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Behind the Threads with RENT Costume Designer, Angela Wendtby Amanda Lea on November 4, 2021
With RENT’s 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour coming to Blumenthal Performing Arts Nov. 9–14, we had the honor of speaking with the woman who helped create the iconic looks for Mimi, Roger, Angel and crew. Angela Wendt shares which characters have changed the most, where she gets her inspiration and the unique challenges this production has faced with the pandemic.
When RENT originally debuted on Broadway in 1996, costume designer Angela Wendt created 68 costumes for its 15 main characters — “starving artists” in New York City’s East Village in the 1990s.
The conceptualization of the costumes came easily to Wendt, who moved to the East Village from Germany in the late ‘80s.
“It was real-life research,” Wendt recalled. “I basically just had to look around my neighborhood. In a way, I already knew all these people.”
Wendt said she even saw herself in the plotline. “I was actually a squatter in a building in New York, just like in the play.”
One Stitch Led to Another
Wendt’s journey to becoming a custom designer was not a straight path.
“It was the result of a long search in finding my place in the theater,” she said. She started on stage with dancing and some acting and did a lot of set painting, which she said was a good fit since she studied fine art in Berlin.
“When costume designing presented itself several years later, everything just jelled,” she said. Wendt says her inspiration comes from watching people around her.
“Part of why I became a costume designer is because I enjoy sitting in a coffee shop and just observing people.”
Creative Persistence Through Challenge
The lenses through which Wendt has experienced her countless tours of RENT continue to evolve. The day before RENT’s first off-Broadway preview performance in 1996, the show’s creator and composer, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm.
“It was a really heavy time,” said Wendt. “We had this huge hit on our hands, but it was overshadowed by sadness that the creator could not be there to enjoy it.”
But, as they say, the show must go on. And, it did.
This time through, Wendt and her team have had to face logistical challenges due to the pandemic. The cast of 22 actors includes seven swings (understudies) — two more than previous productions. Plus, cast members are no longer sharing accessories such as jackets.
This means about 70 more costumes and pieces than usual, Wendt explains. “Instead of 225 costumes, we needed almost 300.”
Clothes Make the Character
It took Wendt six weeks to prepare the iconic ensembles for this tour. She underscored the importance of collaboration in helping the pieces come to fruition. Not only working with the director, lighting designer and choreographer, but also with Wendt’s core team: associate designer Caity Mulkerns, wardrobe supervisor Katie Dean and hair and makeup designer and supervisor Yulitzin Alvarez. Plus, a squad of tailors, artists and crafters.
Although the framework for the costumes is somewhat set, Wendt likes to adapt the wardrobe to the actor and reimagine the pieces to keep the show fresh.
“It really just depends who walks in. I like to integrate the actor into the costume,” she said. When ‘90s fashion circled back in the mid-2000s, Wendt was excited to incorporate new takes on classic looks from the play’s time period.
“Items were available to purchase and play with in a new way,” said Wendt. Her go-to shops for RENT trappings are the L.A.-based store Dolls Kill and East Village’s Trash and Vaudeville.
Wendt says the character that has evolved the most is Angel. “The role lends itself to experimentation,” said Wendt.“The idea of drag and gender has changed. It was more of an old-fashioned drag queen. Now, we’re playing more with gender.”
One of her favorite designs is Angel’s “homemade” shower curtain dress in Act II. “When I first designed Angel, I had to think of fabulous, but without the money. The shower curtain dress is a great illustration of that … it was really fun to make.”
Saying “Farewell” to an Old Friend
With RENT’s 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour, Wendt says she is most excited to be back in the theater and bring the theater back to the public.
“It’s such a great show to come back to,” said Wendt. “As much as it deals with heavy topics, there’s so much hope in the piece.”
Wendt recalled the opening night of the tour in Chicago, how there was a standing ovation for several minutes. “I’ve never seen so many tears of happiness in the theater,” she said. “We’re all just super happy to be back.”
Be There Before the Curtain Call
Want to see Wendt’s creations come to life? Snag your tickets for RENT at Blumenthal Performing Arts Nov. 9–14.
Featured Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg