The cast of "Follies," currently showing at the San Francisco Playhouse with costumes by Abra Berman.
The cast of "Follies," currently showing at the San Francisco Playhouse with costumes by Abra Berman.

Costume designer Abra Berman: ‘All the world’s a stage, and I want to costume it’

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

“All the world’s a stage, and I want to costume it.” That’s Abra Berman’s motto, and you’ve probably seen some of her creations if you attended any Bay Area stage productions over the last 25-plus years. The San Rafael resident’s latest designs — sparkly, feathered dance outfits, everyday wear from the ’50s, and much more — are currently front and center in “Follies,” the musical playing through Sept. 10 at San Francisco Playhouse.

Berman, 50, who grew up in Mill Valley, has designed for Marin Shakespeare Co., West Bay Opera, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, San Jose Stage … the list goes on. She’s taught her craft to students at the San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts, City College of San Francisco and elsewhere.

Berman’s costumes have been nominated for and won several San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle awards. And though Covid brought things to a halt in the theater world for the last couple years, “Things are picking up now — with hiccups,” she says. “We are hell-bent on getting back to a regular season.”

J.: When did you become interested in fashion design?

Abra Berman
Abra Berman

Abra Berman: When I was really little, I played with Barbie dolls and loved them and all their clothing. I taught myself to hand sew and make [Barbie’s] outfits. I also loved tutus; I started designing and building costumes when I was 12. I was taking ballet at a dance workshop in Mill Valley and making costumes. I still hand sew all my costumes.

Is costume design a difficult field to break into?

For me, going to grad school at UCLA was a big deal. Having an MFA degree in theater costume is a really good way to be considered for a job. After getting my degree, I blitzed Bay Area performing arts companies; I sent them my resume, designs. My very first job was with the Palo Alto Players.

What is your process for making costumes?

Once I sign a contract, I get a script and have talks with the director about their vision for the performance. From there, I start doing research as to what the costumes would look like. I work in concert with the set designer, prop designer — we all work in collaboration. I then do rough sketches of the costumes, go over them with the director and make any revisions before finishing and adding color. It’s about a three-month process. Then you get into the nutso part of it: If we’re lucky, we have about three weeks to make the costumes, working with the actors, before opening.

So your work entails both sketching and building costumes?

Yes, but things have changed dramatically over the past 30 years. We have so much available to us online. I spend much less time building [costumes] than I used to. I used to schlep to every single secondhand store that I could get to and go to fabric stores, and now we have this whole online world available to us … I still go to Joann Fabrics and Crafts in Corte Madera, and Etsy is a great resource.

The cast of "Red Velvet" at the SF Playhouse in costumes designed by Abra Berman.
The cast of “Red Velvet” at the SF Playhouse in costumes designed by Abra Berman.

In addition to freelancing for dance, drama and theater companies, you also work in the textile conservation department of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. What do you do there?

I am a costume mounter. We examine, prepare and dress sartorial objects from the museum that are going on exhibit. For the Guo Pei exhibit [at the Legion of Honor through Sept. 5], we mounted these crazy pieces of wearable art. Now we’re working on San Francisco Style at the de Young. We have some very unique items at the museums, like the Juno and Venus gowns by Christian Dior. I get to meet famous clothing, which is much more interesting than meeting people!

Growing up, was your family Jewishly affiliated?

I went to Kindershul [at the Marin JCC], where we spent most of the time learning about the history of Judaism. That actually has carried me into my design work. A lot of the stories — Samson and Delilah, [Antony and] Cleopatra — were already familiar to me, so it became a bigger, richer story for me when I worked on the production [based on each of them].

My mother taught biology and ESL at the [Lisa Kampner] Hebrew Academy in San Francisco. Sometimes I would go with her. That was a big part of my growing up as well. I developed a very good Russian accent!

I’ve always wanted to design “Merchant of Venice,” presented as a sartorially sympathetic version to Jews, but I never got to do that.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.