Interview with Lynn Pecktal
I grew up in Bratislava, the capitol of the Slovak Republic (formerly part of Czechoslovakia). My mother had been an actress before she married my father. When I was nine and my parents separated, my mother and I moved to Gorky Street. Located at the end of our block was Slovak National Theatre. The entrance of the building we lived in faced the stage door of the other major theatre in Bratislava. My mother had artist friends who, in a time-honored tradition of Eastern Europe often met in our apartment for coffee, wine, poetry reading, gossip and laughter. As a child, I was not allowed to sit with the adults, but my mother pretended not to know that I was in the room hiding behind a sofa. I went to as many of the plays and operas and ballets at the two theatres we lived so near to as I could. I admired artists for an early age. They seemed to be good-natured and smart and they were doing what they loved.
I first wanted to be a painter but I was not admitted to the only high school that prepared future artists in Slovakia. My other great love was theatre and film but I did not want to be an actress. So, by default really, I saw costume and scene design (referred to in Europe as “sceneography”) as a possible way of becoming an artist. In Bratislava there was a large sceneography center whose head was Ladislav Vychodil, a very accomplished designer. The scenography center had lard, technically very advanced workshops and my hope was to become an apprentice to Mr. Vychodil after I graduated from high school. History intervened. In August of 1968 Czechoslovakia was invaded by the armies of the Soviet block and my mother and I became political refugees. My father was working at the United Nations in New York and, although my parents were divorced, we joined him in New York. My older sister was by then married to an American living near Chicago.
Were your parents supportive of what you wanted to do?
Yes, since I grew up on a culture that admires and cherishes artists. To be an artist is considered to be an honor (after communism fell in Czechoslovakia, the Czechs elected Vaclav Havel, a playwright, as their president. That is as if August Wilson was elected the next president of the United States!).
When you first started out were you influenced by any well-known theatrical costume designer?
I was influenced by Jozef Svoboda, who was a famous Czech scenographer. When I came to the United States he was already as well known amongst American designers as he was in Europe and Asia. I had seen his work in Czechoslovakia and admired it greatly. I consider him of having the kind of importance that early designers such as Adolphe Appia, Gordon Craig and Robert Edmond Jones had on the development of contemporary design.
What I learned from him was tat every single thing on stage, whether it be the scenery, costumes or props ought to stand on its own as a work of art and craft. I teach that principle to my students.
How did you come to study costume design at the Goodman School of Drama?
I have to be honest and say that I do not exactly remember. I think that I did not realize how early one had to apply to get into college and I missed the deadline for schools in the New York area where we were living. (I did study at the Lester Polakoff Studio for a short time where my teacher was Jane Greenwood. However, my parents felt that I needed a college degree.) I remember that my sister called the Art Institute of Chicago (Goodman School of Drama was, at that time, part of the Art Institute) and asked if they taught design. I liked the fact that my sister would be near where I went to school. I knew next to nothing about how good the school was, so I was glad to find once I got there, that it was very professional and that my two professors (Virgil Johnson and Alicia Finkel) were excellent. To this day I teach what they taught me and I am very grateful to them. I don’t think, however, that they thought I had much of a future. Although I worked very hard I was by no means an exceptional student. I was very unfamiliar with the American educational system and my English was barely adequate.
After going to Goodman you went to study at the Yale School of Drama. Did anything special prompt that?
Virgil Johnson felt that I needed further education (and he was right!) He talked to me about several graduate schools. I asked him which was the best in the country and he said Yale. So I applied. I was not accepted but I was put on a waiting list, in case a student that had been accepted changed his mind. And one did…
Your first paying production. What was that and how did that come about?
Throughout my career I have been extremely fortunate in many, many ways. The League of Professional Design Schools held its first Portfolio Review in New York the year I graduated (1977). One of the reviewers was John Conklin. He, as he has done so many times in his long illustrious career, very generously recommended me to Nikos Psacharopoulos, who was the head of the premier summer stock company, The Williamstown Theatre Festival. Nikos hired me to design his production of PLATONOV (with Joel Grey!) for the summer season of 1977. I was paid $300 (the great thing about WTF was that nobody go paid anything much, not even Joel Grey) but Nikos very kindly bought one of my designs, which was by no means a work of art! In the Fall of 1977 Robert Brustein, then the Dean of Yale School of Drama hired me as the resident costume designer.
