BWW Interview: A Conversation Between a Director and Costume Designer at West Side Theatre Company

BWW Interview: A Conversation Between a Director and Costume Designer at West Side Theatre Company

BroadwayWorld was given the unique opportunity to capture a conversation between the director and costume designer of West Side Theatre Company's imaginative upcoming production of J.M. Barrie's classic play PETER PAN. Director Aubrey Warner and costume designer Jess Wallace Nielsen have worked together on two previous shows at the theatre company: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (designs pictured) and the Utah premiere of PRIDE & PREJUDICE - THE MUSICAL. Below, Warner asks Wallace questions to explore her creative process.

PETER PAN plays Thursday, Aug. 2 through Saturday, August 4 and Monday, Aug. 6 at 8:00 p.m. at SilverLake Amphitheater. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.westsidetheatreco.org.

As a costume designer, what's the first thing you do when you start working on a project?

You have to start with the script. The script contains all the words that will be spoken and therefore all the rules and relationships that will be adhered to throughout the process. Anything that isn't spoken is up for interpretation. So you have to know the dialogue before you can make a new concept or convention work. I'll read the script once with little to no note taking. I just want to understand the story. Then I'll read it again, this time breaking down who is in what scene, what should they be wearing (are they coming in from outside, are they a high or low status character, does someone say "nice blue dress," is it a new day and therefore a new outfit, etc.). After that read-through, I jump into research. Historical research, not just for fashion but for greater understanding of the context of play. When and where does this take place? What's the political climate? Research on the author. Why did they write it? What major themes or ideas are written into the play? Thorough research leads to inspiration for concept and helps your choices become specific. The more specific your choices, the clearer you're going to communicate your ideas to your audience.

How do you whittle it down from there to what ends up in your concept sketches? Do you sketch more than is necessary, or do you only draw what you need to?

Whittling down isn't as hard as you might think. You have a fat packet of visual research to pull from (because, of course, in research mode, you should also be getting plenty of visuals). You understand the story and characters. Now it's just about dressing them in a way that supports the words that will be spoken. Not to mention, you have an entire artistic team you're working with: directors, set, light, and sound designers all have brilliant ideas, too, that will play with each other and lead to an overall concept or approach to the show. So once we as a team know what we're going for, I sit down and draw people. I never had interest in drawing objects or buildings, I always wanted to draw people. So this phase is the easiest one for me; it's acting and designing in a two-dimensional medium. So fun!

Personally, I have fallen in love with drawing exactly what I'd like to see in the costume. Some designers don't do it that way, and I haven't always done it like that either. There is some fun in allowing your drawings to be an inspiration and then allowing found garments to change things. But for my last few projects, I have come to LOVE detail-oriented design. It helps me sort through all the possibilities that present themselves at the store. Having something specific in mind means you can walk away from pretty things that you want to buy but aren't what you're looking for. It helps soothe your inner shopper.

About how long does it take you to design a costume?

Well, all the prep work takes a few days in terms of reading, dissecting, researching, thinking, talking with the team, etc. But if that's done properly, actually drawing it out takes about an hour or two from sketch to color rendering, per costume.

How often do your designs change from sketch to finished product?

The sort of things that change my design will be: quick changes, actor's body type, a sudden shift or pivot in the concept, or if I run out of time. All of those things happen, all of the time. The key is being organized enough so that when changes have to be made, it isn't a disaster. It's manageable because all the rest of your ducks are in a row.

What's your favorite part of the process?

There are a lot of ups and downs in any artistic endeavor. You can't stay excited about your work 100% of the time, so it inevitably becomes monotonous and boring. You doubt your ideas, because they're just not interesting to you anymore. You wonder if that initial spark was just you getting excited about something that only makes sense to you. So my favorite part of all this has to be when actors start putting on garments and feeling excited for their character. The dress you hate to look at because you've been working on it for a month, is suddenly alive--it's a person. And everyone is suddenly a better actor and there's peace in your soul that you made a deadline but also reinforcement that you're doing good work. It's a magical moment that helps you remember why you're an artist.

What does your dream shop look like?

Of course, lots of fun toys. I would love to have a textile printer so I could design my own prints. I hate not finding a print that I've drawn and fallen in love with, so I usually try to make it myself, rather than compromise. Shops rarely have windows, so natural light upstairs and, of course, no natural light in the storage area. I would love to have a barcode system that would make finding and stocking storage easy. Big cutting/drafting tables...and close to good food. Because we all have to take breaks!

What do you wish people knew about costuming?

Designers are artists. We have a voice. We have opinions about the play that should be taken into account for the final performance. When I'm in a fitting, I make sure my choices are congruent with the choices actors are making, because we are telling this story together. Sometimes designers are seen as technicians or gophers: we run errands, find garments, fit them, and done. We aren't given the opportunity to collaborate, and that's a tragedy. I studied acting as well as design, and my skills in each discipline have made me a better artist in the other.

West Side Theatre Company (www.westsidetheatreco.org) has recently been formed to bring more theatre to the west side of Utah Lake, including Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs. The mission of West Side Theatre Company is to expand minds and foster culture through diversity; cultivate creativity, innovation and mastery of the performing arts through artistry; and create a high quality, affordable theatrical experience that inspires, uplifts and effects change in the community. West Side Theatre Company has been registered as a non-profit organization in the state of Utah.

Photo Credit: Jess Wallace Nielsen's renderings for THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

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