La Jolla Playhouse Newsletter

More Than Pretty Clothes

by Victorria Johnson on January 6, 1989

“Clothing is the medium in which I work. But it’s not just clothes that I like. It’s the idea of working collaboratively when creating theatre. It’s like having four musicians creating the same piece of music. You can’t do it by yourself.”

She has designed the costumes for the La Jolla Playhouse production of Figaro Gets a Divorce, Gillette, The Matchmaker and The Tempest. Her work has included collaborations with Des McAnuff, Robert Woodruff, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Athol Fugard, André Gregory and Sharon Ott. She has designed for dance (Alvin Ailey), film (Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave ) and television (1985 Emmy nominee for “A Different Twist”). Recent theatre work in New York includes Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca and Harry Kondoleon’s Zero Positive . For the Playhouse’s 1988 season, she designed Two Rooms and 80 Days, world premieres directed by Artistic Director Des McAnuff.

Susan Hilferty started her undergraduate work as a painting major at Syracuse University. A year studying abroad in London introduced her to the world of theatre and to a career as a costume designer. “When I came back to America, I called a friend who was working at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. They needed an assistant costume designer. So I went up there not knowing anything, just a baby saying ‘I know this is what I like but I have no idea what it means.’” When the costume designer she was assisting was fired after the first show, Hilferty suddenly became the designer for the festival.

“After that experience, I moved to New York, started working showcases and saw a lot of theatre. At that point I realized I loved being a costume designer. I knew how to work with fabrics and ideas, and because of having some fashion design and painting background, it seemed to make the most sense.”

After two years in New York, Hilferty decided to study scenic and costume design at the Yale School of Drama. For a class assignment at Yale Rep, she designed the costumes for its production of A Lesson From Aloes , which was the beginning of her collaboration with playwright and director Athol Fugard. To Enid Nemy of the New York Times , Fugard recently credited Hilferty for being part of a support system that enables him to be the writer, actor and director he is, sometimes simultaneously. “We’re a team now; I truly believe I have found the associate I need,” he said. “She understands the intentions of Athol Fugard the writer, sometimes better than Fugard the director.”

“The thing that attracted me to being a designer attracted me to being in theatre: it’s a collaborative art. It’s what excites me and pushes me the most,” Hilferty said. “Nobody should be in theatre unless they’re really interested in working with other people.

“I find that my connection to a play is with directors. If you ask me what play I want to do, I would say I honestly don’t know…it really depends on the director. Each time we begin on a project, we’re entering something completely fresh, and with the same kind of wonder that we would face in any new world. One of the reasons I like working at the Playhouse is that it brings in directors whose work I find exciting.

“It’s hard to describe the working relationships I have with different directors. Some directors have a specific sense of design. Others start thinking about a play’s design intellectually. Sharon Ott [who directed Lulu in the 1988 Playhouse season] starts our conversations with visual ideas. Designing with [Robert] Woodruff is a more intellectual experience, where the whole beginning of the process is in exchanging ideas about the subject. Working with someone like Athol is harder because he wrote the play. You’re really cautious about disturbing the script. You feel that making a wrong choice could actually throw the balance of the play. Des [McAnuff] builds an image. Physically, almost. He reads the script, responds to it and comes up with movement patterns—which determine what the visual element has to be.”

Two Rooms and 80 Days were productions that contrasted greatly in style and size, and Hilferty’s approach mirrored that difference. “With a play like Two Rooms , my work began in the rehearsal room. Once I know who the actors are, and who they will become, I’m able to figure out their physical world. In a modern-dress show, the clothes are very closely related to the character’s physical movement, how they feel about themselves. It’s a much smaller, much more detailed, more delicate world.

“By the time we went into rehearsal with 80 Days , it was designed. There was a real powerful, physical image to the whole production that was intact both with costumes and set. Within that powerful framework, the actors could then influence choices. With 80 Days , the visual was a really potent way of connecting with the audience. With Two Rooms , most people didn’t realize they were watching something designed.”

Hilferty’s work introduces her to a wide range of actors’—and their characters’—physical limitations or possibilities. “I was working with Deirdre O’Connell as Miranda in The Tempest , and we discovered her costume in rehearsals. The images I had were of things washed ashore—and clothes that had been her dad’s and that he had just discarded. But how she moved physically really determined her choices. She really felt that she wanted to be feminine at a certain point. So we gave her some kind of a dress. For me, that was the tablecloth made into a sarong, and then I added a little hat that had just washed ashore. So I had established the vocabulary for the character, and within it we were able to find specifics to help her feel physically comfortable, but which visually allowed her to be part of that bizarre world.

“Some actors are very smart. They know how to physically connect their characters to the world of the play. Olek Krupa in Figaro Gets a Divorce really understood the movement of the character. He understood the physical transformation: we could use the height of the heel to make him walk like royalty, then use a shoe that was too big on him to make him shuffle. It helped him move through the play and made him feel as if he were aging.”

Most people believe a costume designer’s job is to make beautiful clothes; but chances to design pretty costumes are rare. For Susan Hilferty, it’s just as satisfying to design the Count’s deceptively simple suit as it is to make the Countess’ elaborate period dress [in Figaro ]. “I teach at Parsons [School of Design in New York] and I get these young people who say they want to be a theatre designer. I ask why. Because they only want to design theatrical and pretty clothes, they respond. Then I tell them they really don’t want to be in theatre, they ought to be in Las Vegas!”

Victorria Johnson is the press assistant at La Jolla Playhouse.