Susan Hilferty : Costume Design

May 1, 2006

A close collaborator of Athol Fugard and a designer of Broadway and off-Broadway productions, as well as the chair of the design program at Tisch School of the Arts, Susan Hilferty discusses the importance of dramaturgy in the design process. For her, design is not really possible without paying close attention to details and uncovering them as a professional dramaturg would. She also discusses costume design in relation to other design elements, such as set and lighting design, and how and why they are ultimately related.


In this interview Susan Hilferty explains how “Every single show I do starts from a different place.” But regardless of its starting point, they are all a response to the text. “Being a theater designer, the text could be a piece of music, a piece of choreography, a play—but the text is the trigger.” Hilferty illustrates this using the example of Hamlet, where she does a close reading of the play. “What we’re doing,” she explains, “is creating a world, and the audience is looking through a window and observing a specific element of that world.” To this end, all choices need to be specific and clearly thought out. Speaking about costume design, she says, “There’s no such thing as a good costume design separated from a good production.” The two go hand in hand, and costume design cannot stand on its own. She also gives insights into the theater world today, as well as commenting on the student training at Tisch School of the Arts.


For me, designing the costumes always starts with the play. And I approach each play differently, so I wait for the script to give me, not information, but inspiration. Everything I do is in response to a text. Being a theater designer, the text could be a piece of music, a piece of choreography, a play— but the text is the trigger. So I actually always start there. I think all designers do. I think that’s the secret. What we’re doing is creating a world, and the audience is looking through a window and observing a specific element of that world—they only see and know very specific things: particular actors in relationship to that scenery, lit in that way, saying those lines. So the impetus on us, as designers, is always to create a world. And we’re talking here about the fourth dimension. We’re dealing with the three dimensions of a space—a living space— but we’re also dealing with time and silences. For me, that’s the trigger to almost every design: the timing, the rhythm; trying to understand what that rhythm is, and then including silences—great moments of silence used correctly, like punctuation in the course of storytelling. I use the timing, or rhythm, to begin to establish the essential nature of the world. I also usually include in my thinking a sense of light: in terms of what its qualities are, what the qualities of the space that you’re expecting are, and that might include a time of day.


Hamlet takes place in a very brief time period. It almost feels as if it’s happening in a day. You’re looking at a really tightly driven machine that’s moving inexorably until the final moment, the death of Hamlet. For me, it has a sense of movement, a sense of drive. You’ll see this even in the ghost scene, and how it moves from place to place. And you’ve got the sense that Hamlet has an increasing energy. That’s important for me in terms of what the world is like. And in terms of who’s occupying it.

Light is one of the other ingredients that I use in terms of trying to understand what the design elements are about. So if you look through Hamlet, there are outside scenes. Everybody imagines that we know where Ophelia has drowned, but we’re actually not out there when it happens. As the scene begins there’s the sense, in my head, that almost all takes place in darkness. Then you have the scenes inside. These would be the ingredients that I would probably bring to the first meeting with the director.

My next step in terms of trying to define the world would be—and this is always a complicated issue for a costume designer—trying to define a period or a time. I almost always begin the exploration of a play in my head in the time that it’s written. I never look to find another period that it might fit. I’m more interested in what the space feels like. Is it about movement? I look for signals other than just another time period to help me identify the placement of the clothes.

Hamlet is also one of those plays that’s really driven by one character, seen through his eyes. To me, that becomes an important element: that you have somebody who is a prince, and a king and a queen, so the culture of this world has to have a “kingness.” There also has to be a place where we understand the crown will be handed over, and there’s a weight to this crown. Those elements start to come into my sense of what that world is. I would never want to begin a production with the sense that I knew Hamlet was mad, or not mad. I think that’s really the journey the actor takes, and ultimately it’s a secret that the actor has, so you don’t feel that you’re solving a play. I always believe that you’re exploring a play each time, instead of solving it. Hamlet is such an interesting play because, for the actor who is playing the role, so much happens before he even comes on. Even the first entrance is critical: when he comes on, does he move off. Does he just creep on? Is he on all the time and then suddenly appears?

