Setting the Stage: William Dunckel

Costume designer, Actors’ Theatre
William Dunckel
William Dunckel. Photo by David Sparks

If you’ve seen a community theater production in Grand Rapids, you’ve likely seen the work of William Dunckel. He’s been creating costumes for local theater groups, including Actors’ Theatre, Circle Theatre, Grand Rapids Jewish Theatre and more, since moving to the city over 15 years ago.

Dunckel creates costumes for up to 20 productions each year. When Grand Rapids Magazine spoke with him this summer, Dunkel was working on costumes for Circle Theatre’s summer season and was about to get started on the costumes for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Actors’ Theatre’s season opener, playing Sept. 12-15.

Dunckel participated in theater in high school and noted theater students had to create everything for the productions, which gave him his start in costume design work. While in college, he took a class on the history of costume with the purpose of learning even more about costume creation.

With so many shows under his belt, Dunckel said he loves the more creative opportunities, like creating costumes for “Beauty and the Beast” when Circle Theatre previously produced that show.

“I like to do lots of research and get inspiration. Historical pieces are a lot more fun from a costume standpoint because you get to create fun, fantastical costumes, whether for a period piece or some fantastical out-of-the-box kind of thing, like ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ which is trying to create all these creatures out of fabrics,” he said.

For “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Dunckel is in charge of costuming for the show’s genderqueer lead Hedwig, Yitzhak and the rock band.

In some ways, Hedwig is pretty straightforward with their “blond wig, that Farrah Fawcett look, the short denim skirt and the denim vest,” but Dunckel said he looks forward to putting his own spin on the character.

The costume also needs to be able to withstand a lot of movement and nearly 95 minutes on stage. One thing that gives Dunckel a leg up is that he’s also been creating costumes for his husband, who performs as a drag queen.

“If you’ve seen drag shows, they are over the top. My personal reference point for costumes is clean and pretty; then you get drag performers which are like crazy and wild and lots of glitter and rhinestones. So that’s always been my challenge from working with my husband to get him costumes for his shows, bigger, bigger, more, more. I feed off that, too. One more step, one more step.”

He said he’s learned plenty of tricks over the years on transforming a male body into the female form. “You understand how to transform a male body to have a female look, through padding, corsetry, obviously breasts. It’s all fake, but it has to look as real as it can be to present that image — to believe that’s a woman up there.”

Dunckel will outfit the backup band in rock star attire and said he has accumulated several pieces he can pull from to create the right look.

The most exciting costuming for the show likely will come from working on outfits for Yitzhak, which include a major transformation and quick costume change. “You have to take into consideration the quick change, someone to take care of the wig, rig things with Velcro and snaps to get the main costume off and transition into a different look,” Dunckel explained.

He said one of the things he likes about working on productions for Actors’ Theatre is the organization often produces edgier productions that allow him to delve in creatively.

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