DESIGN & VISION: An Interview With Costume Designer Susan Hilferty

by Paul Cooper on December 31, 1985

This season’s Comedy of Errors (Lincoln Center Theater Company ) and Coastal Disturbances (Second Stage) suggest the range of costume designer Susan Hilferty’s creative talents.   Hilferty has collaborated extensively with director Robert Woodruff, including two productions with the Flying Karamazov Brothers.   She also has worked with Athol Fugard (A Lesson from Aloes, Blood Knot, andPlace with Pigs), Carole Rothman, Des McAnuff, Andre Gregory, Sharon Ott, John Madden, Jacques Levy, David Jones and George Roy Hill.   Her costumes have appeared on the stages of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, Second Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Roundabout Theatre .   Regional credits include the Goodman Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Yale Repertory Theatre, Center Stage and Berkley Rep.   Film and TV credits include Laurie Anderson’s “Home of the Brave,” “A Different Twist,” and “The Resurrection of Lady Lester.”   In the field of dance she has designed costumes for Alvin Ailey and Jennifer Muller.

Born in Arlington, Massachusetts, Hilferty had little exposure to the arts as a child.   In high school she became interested in visual art and went to Syracuse University with the intention of being a painter.   At the time, she thought “a set designer was somebody who did big paintings, someone who illustrated the play.”   A latent interest in theatre was ignited during a year abroad in London where she saw such productions as The Tempest at the National, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the Young Vic, The Rocky Horror Show, Sizwe Bansi, and Equus.

The idea that her interest in theatre and visual art might be combined through costume design (Hilferty minored in fashion design) began to take root.   Fresh out of college, Hilferty made her living working in costume shops and began designing at small theatres.   A few years later, already a member of the union, she attended Yale School of Drama, augmenting her experience as a costume designer with studies in set design.

In this edited interview conducted by Paul Cooper, Hilferty details her working process in several recent productions.

Paul Cooper:   Let’s jump right in.   I’m very curious about Comedy of Errors (produced by Lincoln Center Theater this summer and first developed at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago).   Putting those costumes together must have been an amazing process—not just the emotional requirements of working with such a wonderfully eclectic group of people, but also the visual and technical requirements of designing costumes that could accommodate the physical antics of the cast.   (The production was developed with the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Avner the Eccentric.)

Susan Hilferty:   The original Chicago production was one of the scariest experiences of my life.   I’d never worked with Robert Woodruff or the Flying Karamazov Brothers before; none of us really knew what we were getting into.   We started with a few ideas:   the idea of a busy marketplace.   And Turkey…   Circus was never an important idea, although vaudeville, the idea of presentation, was—of course.   Most of the performers, especially in the original company, were “new vaudevillians”; their work is very presentational, with performers always breaking the fourth wall, always addressing the audience as well as the other performers.   Obviously, we had a lot of other ideas—we didn’t come into rehearsal totally cold—but whether these ideas were going to work was a very open question.   The costume shop at the Goodman Theatre was incredibly patient and incredibly talented.   I would come in every day with sketches.   Nancy Missimi who runs the shop, was amazing in her ability to produce them on no notice at all.

PC:   Can you remember something specific that came up during the course of a rehearsal that you and the shop had to adapt to?

SH:   A perfect example would be Alec Willows playing the Second Merchant.   Alec didn’t join rehearsals until the second week, playing Angelo, the goldsmith.   We didn’t know who was going to play the merchant.   Then Robert (Woodruff) had the idea of Alec playing both parts.   Originally, we were going to do it with a ventriloquist’s dummy.   Then it was a life-size dummy.   Then Alec saw a film about a schizophrenic with seven personalities, and he came in saying, “If he can do seven, I can do two.”   Then I had the idea of literally dividing him in half, so it would be two totally separate characters built into one, two completely separate costumes that were cut in half and sewn together, half gold lame for the goldsmith and half black leather for the merchant.   It still takes my breath away when I see his hair.   He goes all the way with it—bleaching half his head and perming the other.   Can you imagine him running around the streets of Chicago like that for six weeks?   We were terrified about whether it was going to work.   That’s a good example of in-process development of an idea.

PC:   I’m sure vaudeville skills imposed requirements on materials and construction.   Did you have to integrate that from the beginning or did you first envision costumes, and then say now you have to make them usable?