THE VOYAGE, a world premiere opera by Philip Glass at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It was directed by David Pountney. Was that an exciting production to work on?
It certainly was! I thoroughly enjoyed the process. I was hired at the last minute by opera standards (most opera productions require one to two years lead time). Consequently, the scene design had been completed. In fact, it was Robert Israel, the scene designer, who recommended me for the job. Working on a new opera or a new play is my very favorite kind of design. I very much enjoy working with librettists, composers and playwrights. One feels, if one does a good job, that one is breaking new ground and frequently one’s work sets the standard for all future productions. Philip Glass was very engaged in the creating of this production as was the librettist David Henry Hwang. The Metropolitan Opera staff was excellent in supporting this new work. I have rarely worked with a more supportive head of production than Joe Clark. David Pountney is an innovative British director, thoroughly prepared and professional. The creation of THE VOYAGE was as near perfect an experience as any designer can hope to be part of.
How long did you spend designing the costumes for THE VOYAGE?
The actual research and rendering I had very little time for, a couple of months. My then assistant, Elizabeth Garat and I worked on the creation of the costumes with the staff of the Metropolitan Opera costume shop for close to a year. There were two weeks of dress rehearsal alone, something I have never encountered anywhere else.
Were all of the costumes for THE VOYAGE built in the MET shop?
Most of the costumes were built there, but some of the costumes were created elsewhere. For example, the uniforms for the band that played on stage in one of the scenes were made by a costumer who specialized in patterning for band uniforms. The elaborate bird heads worn by the chorus in the first act were built in a workshop that specialized in soft sculpture.
How many costume sketches did you do for that opera?
I don’t remember the actual numbers but there were over three hundred costumes, although some were duplicated. When designing for opera it is often advisable to limit the number of separate patterns that the costume shop will have to prepare. To create variety the designer varies colors and fabrics for each costume or group of costumes. For example, for THE VOYAGE I created I think six different variations for the evening gowns the chorus ladies wore with their bird heads. For each one of the six styles I chose lines that would most flatter a particular type of a figure. I did not repeat colors or fabric, thus each chorus lady wore a gown that was basically designed specifically for her.
Do they have a specific set budget for costumes on a production at the MET? Did you have to cut or revise any items to come in on budget?
I am sure that each production at the MET has a budget but I was not directly informed what the budget for THE VOYAGE was. At other opera houses where I have worked the budget may even be written into my design contract. Richard Wagner and his wife who ran the MET shop while THE VOYAGE was being built informed me of areas where I needed to help them save cost. We did that as we went along and it worked out very well. I can honestly say that I did not have to compromise at all. Most of the changes had to do with the way things were going to by manufactured, finding a cheaper way to create the same effect.
You also designed the costumes for I LOMBARDI with Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera. Was he an interesting personality to work with?
I am not sure I would call him “interesting!” He had a reputation at the MET for being a bit unpredictable. He could be perfectly amiable one day and quite difficult the next. When I went into his dressing room for the fitting I have to say that I was a bit apprehensive about his mood. I was not afraid that he would not like the costume I designed for him since I basically designed what I knew he liked: an easy to put on and comfortable gown, flattering to his huge size. In this I received great help from Ray Diffin then the resident costume designer at the MET. I was worried that he might be unwilling to co-operate which he had been known to do. So I was pleasantly surprised to find him in the best of moods and completely responsive to the fitting. He had just lost 100 pounds! He even briefly considered wearing a white costume, an idea I had of the part of the opera where he returns as a ghost. I had been told that he always refused wearing white.
Who was the director for I LOMBARDI?
One of my very favorite directors, Mark Lamos. I designed for him when he was the artistic director of the Hartford Stage Company. He was very helpful to me when I was a young designer. In many ways he educated me, especially about opera and music.
Was this a pleasant production to work on? What was the number of costumes you created for Pavarotti? What about the rest of the company?
