Q&A Susan Hilferty: TDF/Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

by Ellen Lampert-Greaux on April 19, 2019

Award-winning costume designer Susan Hilferty will receive the 2019 TDF/Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award on Friday, April 26 at the Edison Ballroom in New York City. Hilferty has designed over 300 productions across the globe including the United States, the UK, Canada, Japan, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, Malaysia, Spain, Brazil, Germany, and South Africa. Her many Broadway designs include Wicked (Tony, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk awards and Olivier nomination), Present Laughter (Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations), Hands on a HardbodySpring Awakening (Tony nomination), Lestat (Tony nomination), the 2013 revival of Annie, Into the Woods (Tony and Drama Desk nominations; Hewes Award) and Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland. Her designs for opera include Rigoletto for the Metropolitan Opera and Manon at LA Opera and Berlin Staatsoper. She has worked in dance and regional theatre, working with such names as Alvin Ailey, Richard Nelson, August Wilson, and Athol Fugard to name but a few. She also chairs the Department of Design for Stage and Film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Live Design: Wicked is, obviously, a piece that has captured millions of hearts and imaginations for nearly 20 years. What was it about that particular show that initially caught your attention?

Susan Hilferty: In Wicked, I was drawn to the relationship between the two vastly different central women, but especially to the character of Elphaba, who is ostracized by her community because of the color of her skin. The characters, plus the incredible story by Gregory McGuire, were the components that really drew me into the worlds that we encounter throughout the musical. I was especially excited to work with Joe Mantello, whom I had not worked with before. Joe, in his experience as both an actor and director, has such an extraordinary ability to navigate new work. He has a heightened understanding about structure, which is a quality I look for and admire in a director.

LD: Can you speak more about what you mean by “structure?”

SH: Working on a new play or musical is literally about responding to the structure of a text and, together with your director and other designers influencing its development. It is the arc of the story: the beginning, middle, and end, and how we get from one to the next that is critical to the design process. In Wicked, a young woman wants to be part of a community that initially shuns her. Once she is invited to join that community, she has already learned about how rotten it is at its core and decides to become an activist who dedicates her life to changing it for good. Everything about our design is focused on clarifying that. Emerald City looks so striking and appealing so that we understand why Elphaba is attracted to the Wizard’s world, and also why she feels the responsibility to change it.

LD: Is structure important to you when you are choosing pieces to design?

SH: Absolutely. When I’m thinking about whether or not to design a show, I first consider the director and the text. I am interested in well-crafted stories, but I know that the director will be my guide. I’m more interested in that than I am in visual splendor. Once I’ve decided to design a show, I become part of a team responsible for creating an entirely new world! That’s really the exciting work and it requires the team to approach the design inspired by the dramaturgy.

LD: I am interested in the designer as a dramaturg, and what you say about creating a culture. What does that involve for you?

SH: It informs how I have to approach the work. In Wicked, for instance, we are responsible for creating an entirely new culture that doesn’t exist in our world. In a piece that takes place in the past in a particular period, such as August Wilson’s Jitney, or our production of Verdi’s Rigoletto (that I designed for the Metropolitan Opera and that we placed in Las Vegas in the 1950s), then I have to research a culture to inspire the world onstage. Or, in a contemporary piece, like Hands on a Hardbody or An Ordinary Muslim, my role is to observe a culture. These elements all support the creation of the unique world being put onstage, one that has its own visual life, behavior, rituals, relationships, and class.

LD: How is designing scenery different from designing costumes, and why do you sometimes do both at the same time?

SH: All of the work that I do as a set designer is about transitional spaces, spaces that are not necessarily modeled after a literal place. I tend to design sets for playwrights who direct their own work. I’ve done 48 productions worldwide with Athol Fugard and over 30 with Richard Nelson. I have now been working with Yaël Farber for four amazing years. I love these writer/directors who do not come into their creative process with preconceived notions of how the piece should ‘Look.” They are interested in creating a liminal space throughout their creative process. So, really, why or how I design sets and clothes depends on who the director is and what their process is for creating a world.

LD: Can you talk about one or two productions that are particularly special to you?

SH: They are all special to me! But a couple that jump out in the context of this conversation are August Wilson’s Jitney and Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening.

