It all starts with a pencil: a few doodles, a few shapes, some imagined textures. Eventually, those sketches become the delightfully garish masks and bustled silk Victorian gowns on the stage of the Denver Center Theatre Company—the makings of characters that transport you to another place and time. Your visual conductor is Kevin Copenhaver, the company’s resident costume designer and costume craft shop manager for almost 20 years.
Copenhaver, 43, learned theater design at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, but his education has taken him as far as Padua, Italy, where he studied the evolution of the mask at the Centro Maschere e Strutture Gestuali. Nevertheless, Copenhaver has spent his career in Denver. From the colorful depths of the costume craft shop, where laughing masks hang on the walls next to macabre monsters and dainty hats with long feather plumes, he explains the detailed planning behind the costumes that captivate Denver audiences.
“We start with mock-ups and draping fabric on the actors,” Copenhaver says, and on average he spends at least six weeks meeting with directors, stage managers, and actors for each show. But the painstaking design process—the carbon fiber masks for the Greek tragedies Oedipus Rex and Tantalus took more than 40 hours each to construct—doesn’t end on opening night.
“If the actress is crawling around in a pencil skirt on stage, we need to make concessions for that,” he says. Copenhaver will fiddle with a costume after a performance so it can bend, twist, and move the way the actor does, while ensuring that every hem, hat, or mask is flawless.
Although style opinions might differ among colleagues, in the end he defers to the playwright’s words. “It is a collaborative art,” he says. “But you always have to go back to the script.”