I very much enjoyed working on I LOMBARDI. It is an opera by a young Verdi, rarely produced, probably due to its huge size and the subject (it is about the crusades). The opera’s real star is the chorus and the music they get to sing is very beautiful. Pavarotti especially wanted to appear in it as it has several exceptionally fine arias for the tenor. My design collaborators were John Conklin and Pat Collins who I had worked with before and who I both deeply respect. There were tow costumes that I designed for Pavarotti bur he chose to wear only one. He also insisted on wearing sneakers under his Turkish robe, as he had problems with his feet. The gown he wore was long and the stage is very far away from the audience at the MET, so we all closed our eyes….and the fact is that the minute he started to sing, what he was wearing became irrelevant. He has a magnetic power that few of even the greatest opera stars of today have. It is beyond technique and a fine voice. And further, as a designer I never feel that what I do should be noticed to such and extent that it may eclipse the performer. I am there to enhance the performance not to create it. I am certainly not there to hinder it.
Research. Depending on the production, do you usually prefer to do a great deal of research before starting to draw and paint your costume designs?
I always do a lot of research even if the costumes I create may seem to have little to do with what I researched. Research serves as an inspiration and as a foundation to everything I do. I love to read and I am always glad to have an excuse to raid the library and to buy books.
All of the “iconoclastic” (so called by critics) productions of Mozart and Handel operas that I have designed with Peter Sellars and Adrianne Lobel done in contemporary dress were based in meticulous research of the periods they were composed in. What ends up on stage may have come from a mall but a great amount of research and learning proceeded the shopping. In fact, as many costume designers will tell you, it is often harder to design contemporary dress costumes than period costumes.
Director Francesca Zambello. You have collaborated on several productions with her. What would one rewarding theatrical experience with her be?
I loved designing EMMELINE, a new opera by Tobias Picker that premiered at the Santa Fe Opera and was subsequently televised on PBS Great Performances series. Francesca is able to give designers a lot of respect. When she was satisfied that I was on the right track, she supported me by trusting me. Yet she was always available when I needed her to help me when there were problems. She never asks for the impossible.
Another director that you have collaborated with is Peter Sellars. Talk about how you approached and worked with him on NIXON IN CHINA and THE DEATH OF KLINGHOPPER. Did you come up with ideas and a concept first for these, or did he, or did you both do it together?
I have worked with Peter since he was an undergraduate at Harvard and in some ways there is an almost symbiotic relationship between us as collaborators. We both shy away from the word “concept.” As a designer for opera and theatre I have often seen directors use concept in ways that are detrimental to the true artistic process.
For me to create something, whether it is a set of costumes or a new medication to treat disease, requires the ability to put aside one’s pre-conceptions about what something means, I try very hard to let the material itself” the play, the libretto, the music tell me what is needed. I also think that sometimes directors use conceptualization to make up for a lack of familiarity with the material. It is basically impossible, as far as I am concerned, to really know the material until the play, opera has been rehearsed for a while. For one thing, actors and singers are artists with their own ideas, so it is important to include them in the process of creation. Forcing them to comply with a concept that was hatched out often months before can be detrimental to the possibility of creating a work of art. This is not as true when the material is relatively lightweight. To go back to your question, for me NIXON IN CHINA designed itself. It was based on specific event: President Nixon’s visit to China in the nineteen seventies. This event had been extensively photographed, so my job was to basically copy the actually garments worn by all the participants in that moment in American and Chinese history. I was further helped by the fact that Chairman Mao had ordered the entire Chinese population to wear identical clothing. Men, women and children wore blue trouser suits. The entire army, on down from the generals to the lowest private wore identical green uniforms. The costumes for the ballet that appears within the opera were actually designed by Mao’s wife, the infamous Madame Mao. My assistant and I went to the Library for the Performing Arts in New York and watched a film that had been made of the ballet in China. Interestingly, for THE DEATH OF KLINGHOPER, which was also based on an actual event (the murder of an elderly American Jewish passenger on the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists) Peter and I both felt that the costumes would not be based or copied from the clothing that had been worn when that terrible tragedy occurred. The main reason for this decision was the fact the the topic was extremely painful to the family of the victim and that the entire opera is not strictly speaking addressing only the individual suffering of Mr. Klinghoffer and his family, but also our inability as human beings to live in peace. Further, the chorus performed as the chorus of Jews and the chorus of Palestinians and this was an important aspect of the opera, which would have been undermined by dressing them differently for each role.
