Costume designer B. Modern has been creating outfits for Bay Area actors for more than three decades. Born in Hollywood, she studied dramatic arts and costuming at UC Berkeley before moving to Santa Cruz and starting her career.
Modern says it was her time at the university that solidified her path.
“I’ve always been fascinated by what people wore,” she says. “Ever since I was a little girl, I made scrapbooks where I cut out pictures of women in beautiful evening gowns. I was always very fortunate to be adept at drawing. And I was always interested in theater. But I never put it all together until college.”
When an English professor, fed up with his poorly fitting costume, complained to his class, Modern was struck with inspiration.
“He hated his costume and felt awful in it,” she recalls. “That’s when the lightbulb went on for me. I thought, ‘Hey, I could do that!’ Knowing what I know now—I always tell actors to talk to me about whether they’re comfortable in their costumes. That’s part of learning how to be a diplomatic and conscientious designer.”
Modern has worked on numerous productions throughout the Bay Area. She first worked with Shakespeare Santa Cruz in 1988 on a production of Titus Andronicus and now continues to work with the newly formed Santa Cruz Shakespeare company.
But her most recent endeavor is with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley on their latest production, Ragtime, which opens Saturday, June 4 in Mountain View.
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, the musical, set in New York City, is a portrait of America at the dawn of the twentieth century. It follows the lives of a Black family, Jewish immigrants and a wealthy white family as they pursue the “American Dream” in a rapidly changing world.
Modern says it has been exciting to work on the production, given her heritage.
“All of my grandparents were immigrants,” she says. “My grandfather was a Jewish immigrant, and my Italian grandmother moved to California. Working on this play has definitely been a special experience.”
It’s also incredibly timely.
“With everything that’s gone on in the past two years, it’s all in this play,” Modern says. “Immigration, Black injustice, white people being oblivious to others’ struggles—people are finally discovering what is going on in the rest of the world and expanding their horizons. It’s really important to honor the people who are brave enough to come to America and work hard no matter who they are.”
Creating and fitting the costumes for so many different actors can be challenging, Modern says, and so is staying true to everyone’s vision.
“There are the actors, characters, the playwright and director,” she explains. “You have many people to satisfy besides yourself. For every production I do, I do a lot of research. And I try to have hands-on experience with each actor, remembering their names, their measurements.”
Modern says the payoff makes it worth all the effort when everything comes together.
“After an actor gets their costume on at a fitting, and they go, ‘Oh, wow!’” she says, “and they look at themselves in the mirror, and literally start saying their lines in character—that’s special.”
Modern describes the feeling of coming back into theater after the pandemic as “an absolute joy.”
“It’s so glorious to work together again,” she says. “Theater is very collaborative, and it got taken away for two years. It’s a community. People ask me why I still work, why I’m not retiring. But this is part of who I am. Rejoining my community and creating something to see; it’s very rewarding and makes me so happy.”
Ragtime runs through June 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. For information, visit theatreworks.org. Meanwhile, Santa Cruz Shakespeare kicks off in July.