In the months leading up to our 2011 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—Titus Andronicus, The Verona Project, Candida, and The Taming of the Shrew—in our e-newsletters. For the year’s third installment, we’re featuring costume designer Anna Oliver, who will create the looks of Shavian England for Candida. What follows is the full transcript of Cal Shakes’ email interview with Anna. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.
I am working on a production of Twelfth Night directed by my brother, Søren Oliver, at Town Hall Theatre Company in Lafayette. I am also figure painting again and refreshing my fluency in American Sign Language; trying to retool the grooves in the ol’gray matter! Last winter, I did a production of Abduction from the Seraglio (which we originated at Houston Grand Opera) at the Welsh National Opera; a wonderful, artful, supportive company. This summer, in San Diego, I collaborated with my friend Llance Bower on a lobby display for the Old Globe’s new building. Llance wanted to make a timeline for theater, held up by figures important to that history. I drew the figures and Llance digitized and printed them with this amazing process that does not degrade the image when it is enlarged. It was a great experience and the result was fantastic.
What’s the first piece of clothing you designed and/or made? (This includes clothes for dolls and pets, of course.)
Ha! The first piece of clothing I designed was a dress for a doll I made when I was about four years old. I used a tape spool and covered it with fabric (asked my Mum to sew the fabric on the spool), and then I glued the eyes and mouth on. I used red bias tape for her hair and stitched her body together. Then, I went into my mother’s fabric drawer and selected a piece of Chinese silk brocade—it had a lustrous black background with a small pattern of flowers and dragons (I think), and had been given to her by my Grandmother. I proceeded to cut the doll’s “dress” out of the very center of the goods … I think my Mum was torn between appreciating my creativity and being a wee bit upset about the damage I had done to the fabric! She was great though; she explained how to cut conservatively and I never forgot it. The dress is long gone but I still have the doll.
If you could have designed costumes for any play in history, what do you wish it could have been?
Hmmm. This is tough. I would like to have been involved with the first production of (Pierre) Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro; I have always wanted to be part of a production that caused a riot. I would love to have heard Moliere’s plays as he wrote them—before the church censors got a hold of them. I would also like to do more work with masks; I really want to go to Venice and learn how to make leather Commedia masks. There are many, many plays and operas I would love to be part of. Off the top of my head: King Lear, Danton’s Death, Marat Sade, Goethe’s Faust, any of the Mozart/(Lorenzo) Da Ponte operas, The Flying Dutchman, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and another dramatization of a Dickens novel since the Nicholas Nickleby that we did was a project I loved doing and am particularly proud of. There are too many to list so I’ll stop and say that I am intrigued and always game for insightful story telling through metaphor.
Who are your favorite costume designers? Fashion designers?
Too many costumes designers to list. I had the good fortune to assist Susan Hilferty and Cathy Zuber, many moons ago. I learned oceans from them both. Martin Pakledinaz is brilliant. Louis Brown was not only staggeringly talented, but he had a wealth of information and was a true gentleman. Jane Greenwood and Jess Goldstein were my teachers at Yale and they are both wonderful.
Fashion: My favorite is probably Christian Dior. His clothes were moving works of art. I’ve studied and loved Balenciaga, Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Fortuny, and Issey Miyake. Much of contemporary fashion strikes me as impossibly disconnected from the human animal or as tricked-out replays. Intrigues me less.
What inspires you right now? Any particular music, current events, people, et cetera?
Painting and color are the things that float my boat these days. I am alarmed and fascinated by what is happening in the Middle East. I felt that some of the films that came out this last year were incredible: the distressing in the clothes and make-up for True Grit was fantastic. And very hard to do; and the “truth” in the world created in The Fighter was equally inspiring. The thing that has always drawn me to and inspired me about theater in particular—and art in general—is communication.
The title character of Candida is described by the playwright as “now quite at her best, with the double charm of youth and motherhood.” Can you share any ideas on how you hope to express that through her dress?
It is still early in the process but Jonathan (Moscone, director, with whom she also collaborated on Man and Superman and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby) and I agree that we want to move it up a decade to around 1905. The silhouette is softer, the hair becomes softer; it gives us options that will better enable us to bring those qualities across.
Can you share any other early thoughts on the costuming for Candida?
I love dressing Shaw. One has to pay very close attention to all the information Shaw gives regarding the characters individually, and to their relationships with each other as well. There is so much in the language! As a designer, I do not want to get in the way of the characters being heard. So I guess that designing clothes for Shaw is a balancing act between finding the right looks and keeping the “volume” of those looks at the right level, so that the characters and their place in the dynamics of the whole are supported and “heard”—but not drowned out.
Candida is a small, intimate, play which speaks to large, fundamental, questions. It will require very delicate “costume tuning.” Such a lovely challenge.
Pictured above right: Susannah Schulman and Nancy Carlin in Man and Superman (2005); photo by Kevin Berne.