lifting the Curtain
Costume Designers Melissa Schlachtmeyer, Normandy Sherwood, and Jessica Pabst with Gary Winter
Lifting the Curtain is an ongoing series of interviews exploring the roles of the artists who collaborate to transport a play from page to stage. For the holiday season, when Scrooge steps forward in his stocking cap, when sticky pudding is splattered over Victorian smocks everywhere, when Santa clones wearing lumpy Santa outfits are embarrassing themselves in family living rooms across America, who better to consult with than the Costume Designer?
Gary Winter (Rail): What are you working on at the moment and/or have coming up?
Melissa Schlachtmeyer: I just got back from doing two opera-type projects; one, a production of West Side Story with El Paso Opera, directed by David Grabarkewitz. The other was a re-mount of a production of a new opera by Michael Dellaira and J.D. McClatchy, directed by Sam Helfrich, based on the Joseph Conrad short story “The Secret Agent.” I’m also just putting up a small production of Stoppard’s On the Razzle in Brooklyn.
Rail: How does costume design tell a story? Is there more to costume design than meets the eye?
Schlachtmeyer: Every choice in the clothing affects the performers, so the director and I really need to hash out what is really going to be happening on stage, what this world is, and who these people are. So when faced with a script, I guess my first question is the same question a director or any other theater artist would ask, which is where this piece lives: in the head or the heart, in the tragedy or black comedy, in social satire or in empathy, etc. Then after that, I think I want a sense of the world it physically inhabits, which is usually a discussion referencing some wheres and whens, either portraying a recognizable historical time and place or incorporating visual references to one or more, but could also just be pure visual invention, depending on the piece and what the team wants to do in production.
Visuals for costumes are the same as any other element—line, texture, color, weight. And of course all of this process is in conjunction with the director and the rest of the team. I did another opera, a production of Madame Butterfly, a few years ago that borrowed some performance styles from Butoh and Kabuki and did some concentrating on the gender and cultural dynamics of the piece, so obviously those costumes were designed with more of a concern for their visual impact and movement instead of the specifics of historicity or the psychology of character.
Depending on the style of production, I go off and start to make choices based a lot on the specifics of the performance in a way that I think differs from that of the other designers—costume choices could be based on the psychology of the characters, if it’s a method-y kind of piece; or on depiction of character traits, if it’s a more comedic and/or satirical piece; or how the costume would affect the movements and physicality of the performer, especially if it’s a more abstract performative piece; and how all of these elements play out among different characters, scenes, etc. in the play.
One thing I would like to do in my life is to encourage performative writers and directors and performers to be able to use all the possibilities of costumes (which are really all the possibilities of performance) as part of the very initial process of creating a piece. I feel that sometimes it’s hard to get out of thinking of performers in jeans and shirts as you see them every day and go beyond what a physical body can do and be and look like on stage, so the performance can go beyond the pedestrian as the costumes do! That’s probably because I danced as a kid and did weird downtown movement theater in my 20s, but I’m okay owning that.
Rail:What are you working on now and/or have coming up?
Normandy Sherwood: I am designing costumes for Jim Findlay’s Botanica, which is in residence at 3LD and will open in February 2012, and for Julia May Jonas’s play Evelyn, which is being produced by her company Nellie Tinder at the Bushwick Starr. Also, my company, the National Theater of The United States of America (or NTUSA)—I write, perform, and design costumes for this company—is preparing for a tour of our show Chautauqua! to the Segerstrom Center in California in January and the premiere of a new show The Golden Veil in June 2012 at the Kitchen. I recently designed costumes for Mac Wellman’s show at Dixon Place (Afar, or, 3 2s, directed by Meghan Finn).
The other exciting new thing is that I have a new, awesome costume shop in Long Island City. It’s in a chashama space that NTUSA and the Drunkard’s Wife are using for studio and rehearsal space—We’re calling it “Uncanny Valley.” We’re going to start having performances there in the new year!
Rail: Tell me about your background/interest in costume design. You’re a playwright and actor too, of course, and not “traditionally” trained as a costume designer, so how did you learn about costume design?