August asked me to design Jitney and, of course, he’s one of the great playwrights of our time. He trusted me and the design team and the director, Marion McClinton, to go back in time to understand and interpret his specific world of the Hill District in Pittsburgh in the 1977. Our responsibility was, not only to understand this specific place, but go even deeper and put ourselves in the local jitney station and convey how relationships between these characters are driven by emotion, their place within society, and the created hierarchy around them, whether that’s because someone is an elder in the community or they are the emerging generation finding their voice and power. All of this is what contributes to the world that we create. That was a piece, as were all of August’s plays, developed across America in its regional theatres. When I did his final play, Radio Golf, we did productions in New Haven, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, and Princeton before the play was on Broadway. It was important to him to have a composite of audience responses, and he would revise at every stop. That was very special for me because I spent the earlier part of my career in all of these theatres. They are all home to me, so it was enlightening to watch how each city responded to the play.

As to Spring Awakening, it’s always been one of my favorite texts because of its powerful point of view: seeing the world through an adolescent’s eyes as they begin to understand power, sex, and their place in the world. Being an admirer of the Wedekind text, I was so amazed at how truthful an adaptation this musical was. It was clear to Duncan and Steven and director Michael Mayer that these characters are so fearful of becoming adults, and what’s amazing about the play/musical is that the adult world is painted as immoral or cruel, yet we know it’s the world these young people will inherit as they grow and mature into adults themselves. That’s the tragic truth and those who are the most afraid end up killing themselves. Spring Awakening is a great example of the remarkable work that’s created in our Off-Broadway theatres. The development of the show was organized by producers Tom Hulce and Ira Pittelman, and it was programmed by Neil Pepe at the Atlantic Theatre Company, a company that is driven by its passion for new voices and new ways of expressing the richness of our society.

LD: What drew you to a life in the theatre?

SH: I was a visual arts major at Syracuse University spending a semester abroad in London. We saw Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Royal Court, and I remember viscerally feeling that in that hour and a half, two actors on a blank stage with a few chairs and a chalkboard transported me to South Africa – a place I had never been! That experience really instilled in me a passion for telling stories and the importance of allowing ourselves to live through an experience and be moved or changed by it. I believe that theatre is inherently political not overtly political. From the times of the Greeks, the stories are meant not merely to entertain but to change or perhaps transform the moral center within a person or a community. That’s true of Wicked, and it’s true of Ellen McLaughlin’s The Oresteia, which I’m currently designing, and it is certainly true of Athol and August Wilson.

LD: Since then, you have developed a robust collaboration of your own with Athol Fugard. You have designed 48 productions of his plays. Can you tell me more about that?

SH: From the very beginning, his work has struck a chord with me and that is to do with his outlook on humanity. While he is South African and that, of course, is infused in his work, his stories are not unique only to South Africa. That’s why his plays translate across cultures and worlds and, frankly, through time. In talking about his work, Athol often uses the word “appointment.” He’ll see something or read about an event and feel he has an “appointment with that story.” He also has a voice that is his own but influenced by his deep understanding and appreciation of the various traditions in theatre history. All of the directors that I’ve worked with are deeply connected to the history of theatre: Garland Wright, both as director and artistic director of the Guthrie, would move from ancient Greek plays to modern texts; Des MacAnuff has a huge range in his body of work; and Richard Nelson was a dramaturg and was inspired tremendously by the writings of Chekhov. Doug Wright has always been fueled by theatre making traditions. Rebecca Taichman, Yaël Farber— if you look at the directors I’ve worked with you find this theme, and it comes down to the appreciation of story and structure. (And that’s perhaps why I was asked to do pieces like Laurie Anderson’s Moby Dick with Anne Bogart and Taylor Swift’s Speak Now World Tour).

LD: What advice would you give to young designers?

SH: To really be involved in theatre, it has to be a calling not a profession. You have to be interested in telling stories. Unlike individual artists who must create the entirety of their work, theatre artists have to respond to a text and work collaboratively. We have to be a tabula rasa—a blank slate—waiting to respond to the author’s words. It is a unique and wonderful position to be in. I feel like I get to talk to great writers like Shakespeare, Chekov, or Aeschylus across time and the globe. Emerging designers need to be looking for their tribe, which means finding their community and finding their voice. The comedian and activist Dick Gregory said, “Luck is opportunity meeting up with preparation. So you must prepare yourself to be lucky!” Being a designer means you have to be fluent in history, art, and culture as well as knowing about fabrics and clothing and how things are made. But if you are interested in all this and love to tell stories and choose to be a designer, it is a hell of a life!

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