Once I’ve established that there’s going to be a monarchy, that gives me the essence of the place. I would include whether or not there’s a lot of talk in Hamlet about war. That would be one of the big things that I would probably explore. Fortinbras [the Prince of Norway] is coming through: what is that about, and what is the sense of place? Is it somewhere war is present, and so everybody is armed and ready in some way? Has the new king given an easy-going, casual air to the court since the death of the older king? One of the interesting questions is what costume the ghost appears in. They talk about him wearing some sort of uniform, or his armor from a previous battle. So those are things that I would try to weigh up, in terms of understanding the place we’re in. What is the quality of Elsinore—I mean, is it heavily armed?


Translating this is the hard part. If we make the decision that this is a world where Hamlet has a sense of paranoia, but there’s real tension in the court in terms of everybody being nervous about losing their head or job, I could start to use that. I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m going to make it like Hitler’s Germany. I wouldn’t necessarily use that as a specific reference, but I would start weighing up the qualities of different cultures and places that give me access to that kind of paranoia. Stalin is another example.

I have to help make directorial choices. I work with the actors—I’m the one who’s working most closely with them in terms of embodying a character. So I have to be privy to their journey from the mundane to the complicated, in order to be able to help them get there.

These are certainly questions the dramaturg should ask, but if the costume designer doesn’t also ask the questions, they aren’t getting at that world. Having the dramaturg know information like that, and not putting it at the heart of what the designer is doing, means that the design has no connection. I’m only interested in finding ways to make that world a living place occupied by these specific actors saying these specific words. Other than that, I would say that I am just a decorator.


The costume designer’s job is very complicated, because not only do you have to know (which is a whole job in itself) how to design clothes, color, fabric, and construction, but the second part is to understand real history so that you can actually identify what you would do in 1776. Then the third part is to take all that information and abstract it, so that it’s not a specific time or place. So you have to have the skill to extract a design idea.

We have to know about history and its relationship to the world, whether it’s about the sciences, war, or politics; we have to know about literature, because almost every great play references other great plays before it. So when we do Brecht, we have to know Shakespeare—they’re referencing each other and we can’t take them out of context. We have to be so close to the actor’s journey that we actually get to see the actor in both lives. I have to deal with an actor who has problem feet and a bad stomach, and insecurities about weight and baldness, but then I’m the one who has to take that actor through the transformation to become somebody else. So actors have to trust that I will not make them look bad. At the same time I have to be confident enough in my choices that I can take them to the place they are working to be as actors. It’s the greatest compliment when they’re finally dressed and say, “Now I know who I am.” Because then I know that I’ve melded all those pieces.


I constantly put pen to paper—from the very beginning I draw, I work visually. Just as an actor is trying things from the moment they read the role— it might be with an accent, or in the way they move—so a costume designer has to be doing exactly the same thing. If my initial impulse with Hamlet is the sense that it’s inexorably driven, as a set designer I start to have a sense of what the transitions are, what the ideas are in terms of the transitions.

Every single show I do starts from a different place. I’m not only dealing with different plays, but with different directors. So the impulse always comes from a different place—it’s always a surprise. There’s a great Southern expression, “Well, shut my mouth,” for that magic moment when you know that you have somehow combined all of these things into the design. So you’ll do something and then your job is to respond to your own work. To be constantly questioning and trying to understand what the impulse is, so that you do it and say, “That’s what I thought, but what is wrong with this?”

I believe that every designer has to think holistically. If I put somebody in black in a white space, that’s one thing; if I put someone in black in a black space, that’s a completely different thing; if I put someone in black in a black space with a bright light on them, that’s another thing; if I put them in candlelight, that’s something else. So you have to keep thinking about the universe, and the manners and mores of the universe and how they affect it.