Sherwood: I was always interested in costumes, I always wanted to be wearing one. For a while, between ages 6–9, I got really fixated on a costume I invented—raccoon princess bride—and I would wear it on every possible occasion. When I was in high school I started to sew and designed really strange costumes for many of the modern dance performances and operettas that the school put on (including an operetta about girls in a late 19th-century boarding school who write letters to, and fall in love with, a regiment of Mounties. I think my music teacher wrote this. I borrowed all of my aunt’s square dancing dresses for the girls to wear).
At first I only made costumes for myself and for NTUSA, but then others started asking me to take on projects. This is how I learned. I had no formal training other than a sewing class at age 12.
Rail: Now talk about your ideas about design, your process, what do you think are your strong points and weak points? Could you talk about how your acting and writing inform your ideas about design?
Sherwood: My ideal design situations are working for myself or for artists who I really know and whose work I admire—since costume design is not my primary occupation, I try to be super careful about which projects I take on. In terms of aesthetics, my desire and inclination is always to go big and crazy, which is something I often have to dial back. But sometimes I don’t—I designed costumes for Tina Satter’s play Family a couple of years ago, and it was awesome because we had very compatible crazy ideas about what the characters should look like/would want to wear. I really love to make “historical” pieces made from incongruous materials. There is a part of me that is a nerd about costume accuracy in film and theater (and fiction!) so I am really fascinated with intentional and unintentional inaccuracy.
I am also a playwright, and one of the best compliments I ever got was that I design costumes like a playwright. Which I interpret as meaning that I am very focused on the world of the play and the ways that characters inhabit it. I think costumes are such a powerful tool for creating a world—you can address a character’s history or relationship with other characters, create a sense of time and place, give the actor lots of stuff to work with, give the audience a lot to look at. Costumes can make a play really specific, and that is a delight. And when I write, I always have visual, theatrical elements in mind: costumes, as well as sets, staging possibilities. It’s hard for me to think of a play without really envisioning it.
I would say I am less focused as a designer on how costumes feel—though I think that as an actor that information is really valuable. For NTUSA shows, we try to have some costume elements in rehearsal as early as possible, because this can really inform the choices that actors make. It would be funny to make “method costumes” that feel how the actors are supposed to act (like, scratchy wool linings for a cantankerous character). It would be cruel to the actors, though!
Rail: What are you working on now and/or have coming up?
Jessica Pabst: I am currently in Boise, ID working on a new Sam Hunter commission called A Permanent Image at Boise Contemporary Theatre. From there I will be going to A.R.T. (Boston) to remount the show 3 Pianos that was produced at New York Theatre Workshop last season. I have two shows running in New York, Jesse Eisenberg’s Asuncion at Rattlestick and She Kills Monsters at the Flea Theater.
Rail: Talk to me a little about your “philosophy,” that is, what are some of the goals (ideally) of effective costume design?
Pabst: A lot of people, when I tell them what I do, say, “Oh, you go shopping for a living, that must be fun,” and it is, but of course it is much more involved than that.
It is my job to bring honesty and integrity to the characters the playwright has written, to be scrupulous and specific with their physical appearance so that their voice is heard. How you perceive someone, visually, affects how you listen to them. We all go through it everyday, subconsciously. There is an intention and a history in everything we wear; the choices we make of how to present ourselves, from hair color to the length of your skirt, affect how people perceive you. As a costume designer I have an opportunity to communicate in a hundred little ways from the top of the head to the tip of the toes, assisting the actor and playwright in creating a convincing portrait of a human. There is shopping, and sewing, involved but also a whole lot of dramaturgy, and psychology and collaboration.
Rail: Can you talk a little about working with actors?
Pabst: I love working with actors. I wouldn’t be a costume designer and not have a real love and appreciation for actors. What most excites me is being involved in the process of creating character. I grew up acting and performing, and I have a great understanding of what it takes to be an actor, how hard it is to put yourself out there. I consider it my job to help them feel comfortable and confident onstage. It is a very special collaboration that requires trust on both ends. Everyone comes into the room wearing clothing, seeing themselves in a certain way. Sometimes the actor and character are similar, other times the script requires more of a transformation—that is more challenging but often times more fun for both of us! When I am designing a show, the actor and I maintain dialogue throughout the process. It is very important to be as present as possible, to talk with the actor about how they are shaping the character in rehearsal, to see their bodies move in space, hear them speak the dialogue. The more information I have from the actor, the script, the director, the more informed and nuanced the clothes can be.