New costume designers are often interested in the pained costume sketches of established designers. What would you tell a costume designer who wants to know the usual height of figure (in inches) and what paints and boards you use?
Since I teach design I discuss and guide rendering of costumes on daily basis. I feel very strongly that each set of costumes requires a fresh look at which rendering media should be used and what size should be chose. I pride myself on not teaching my students that there is only ONE way to render. Consequently, the rendering style of my students does not resemble mine. The only thing that I insist on is that the figure had natural proportions, i.e. roughly seven and a half heads unless the designs are for a play or film or a star that requires the “glamorous” flattering nine head figure. I insist on the natural proportions since it does save one grief in the fitting room. When a five foot two actress weighing 120 pounds puts on a gown that was designed to fit an unrealistically elongated and thin figure, there is usually a rather large problem to follow.
Is there a difference in how you would design and execute costumes for AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and design and execute costumes for ALCINA at Covent Garden in London?
There is no question that if I am familiar with the individual costume shop and its resources I use that information when designing costumes. Many designers will call a colleague who has worked at a particular costume shop, which is to build costumes for their next production to find out what the strengths and weaknesses might be there. There are very few costume shops that are equally excellent in building every periods and every style. (The only one that I would give this high praise is the costume shop of the Salzburger Festspiele in Austria). It is fine to try to challenge the staff of a costume shop to do something that they have rarely done, but that takes a lot of extra energy and time, which busy designers rarely have.
Are you mostly interested in designing costumes for classical plays and operas rather than for something like a sitcom where you go and find clothes in thrift shops and second hand stores?
The reason that I am not interested in designing for sitcoms is not so much because it involves shopping at thrift stores or malls since one often s to do that when designing for opera and theatre. The reason is that I have no proclivity for working in strictly for profit situations. I am not able to be guided by principles that are so closely tied to commercial values. This is not to say that the venues I work in are not in the business of making revenue but their highest value is not making the sponsors happy.
If the show had all major famous stars and you were offered a guest artist slot designing for a series of skits Off-Broadway for FORBIDDEN BROADWAY on Theatre row, would you be interested no matter how much it paid?
Most designers have found themselves in a situation where they end up working for nothing or next to nothing (and I mean “next to nothing.” For a production at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles of HEDDA GABLER staring Annette Bening I was literally paid $4.49/hour. I was given a flat fee of $3000.00. I kept track of the hours I gave to the production and of how much of my own money I spent of gasoline, parking and other miscellaneous expenses. When I did the calculation at the end, $4.49 is what I ended u with. This is an aspect of our profession that I have never completely understood. I understand it when everyone connected to the production is making the same amount or donating one’s services. As I n many things in life, we at times like to give either because it is the right thing to do or because we feel that ultimately we will gain something. However, I do not understand why a designer should be paid very little while the managing staff of the theatre in question is paid adequately and the theatre spends money freely for other things besides the designer fee.
You designed the costumes for RAKE’S PROGRESS at the Theatre de Chatelet in Paris with director Peter Sellars, Adrianne Lobel and James F. Ingalls. Comment on what you did for this production.
This was a truly brilliant production in which every single aspect was considerably above average, from the conductor Esa Pekka-Salonen to the singer Dawn Upshaw. Most of the costumes were bought in the United States since Peter Sellars set the production in a maximum-security prison in present day California. We had a lot of fun with the tattoos that I designed for the inmates based on research of prisons. The make-up staff at the Chatelet was absolutely first rate and they succeeded at creating a very authentic look.
At this point in your career if you were asked to include two of your most favorite costume designed shows in a traveling theatre museum, what would they be? Talk about what you designed for the shows that you were pleased with.