SH:   Each costume had to meet certain technical requirements from the very beginning.   It’s like designing a dance piece in a lot of ways.   The joy and the thrill of working with the Karamazovs and Robert is that you get exciting ideas and images in your head, but then you also have to work with their physical skills.   By now I know what they can do, but when we first started, I had to learn that from going to rehearsal.   For instance Sophie Haydon’s routines—she’s a baton twirler—influenced what I could do; she does certain moves for which she can’t have anything on her shoulders or her arms. So in at least that one scene, her costume had to permit her to physically perform her routine.   In the sequence when she climbs up everyone’s shoulders, stands in the hands of Jeff Raz, and then holds on to the railing for a good few minutes, she certainly can’t be wearing a dress.

In fittings, this show was hilarious.   Normally an actor comes to a fitting, lifts his arms and says, “Yeah, that’s O.K., I can lift my arms, but I also have to turn around and sit on a chair.”   These guys go, “Well, it feels O.K.,” but then they’ll do a backflip, bring in a friend who stands on their shoulders, and cartwheel across the room.   So the physical needs are pretty stringent.   With juggling, for instance, you cannot have a loose-fitting sleeve; for juggling fire, certain fabrics are out.   So the process for me was combining my idea, the performer’s ideas, Robert’s sense of the whole piece, and the needs arising from the physical skills, and then coming up with the costumes.

There was one other very important factor for this group.   Actors normally are used to doing a total transformation, to becoming a character.   But vaudevillians already have their own stage identities.   For example, no matter what material you put the Marx Brothers in, you want them to still be the Marx Brothers.   You don’t fool around with their basic feel.   So in Comedy , at the same time that we were creating characters, we wanted the integrity of the vaudeville personae to be maintained—that’s what they do on stage, that’s who they are, that’s the major reason for wanting them in this production.

PC:   What did that mean to you practically?   Did you have to have Avner the Eccentric in baggy pants?

SH:   I had to get to know all of them very well to figure out their individual needs in this balance.   For example, Avner didn’t want to be Avner on stage, but he is Avner on stage.   In Jewel of the Nile he really became another character.   But in this case, we chose to hold on to his red nose, his black derby, and then give him sort of Turkish janitor overalls.   So it was a combination of his baggy pants and a new character; the fabric is a raw silk with a stripe and it’s got sheen and a lot of movement in it, so when he moves around you’re very conscious of the baggy-pants idea behind it.   He still feels like Avner, but he also feels right in that world.   We did try a turban on him at one point, but that was going too far.

Since everybody plays at least three or four characters, with not a lot of time for changes, and since these are not performers who do big acting transitions between one character and the next, the costume choices are big.   When they’re part of the band they wear red, and dark glasses, and fake noses.   If they’re policemen, they’re in pink, reflective glasses and a fake nose.   Townspeople wear a lot of stripes, very bright colors, like the awning fabrics in the set.   In each of the choices, there is a balance of Turkish and contemporary.   No one is totally in a period, there’s always a bizarre combination—hopefully never overwhelming—of contemporary images, like Avner’s derby, or a turban with baggy shorts, or a paisley rayon shirt and leopardskin shoes.   You never quite know where you are.   There’s a feel that’s old, new, and funny.

That’s another theme that runs through everything.   We used the word “stupid” as a compliment.   Whenever I did something that really worked, someone would say, “Oh god that’s really stupid” and I’d say, “Thank you.”   “Really stupid” was high applause.   I think I managed to get quite a bit of stupid into the production, with, of course, a great deal of help from the company.

PC:   Yes, and it’s delightful.   I love the policemen’s helmets with the built-in lights:   someone enters in pink, who you would never think was a policeman, except there’s the siren and the flashing light, so what else could he be?   The audience picks it up very quickly, but the signals are sort of gentle and very funny.

SH:   It was fun being able to reduce things. What should a policeman be like in this stage world?   Well, pink.   Obviously.   I can’t believe pink.   Pink?   Well all right, I’ll try it.   So we reduce the power of the policemen to a sound, and flashing light, and a car.   That’s the great part about working with people who are physical performers:   they can become the car, they can become a puppet, they can create a dwarf or the BIG policeman on stilts.   As with dancers, your job is not only to come up with a whole visual idea, but also to enhance their movement and physicality.

PC:   You’ve done the show three times now:   in Chicago, in Los Angeles at the Olympic Arts Festival, and now in New York. Have there been significant changes in ideas from one production to the next?   Are there costume or character ideas that are radically different from the first production in 1983?

