by Susan Hilferty on September 8, 2008
I come from a background in which there were no arts whatsoever – not even television. We read. That was our entertainment. When I was in high school, I was interested in drawing and making things. I never saw professional theatre. I was in plays, but I never saw plays. Clearly, it was something that I was passionate about, but it was not rooted in any kind of family experience.
I went to Syracuse University, where I was a painting major, and I minored in fashion design. I had always made my own clothes, but one of the reasons I chose Syracuse was because of its theatre program. I thought maybe I would want to continue, in a way, to be on the stage. I kept growing as a visual artist, but I also started working backstage and began to understand what designing was.
The critical moment for me was my junior year in London. It was the first time I saw professional theatre, and it was life changing. I saw the original Rocky Horror Show , where they made lightning by pulling a string on a fluorescent light. You understood the story, but it was a messy, raw experience. I saw Equus and what they did with nothing – the horses came out with just headdresses and hooves, and you watched them spin the set, which was a merry-go-round: it’s a stable, it’s a courtroom. That was also the first time I had seen or knew anything about Athol Fugard; I saw Sizwe Banzi is Dead . Same thing: a set with nothing.
I was involved at that time in what was called conceptual art – performance art happenings. Interestingly, it was never satisfying to me, because it wasn’t storytelling. I didn’t have a text.
That is what the experiences were for me in London. The Equus set wasn’t something outside of itself. Everything was about supporting the text. Even watching S izwe Banzi is Dead , you believed you were transformed into another world because of the simplicity of the gesture.
Everything I had been building toward in terms of the drawings, the fashion, the acting – I was going to be a theatre designer. There was no going back at that moment. It was very clear that that was what I was, without knowing it; that I had been moving toward it because I had always seen myself as a story teller, and I still do.
I came back to Syracuse, which used to have a relationship with the Berkshire Theatre Festival, and I went up there as the assistant costume designer. After the first show, they fired the costume designer, and I took over. I had to work at the Red Lion Inn at night as a waitress to be able to support my habit as the costume designer, which only paid room and board. But it was amazing. I was so hungry. I wanted to be involved with every part of it.
I had one more semester at Syracuse, but there was no way to catch up – my background up until then had no education in theatre design. So I came to New York, and I spent two years working in costume shops.
I did 18 showcases, both scenery and costumes. In the middle of my time working like that, I realized that I was missing something. I had big ideas. I had skills. I knew what I wanted to do. But it wasn’t coming together. It was all about getting it up, so you never had time to really develop as a collaborative artist and as an individual artist. We were all working together, but there was no time.
For somebody who has always loved school, I knew at that moment that, if I was to find an appropriate graduate program, it would give me the time to work. That is why visual artists have gone to Europe. You need the time, some way to really focus on your work. Theatre is a collaborative art form, and it is not the same thing to say, “OK, I am just going to go into my studio for three years and figure it out.” You have to be in a place that allows you to be connected to other artists and artisans, but not be controlled by them – where you can watch how the directors are developing themselves, or the actors, or the other designers and the writers.
I think that if we didn’t have a graduate program at NYU, I would put us into a professional theatre-run program, where you would connect the people who are learning with the opportunity to go into a rehearsal room or go into the shops and watch how the designers are working, or watch a conversation between an actor and a director or a writer.
In many graduate programs, you have students in isolation. They bring in a set designer, a costume designer, or a lighting designer to do productions, so student designers never have the contemplative moments that I think you need to be able to move forward. They are just doing one production after another.
There is great joy and a sense of achievement if you stay up all night and you work on something to make it happen. We have all done it in summer stock, but rarely in all that do you spend what I call contemplative time, to really develop yourself as your own artist. You are part of that group. You feel like you have accomplished something, but in fact, if you are asked to do it by yourself, you are too dependent on the people that you have been working with.
Just like an actor, everybody involved has to have time to improve themselves. It can’t just be in the room. They have to be home reading. They have to be listening. They have to be experiencing things other than theatre, frankly. If you just do theatre and that’s all you do, then basically you are dealing with twice-chewed meat. What do you bring to the table if you haven’t had experiences outside of what’s just happening in the theatre? In theatre, we are always stepping outside of ourselves. As a designer, it takes me into the past, it takes me into the future, it takes me into India or China or New Jersey or Queens.
I was in rehearsal yesterday, and it was so funny. I thought the actors were going to knock each other over to come and talk to me. But it’s great, because they know that I can help them accomplish a transformation. I can help them become somebody other than themselves.
It is the most terrifying moment, to watch somebody see themselves in the mirror, especially when they don’t like what they see. Or the most magical, when you watch somebody who, in front of the mirror, actually transforms, that can become somebody or something else.
Being a costume designer is like being a diplomat. They can smell when you’re faking it. Nobody wants to be patronized. They have serious things that they want to talk about, and they want to be recognized. And at the same time that I have to deal with the personality, I have to get the clothes made, I have to get it on budget, and I have to get it on time. There are a lot of things that go into making the clothes.
I think one of the things that is hard for people to understand is the theatre requires so many different personalities to create this organism. For many people, the critical moment is when they understand their role in the organism, and no longer perceive actors as the top – that everybody realizes the equality of their role. You need a great stage manager; you need a great actor; you need a great dressmaker, as well as a great designer and a great wardrobe person.
I work a lot in not-for-profit, which is the regional theatre in this country: The Goodman in Chicago, ACT in San Francisco, or Second Stage here in New York. Those are organizations that usually are connected to a building and a community. It goes beyond the organization of a director, a designer, and an actor. So, when I say I am part of the La Jolla Playhouse, it means I am part of that community, a part of its history, a part of that building. The people – the team within the building – are always connected, and those relationships have been developing ever since the theatres began. I am working with that team of people, even though I am ostensibly doing what I always do, which is designing scenery and costumes.