Many years ago when I was a student at the Yale School of Drama, my professor and mentor Ming Cho Lee told us in his scene design class to remember that the audience ought not be going home “whistling the set.” I have always applied this to my own work. Consequently I am only pleased with my work if my costume designs are a part of, in all aspects, thoroughly excellent production. Thus my two most favorite productions are THE DESTH OF KLINGHOFFER and THEODORA. Both have exquisite librettos and music, both had excellent casts and conductors, both had brilliant direction, set designs and lighting, both addressed issues that I consider of great importance in our lives. THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER opened at the height of the Gulf war in Bruxelles where we were receiving, as an American company daring to address the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, death threats and told not he speak English while outside the theatre. The opening night had more police and journalists in the audience then I have ever seen in one place. But the work endured and endures. THEODORA made the wealthy exclusive audiences at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera where it opened, sit up in their seats and consider the value of spiritual devotion and love.
Suppose I am a new costume designer and I want to know what takes place in the fitting room, what would you tell me? Would you include telling the actors that they look terrific in the clothes and any other comments that would make them feel at home and comfortable in the costumes.
Being able to do fittings is a great skill that took me a long time to acquire. I learned a lot from Jane Greenwood on this subject both when I was her student at Lester Polakov’s and when I was her colleague at Yale. I sometimes tell my students that to have the right fitting room “manner” requires the study of psychology and diplomacy. Each actor is different, some, like Jessica Tandy who I worked with when I was very green, definitely do not respond to flattery. They want you to tell them the truth. There are some actors and singer who do want to be flattered. So it is very important to be able to “seize” a performer’s personality as quickly as possible. Respect is also very important. One should not condescend to a performer. Actors do sometimes act like children; in that case I like to adopt the manner of an English nanny. I set clear limits and make it known that I am capable of being very disappointed. There are two situations I find the hardest when reviewing what I like to call “costume shop etiquette.” One is when a performer is hostile, angry and even violent. Fortunately I have encountered this kind of behavior only rarely. I usually leave the fitting room and give the person and opportunity to calm down. The other which is all too frequent is the performer who fusses and fusses over little tiny things and not once not twice but for what seems like eternity. “Shouldn’t we shorten the sleeve a quarter of an inch?” The draper does so. “No, maybe it should be a half and inch…” The draper complies. “No, it was better as before.” At this point it is a good idea to stop the fussing by making a decision. Unfortunately, with some performer that does not help. He or she may acquiesce only to start fussing with the sleeve length again after a short respite. A performer who does this is usually insecure about something that is not really related to the costume. He or she, perhaps unknowingly, is transferring her fear of something into the costume. The patience of an angel is barely enough to deal with such and actor or singer.
You have taught design at the Yale School of Drama, Harvard, University of California in Santa Barbara and the University of California in Los Angeles. Was the nature of your classes at these places similar in teaching patterns or did they very enormously?
I was very young when I started teaching and I knew next to nothing, only I did not know that. I am happy to report that my teaching has greatly improved. I know this since so many of my students are doing so well professionally. I have taught both graduate and undergraduate students and my teaching methods have evolved to address the distinct difference between the needs of these two groups.
You designed the costumes for THE INTELLIGENT DESIGN OF JENNY CHOW by Rolin Jones for the South Coast Repertory Theatre in 2003. It was directed by David Chambers. How would you describe what you did for that production?
This project is on my list of the ten best productions I have been part of. I also had the wonderful opportunity to have one of my very advanced and truly talented graduate students at UCLA, Helene Siebrits work with me and an Associate Costume Designer. The project came up very quickly and I was very busy teaching and working on EL NINO (for which I chose another of my very special graduate students, Jeannique Prospere to be an Associate Costume Designer), so it was great to have Helene to work with. The play was written by a second year Yale School of Drama playwright and directed by an old friend and colleague. The play brought the audience to its feet every night and it more than deserved this. It was set in contemporary Southern California, so it was primarily shopped although Helene and I have the challenge of designing a robot who flies to China! All on a very small budget. Our work turned out very well and both the playwright and the director were pleased.
Comment on designing the costumes for EL NINO in 2003 with direction by Peter Sellars. It played at Los Angeles Philharmonic, Brooklyn Academy of Music and at the Barbican in London. Did you keep the costumes the same for all this places? Tell me what you did that was different?