SH:   The only radical changes have happened when actors have changed.   For example, some of the doubling has changed for this production:   Luce (the kitchen maid engaged to Dromio) used to be doubled with the Courtesan, but Karla Burns now doubles Luce with the Duke of Ephesus.   The Duke was a man in the other productions.   We had so many different ideas for the final scene, but I think we found the right combination:   sort of Turkish, sort of Little Richard, sort of a champion wrestler, sort of gospel singer.   In previous productions the Duke was in a tail coat.   We now have Ethyl Eichelberger doing the Courtesan, doubling that wonderfully with the Abbess.   Previously, the courtesan was very seductive, very female; now the courtesan is a man.   Ethyl is such a find, he’s such a great stage presence.   What I love about Ethyl is that his performance isn’t really transvestite, it’s just a sort of balance between male and female.   Through the first week of previews, we tried for a total transformation, really dressing him like a woman.   But that didn’t work, it was just too overwhelming.   You thought, “Why didn’t we just cast a woman in this part?   Why aren’t we exploiting the strength of this actor?”

PC:   You’ve worked a lot with Bob Woodruff?

SH:   Actually, the original production of A Comedy of Errors at the Goodman Theatre was the first show we did together.

PC:   Had you worked with Greg Mosher before?

SH:   No.   I had decided I wanted to work at the Goodman, so I flew to Chicago with my portfolio, called Greg up, and said, “I’m in town; would you please look at my work?”   And he did, and he liked it, and he thought I would be a good combination with Robert.   And since then, Robert is not only one of the directors I work most with, but also one of my best friends.   And the same with the K’s.   I guess we’ve done five shows now.

PC:   Let’s talk a little bit about process.   You’ve worked with director Robert Woodruff enough now so that you probably have it down?

SH:   Oh no no no.   It’s actually a huge struggle every time.   I become—not afraid—but sure I can’t come up with the kind of ideas that will work with him and his way of thinking.   It’s hard; it’s a struggle because it’s always totally different.   The way his mind works is always changing.   He looks at each play the way he’s looking at the world at that moment, so it’s something that’s constantly changing.   The process?   You jump in.

PC:   Well, how about The Tempest , which you’re in the middle of right now [produced at the La Jolla Playhouse this summer]?   Where did you start from?   Where did he start from?   When did you get together?   How did you start to talk?

SH:   Working on Tempest began with Doug (Stein) and Robert and myself getting together and talking:   nothing specific, no specific visual ideas, just talking about the play.   Robert doesn’t really work in images; he provides ideas for which we supply the images.   Then he responds to those images and we keep going on from there.   After the first discussions, in which he talked about his gut-level reactions to the play, Doug immediately came up with several set ideas, and I started bringing in pictures.   The images were about islands, floods, shamans, “primitive” cultures in New Guinea, or the Kalahari Bushmen, island cultures, Christopher Columbus and other explorers, American Indians, the atomic bomb and early atomic research in the American deserts (because of the idea of Prospero’s power).

PC:   So the images are about the clash of technological civilization versus the “primitive” island?

SH:   Not just a clash, the “overwhelming” of it.   One of the feelings you may get in this production is of civilized man raping primitive cultures.   That it’s not just been a power struggle, but a rape, taking advantage by force.   You have the sense that whatever power Prospero has, for good or evil, in the end Ariel and Caliban, the inhabitants of the island, will have suffered, will have been taken advantage of.   That’s a little simplistic, and not to be taken literally, since there’s still the play to deal with, but those ideas will be there.   That’s why we did the atomic research:   the idea of man having such power over nature.   For me that led to research on the Bikini atoll (site of the first hydrogen bomb test in 1952).

PC:   How do you start to hook that into design?   You’re all sitting around looking at pictures, discussing them, getting some of these feelings and ideas you’ll want to explore.

SH:   I start drawing.   At this point we’re all working in images, talking about lots of visual ideas.   The court: should it be hot or cold, is it contemporary or future, are they military or civilian?   What were they doing when the tempest hit them; are they in bed at noon?   Are they clearly delineated socially, as in the sixteenth century, or are they, like today, only distinguished by having money?   Are they jetsetters, living on their yacht in topsiders and cashmere sweaters?   I draw all of those ideas and we look at them and sort them out.

PC:   You’ve also worked a lot with Athol Fugard.   In fact, you’re on your way to South Africa for the first production there of A Place with the Pigs .   How did you start working with him?

SH:   That was one of those lucky, perfect marriages, totally out of the blue.   As a graduate student at Yale, you’re assigned design responsibility for shows at the Yale Rep.   It’s a difficult situation for directors, since they don’t get to choose their collaborators.   I really don’t believe that all directors can work with all designers; I believe in the idea of collaboration, and you really must have people you can work with, people you can respond to.   So I was lucky enough to be assigned to do A Lesson From Aloes .