I also do a lot of commercial theatre. A commercial production actually has a very different structure and isn’t connected to a building. When you begin a Broadway musical, you don’t necessarily even know what building you are going to go into. You know that you are going to be on Broadway – that’s the idea, that mythical thought, which is really just a district. Broadway is defined by boundaries and seat size. You have to work often times harder to do a commercial production, because you have to create from scratch the whole infrastructure. You have to bring in your producer, your company manager, your stage manager… It is much different when you don’t have a home. You are not connected that way, so it makes the collaborations extremely different.
Everybody is trying to figure out where they are within the hierarchy of a commercial production. Even though many producers have done quite a number of shows, they don’t necessarily know what the designer does. When you are an artistic director of a not-for-profit theatre, you have to understand more clearly what everybody’s role is. I find that I spend a lot more time explaining when I do a commercial production. Nobody can ever believe how much it costs to be a designer in a commercial production. They always seem shocked – shocked – that it costs money for what we are doing. It’s a different world.
Many years ago, you would get a costume designer, a lighting designer, and a set designer. Each designer would go to a shop, and they would build everything. Now, scenery can be painted in one shop, the turntables built in another… It has become so splintered. The fracturing of the elements required there to be a liaison between the production team and the producers, where before you just dealt directly with the producer. So, they introduced this idea of a Production Supervisor, which is now in every Broadway show. The Production Supervisor is responsible for every part of production. They deal with lights, they deal with props, they deal with sound – they deal with every part of it, except for the clothes.
When I did Wicked , we went to twenty-one shops. Just organizing twenty-one shops is a full-time job, and that falls on the costume designer and associate. There is no conduit; there is nobody to translate clothes, so I have to go directly to the general manager. I don’t have anyone going for me, so I am constantly explaining myself. Every regional theatre has a Production Supervisor, too, but usually they will have a head of the costume shop, and that person becomes your conduit. It is a position that has to be created for commercial theatre.
It is one of the things I find most difficult to teach students: what is the hierarchy when they move into a theatre? One of the things that I have done at NYU, as much as possible, is to mirror a professional experience. When they go to a theatre, they will understand what the Board does and what the Managing Director does, so that they are not victims. They can actually be proactive in every part of it.
I find that every theatre has a mission statement, and like a budget, it requires you to clarify your values. What I love about a budget is that it makes it loud and clear what your values are. If you put no money towards this, then you don’t value it. It’s a clear tool to understand who and what you value – not why, but who and what.
The first step for us in our building project at NYU has been to define our program, identifying what it is that we do and what we want to do, and then, looking at what our structure is, whether it reflects what we say we want it to be. It’s an important step because, like any design, changing it once it’s up is much more complicated than dreaming about it.
It actually forced us to communicate the way that we want to work together, which is an important idea for a collaborative art form. Collaboration doesn’t mean everybody is having a good time together; it means communicating. Collaborating is hard because you have to give things up. You are constantly negotiating. As a costume designer working with an actor, it’s a constant negotiation. It can be done poorly or it can be done well, and once again, you have to keep identifying your values.
Whenever you have separate departments, like any collaboration, everybody thinks that they are the most important part of the puzzle. We were able to learn to say “us” instead of “me,” knowing that there were certain things that the departments needed for themselves, but also what all of us needed in terms of our collaboration.
When we started visiting theatres, we also began to identify values. It’s like bringing sketches or a model into a conversation: you’ve been talking about it, but now when you are looking at it, what does it mean? It was very clear in all the various institutions that we visited that the physical structures were reflecting their values. To go into a theatre and to see, quite literally, that this reflected their values, and then for all of us to have a conversation about how it reflected ours… I think it was in the course of those conversations that our values as departments became more and more clear – none of them better, but definitely different.
The process has been like putting on a show: reading the text, wrestling with it, trying to understand it, looking for inspiration, then starting to put it in some kind of two- or three-dimensions, talking about it, reflecting “Does this work?” And then hopefully moving into the next phase, which is more concrete – where, as always, you have to know that you may design something that is bigger than anything that is accomplishable. But you now know the story; you know everything so well that you can start to do cuts. You can start to make changes and believe that you are not going to lose the core.
When you begin work on a production, you really start with nothing. You have a director and your design team, and you have a text. From the very first meeting, what you are doing as a whole team is trying to develop the rules of this particular production. Every production has its own vocabulary, which can sometimes be quite confusing if you’re working on two or three productions at the same time. It is literally like speaking in a different language. Even if I am working with the same team on a different text, there is a different vocabulary.
That’s what the rehearsal room is all about. You have to allow yourself the freedom to develop this language. It’s terrifying for a designer, because what we do has to be concretized at some point. Actors themselves have much more flexibility in that they change their accents from one day to the next. But once you start to build the set, or once you start to build the clothes, your ability to change is different – especially for a costume designer, who has to work so closely with actors. I have to watch what actors are doing to develop their vocabulary, in order to know that what I am doing is supporting it, and I have to look constantly to where I can make changes.
Likewise, for the new building we have established a basic vocabulary, and as we move into every decision, the question is: what does it change? What does it change if we move the dressing rooms to another floor? What does it change if we don’t have access? What does it change if we don’t allow entrances at various places? If there are too many changes, it might mean that the whole thing needs to be reconsidered.
It is very interesting to be involved in the idea of building from scratch. We have to be quite clear about the vocabulary and what parameters we are interested in. I know that, like every production, once we get to the end we are open to the possibility of rave reviews or scathing ones, because of people’s lack of understanding of what we were trying to do. We are building and reflecting on curricula between various departments that have been already established. It will be interesting to see if that’s going to be too controlling, or whether we will allow ourselves enough room to be able to develop and change over the next 50 years.