue.

“I had knowledge of fabrics, how to sew a little bit,” he said. “As soon as I could drive, I started thrift shopping.”

He studied acting and costume design at Adelphi University, where he got a bachelor of fine arts in theater in 1982. He acted in New York City and around the nation, doing shows in Ohio, New Hampshire and Long Island.

“I loved it,” he said of acting. “But it’s hard to get work. You get a show. The show ends, and you’re unemployed again.”

Kassner had done wardrobe styling for commercials for Weight Watchers, American Express and more even before being laid off from Oxford University Press in March 2014. And by September of that year, he had been hired as BroadHollow’s on-staff designer, doing more than 50 shows through January. Now he works as an outside contractor for BroadHollow as well as the Argyle, Phoenix Repertory and St. Bart’s Players in Manhattan.

“It ended up being the best thing that ever happened,” he said of transitioning careers. “I ended up doing what I loved.”

Creative challenges

Every show has costume challenges, some greater than others. Kassner recalled one director who wanted him to re-create a coat from an Impressionist painting.

“I dug into my imagination and came up with something right for the time period that had the feeling of the painting,” he said.

Along the way, he created costumes ranging from dragonflies for a ballet called “Dragonfly” while at Adelphi, to mermaids for another show.

“You don’t walk into a sewing store and buy a pattern for dragonfly wings,” he said. “I used wire and chiffon. I kind of came up with it.”

Longobardo likens costume design to assembling a sartorial puzzle, using clothing like brush strokes to make one big painting.

“They have to match the set, the lighting,” she said. “If you’re doing a ’70s show and throw in an ’80s top, people will know.”

Many costumes capture a specific time and place, such as those for “Mary Poppins” at BroadHollow that Kassner designed with a 1910 look and feel.

“I used to have tons of costume books. I don’t even use them anymore,” he said. “I can go online and find hundreds of examples of what clothes looked like in 1910.”

For “Fringe Deaths,” Kassner re-created costumes for the characters of George Reeves (who played Superman in the 1950s TV series); Jack Ruby (the Dallas nightclub owner who fatally shot Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 after Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy); actress Barbara Payton (who appeared in such 1950 films as “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” co-starring James Cagney, and “Dallas,” where she was opposite Gary Cooper); and Carl Dean Switzer (Alfalfa in the Our Gang comedies).

“You have to have a sense of a classic look from a certain era,” McDowell said. “Extrapolating what they might wear, it’s a very subtle thing.”

Kassner, who uses a new Viking sewing machine, believes that costumes, if not always king, are key. He likes to quote the late actor and producer Hume Cronyn on using costumes to externally create character.

“He said, ‘Give me the right hat and I can play any character.’ ”

For more stories about the Act 2 generation, visit newsday.com/Act2.

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