It’s very strange to be in a school situation working with professionals.   You feel like your mother is in the room at all times, there’s a sense of being supervised, not in a critical way, helpfully, but still…   It’s hard to maintain the idea of working as an individual artist, of doing things for yourself.   So the experience with A Lesson from Aloes was completely freeing for me, because I knew that I was really having a collaborative relationship with a director and actors; I never felt that I was in a school situation.

PC:   Was your process with Fugard something definable?   Have you now developed a specific way of working together?

SH:   Athol hadn’t really worked with designers up until then.   In South Africa they don’t have professional designers the way we have here or in Europe.   It’s less serious:   the stage manager does the set, or the director does the clothes.   Design isn’t really a considered idea in the production.   In all of Fugard’s years working in the theatre, he had designed almost all of his pieces by himself, more telling people what to do than really collaborating and getting someone to respond.   He used expressions like, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”   It was hard for him to learn that he has a very strong design sense, and he could get even more from a designer.

When we did Blood Knot , it was very different from any other relationship I’ve had in the theatre because Athol was the author and the director and he was also an actor.   I had to be able to work with him as an actor during rehearsals, exploring how the clothes felt physically, and where he was going as an actor.   But as a director, ideas have already happened before we go into rehearsal, and he had to separate himself from those ideas in order to respond to his clothes as an actor.   Even though he may have thought as a director that something was going to work, as an actor he had to respond directly.   My relationship with him has developed over the years; I’ve become his “eyes” in the theatre when he’s performing as well as directing.

PC:   How do you feel politically, given all that’s going on in South Africa?

SH:   Athol is a South African.   It’s very important to him that his plays be done there; that is his audience, the people he’s really writing for…   I have strong emotional and political reasons for being in theatre.   It’s important for me to do work that’s not just entertainment but that has some kind of value to people’s lives.   And I think Fugard’s plays are very important.   I don’t know if I would go over to South Africa to originate a play, even one of his, I’m not sure about that, but in this situation, where the play has originated outside South Africa, I feel no hesitation about it.

PC:   You were a member of the union before you went to Yale?   How did that come about?   Most people don’t get into the union for a couple of years after grad school.

SH:   When I came to New York, I literally knew nothing about design.   I didn’t know any other designers; I’d never seen another designer’s portfolio, or another designer’s resume.   I didn’t know the East side from the West side, and I didn’t have any friends in the theatre.   I just thought that joining the union was what you were supposed to do….   I had heard about the union, the test, that it was the way to prove your mettle.   I thought taking the test was a big secret, that you weren’t allowed to talk anybody about it,   me with my girl scout background.   My mother called while I was doing the test and asked, “What are you doing?” and I said, “Oh, nothing, ma,” because I really thought you were not supposed to talk about it.   I was truly making it all up as I went along in those two years, I was just picking things up from anyone who would tell me.   So by the time I went to New Haven, I was a lot of raw talent, even though I had already been working professionally for a couple of years.   The reason I went to Yale was I wanted to do scenery.   Being at Yale was a tremendous experience in terms of really developing as a designer, both in sets and costumes.

PC:   What basic skills are important for a designer?

SH:   I think it’s essential for a designer to be able to draw, simply as a way to communicate.   I always tell my students that drawing is a tool.   You don’t need to be a Michelangelo, but you do need to be able to communicate.   Also, it’s very hard to make a lot of your design decisions unless you do them first on paper.   It scares people to think that they can’t be good designers unless they are great drawers, but there are some fine designers who don’t draw very well.   It just makes the process of communication much easier….   I actually change my style of drawing depending on the play and the production; I start drawing in a certain way, and that helps me to identify how I feel about the play or the production.   So in my artwork, there’s a wide range.

PC:   You seem to work with people over and over again.   Not just the people we’ve talked about, but Sharon Ott, Des McAnuff, Carole Rothman.   I’m always curious about those repeats.   Whether you’ve grooved a way of communicating, exchanging ideas, building up the visual feeling of the show.

SH:   It’s different with every director.   They just have different personalities and different ways of working.   I use the word collaborative a lot.   To me it is the main reason I am in the theatre, because it is a collaborative art…   It’s very difficult to explain how you work with a director.   It just happens.   I’ll aways work with Robert [Woodruff] or with Sharon [Ott] or Athol [Fugard]; these are directors I’ll be working with for the rest of our careers, because they are very rewarding, very complete collaborations.