Many of the productions that I have designed for Peter Sellars tour to different venues all over the world. The idea is to present a production that is as close to the original production as possible. The exceptions are if an actor or a singer has to be replaced or if Peter develops a new idea along the way. (He stays very close to the production as it tours.) EL NINO had the planned departure of singer Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson after the Brooklyn Academy performances. She was replaced by singer who was much smaller, so we had a new costume built for her. The design did not have to be changed since it was designed to look good on any figure. Also, one of the dancers turned out to be pregnant and departed from the production after the Brooklyn Academy performances. Peter decided not to replace her, so we did not have to come up with another design for her. The design for EL NINO was full of challenged, the largest one being that the singers were not available for fittings until a few days before the premiere. Fortunately I have worked with all three of them before and I designed what I knew would be appropriate for them. My Associate Jeannique Prospere was of great help in this since there simply was not enough time for me to do all the fittings. We had to divide them between ourselves as the singers all arrived at the same time and we had very little time with them.
How much time do you spend doing an average sketch?
That depends a lot on the medium used and on the type of costume I have to render. My style is what is called “tight: by the standards of American design. I am definitely not good at doing fast loose sketches. My “tightness: partly comes from my own being (i.e. from what feels right for me) and partly from experience. I like to make my renderings extremely easy to read and I supplement them with a lot of research and technical drawings. (Technical drawings are what I believe are called “flats” in fashion. Components of a costume are drawn in pencil or ink to give the drapers specifications such as size of a cuff or placement of trim.) I cannot spend weeks and weeks in a costume shop overseeing the making of the costumes. To prevent misunderstandings, which always cost money, I try to be extremely clear in my renderings.
If I am a new student and I am thinking about becoming a costume designer for the professional theatre, what would you tell me I need for a background?
Costume design requires knowledge and proficiency in many different areas. I actually list these for my first year students and they are always quite overwhelmed with the length of the list. It includes knowledge of history of theatre, opera, ballet, dance, film and television, as well as history of art (and not just Western art) and history of costume. It requires proficiency in rendering, in doing research, in how costumes are constructed, in fitting “etiquette,” in interpersonal relationships, in supervision and management. A designer must understand budgeting and bookkeeping and be able to handle large amounts of money. Knowledge of color and fabric is imperative. That’s only about a half of the complete list.
Do you favor having a “costume parade” on stage with the actors trying their new costumes under stage lighting so the director/chorographer, costume designer and other collaborators can see how they look for the first time?
A “costume parade” is a good idea for certain circumstances. It is useful particularly in educational theatre where, due to the fact that students have to attend classes during the day there cannot be what in theatre is referred to as “ten-out-of-twelve,” i.e. a full day of dress rehearsal. Since the director will consequently have attended to all the aspects of the production: acting, scenery, lights, etc. he/she may miss seeing the costumes in detail. A costume parade eliminates that problem.
What was one of your favorite productions you designed for the Yale Repertory Theatre?
There are many but probably my favorite is SGANARELLE, a compilation of Moliere farces directed by Andrea Serban. The production had a very long life, since I was so well received by the critics and audiences alike. It appeared at the Public Theatre in New York and even traveled to Egypt. It opened during one of the worst snowstorms ever to hit the East Coast. As many of the ale Rep subscribers were unable to make it to the theatre the tickets were given to Yale students, whose dormitories were in close proximity. We never had a more enthusiastic audience! Some of the staff and actors ended up sleeping at the theatre which only added to the wackiness of the whole experience!
Does the new costume designer ask you if hair and wig design and make-up are part of the basic concept?
Since most theatre educational programs include at least make-up in their curriculum students frequently ask the above question in reality, at least in my experience, the designer has relatively little to do with hair and make-up, particularly when doing film and television. I always have research and ideas, but I know that if an opera company or a theatre has make-up and hair department my input will be closer to consultation then to design. There are notable exceptions such as the fat that I designed the tattoos for RAKE’S PROGRESS at the Chatelet, while the make-up department merely executed them.
Have you ever thought about directing a production? Or have you?
I thought about it only very briefly once probably more from frustration than anything else. I have to be entirely honest and say that I find too many directors very difficult to work with. I am lucky that I have been able to have long lasting working relationships with m very fine directors and thus do not have to work more the once with the difficult ones. Directors have been given (or have taken) enormous amounts of power which is always dangerous. Few people have the moral and ethical stature to resist the temptations of power.
Do you prefer designing for the legit theatre and opera over film and television?
I have only done one film and the television I have done was not mainstream commercial. I am not suited to work in purely commercial situations. It simply does not work for me.
Suppose I ask you what future opera, musical or play you’d love to design for the stage and haven’t what would that production be?
I have designed TEMPEST by William Shakespeare but I was very young and inexperienced when I did that. I would love to have the opportunity to do it again.
Do you enjoy the role of costume designer equally with the role of costume design instructor?
I think that at this stage of my life and career I prefer to teach. Our young people today are in many ways lot less well prepared for adulthood than they should be. This is a result of the inadequate support our culture gives primary education. Each year the students I teach know less. Some of them can’t even write a coherent paragraph. I feel that as long as I am able to help them learn my work, as an educator is lot more important than my work as a designer.
How did the job of designing the costumes for FIDELIO at the Scottish National Opera come about? Also, how much time did you have from the time you had discussion with the director until the finished costumes appeared on stage?
I have frequently worked with Stephen Wadsworth who was the director of FIDELIO. He asked me to design the production about a year and a half before we went into dress rehearsals. I enjoyed working at the Scottish National Opera, although the winter in Glasgow was quite difficult to endure. The only place that was as cold and dark as Glasgow was Anchorage, Alaska!
Is the costume designer in today’s theatre expected to know how to sew, make patterns, and do draping to deal appropriately with the costume shop where his or her costumes are to be built?
The idea that a designer needs to be also a draper goes around and around and seems to change from school to school and designer to designer. There are many designers especially in Europe who know very little about draping and yet design perfectly marvelous costumes. I know designers who are great drapers but their designs are no better for it. I like to take the middle ground. I tell the students that they need to know ENOUGH to communicate with the drapers and to be useful in fittings. The most important thing, as far as I am concerned, is to be able to distinguish good draping from inadequate draping, to be able to spot a problem and help the draper find a way to fix it. I learned a lot of that skill not by learning how to sew or drape but by watching good drapers in fittings. I had rudimentary education in draping and patterning, but most of the time I am able to help a draper overcome a problem.
What would you like to be doing ten years from now?
That’s funny! It is a question I always ask of prospective graduate students so I can quickly measure their resolve. Frankly, I very much hope to be retired by then. I have achieved a lot as a designer and educator and I would like to slow down. Another way to answer that question at my age would be to say that I hope to be still alive!
Was it a memorable experience when you designed the costumes for AH, WILDERNESS! At Lincoln Center with director Daniel Sullivan, Tom Lynch and Peter Kaczorowski?
I truly enjoyed doing that production and I liked very much what we achieved as a team. I stupidly thought that play to a bit naïve and inconsequential but I feel Dan Sullivan helped me feel otherwise. I am still very proud of the production.
If you had a choice and could do it all over again, would you still select the role of costume designer as a career?
No, actually I would not. There are aspects of the profession that I do not find conducive to really being the artist that I had hoped to be from the earliest time I can remember. Since I grew up in Europe where the profession is quite different I became involved in it one could say “under false pretenses.” I do not like to travel, which a costume designer has to, often under very stressful circumstances (such as flying to London from Los Angeles for three days and returning there again after few days in Los Angeles). I do not like the often arbitrary deadlines that govern the designer’s live, I do not like the lack of respect designers often get from management, directors and actors, I do not like collaboration which cannot exist if one or more members of the team suffer from egocentricity, an all to common problem if I had to do it all over again, I would put all my energy into being a painter. This is not to say that I have not had a good life or that I am not proud of the work I have done. In many ways, I have been very privileged in the great artists I have worked with, particularly singers and composers and playwrights and in the fact that I have been allowed to teach. Teaching is not a job, it is a calling and it is a privilege especially in a state school system where my salary is paid for by the taxpayers. I take that part of my life extremely seriously.