There is no set route for me in terms of what I talk about with a director. When I did all my work with Garland Wright, he almost always began our conversations with what the play sounded like. He was never specific about visuals. For him, it was “This is the music that I hear in relationship to this play.” And that has always been the stepping stone to where the design would go. You just never know where it’s going to lead. But that was always the trigger that released my imagination, taking with it all my other senses of what the play was about. But as soon as I knew what he was hearing, I could take it to the next step in terms of realizing the bits and pieces of that world. So I never really think, “Oh I’m going to set it in 1777.”

I had a great teacher, Tom Skelton, the lighting designer. He would say, “You should always keep your ideas relative.” So instead of saying, “I want it to be red,” you say, “I want it to be warmer than that” or “I want it to be cooler than that.” Then, instead of it having to be red, which is so specific as an idea, you know that you want to make it hot—so you can make green hot, you can make purple hot. You come out of it in a different way, depending on the space. So I would never go into a meeting saying, “It has to be set in the Twenties.” I wouldn’t even know how to get there. I would come with questions or answers, too.

I’m one of the luckiest people I know. I’ve worked with the greatest directors in the world. I have had an unbelievable list of experiences, and almost every one has been rich and fantastic. And never—or very rarely, because I never work with that person again—do I have a director who either gives me nothing to play with or is dictatorial. I call myself a not-for-profit baby, because that’s what I do.

I did all of Athol Fugard’s plays for the last 20 years. And you can’t beat an experience like that. I’ve been working with Richard Nelson doing sets and costumes for the last six years. I’ve done all his plays since he started directing his own. And 11 or 12 plays with Garland Wright at the Guthrie. I’m extremely lucky.


One of the things that’s astonishing to me about the theater is that if you go to a party and you’re there for two hours, you come home and you’ve met a lot of people and you think, “Can I remember the names of all 20 people I have met? Do I remember their stories?” But when you go to a play, to Hamlet, it’s three hours long and you know everything about this person: you know their lineage, their history, their deepest, darkest thoughts, their experiences. And you know that about 20 people. What’s happening on stage is this intense experience that you, as an audience member, are part of. Without knowing the workings of it—without noticing—you have hopefully been guided through it. Because everybody has been working on the same journey. Not only the designers, but the director and each of the actors. And that’s why I say that time is one of the essential ingredients to being a designer—especially a costume designer—because you are there framing a journey from beginning to end.

And sometimes you can do something huge with a character. Take Wicked, because it’s simple storytelling without a lot of loops in the story. I’ve got one character who is a kind of ditzy, sweet woman, and by the end she’s a power-hungry killer. So I was actually using pictures of Queen Elizabeth II, moving her from this innocent woman to somebody who’s got her hair pulled back, structured and powerful. Sometimes you get to tell the story that way.


There’s no such thing as good costume design separated from a good production. You can’t have good costumes and a bad production. It’s not possible—that’s what I say. So as a costume designer, you don’t get credit for a great performance, but rarely do you have a great performance with a terrible costume. It’s been done, but I really believe that it’s got to feel as if it’s all coming from the same place.

The most influential production that I ever saw wasn’t a single production. I had come from a small town in Massachusetts, and I was an actress. I chose to go to Syracuse University, where I was in the arts school and I minored in fashion design, so I was learning how to make clothes and understanding them, but I was also a painting as a major. And I was doing my work study in the theater, which was a student theater. So I worked as a scenic artist, in all the different shops. But at that point I had never really seen any professional theater. I had acted in plays and then I did my semester abroad. I’d never traveled at all—never been to New York City. I was really connected to what people called Conceptual Art, like Laurie Anderson, Claus Oldenberg. All of that work, including the performance work, was influential on my thinking, even though I was (and continue to be) an influential painter. And then I went to London, and once a week, or sometimes twice a week, I saw professional shows. And that whole  body of work is what influenced me in terms of being a costume designer. I saw the original production of Equus, which was a really beautiful Peter Schaeffer play. John Napier, who did Cats, designed the set. It was very, very simple—you could figure it out afterward. I saw the original production of the Rocky Horror Show, which was in cabaret: turning on a fluorescent light to become lightning. I didn’t even know what theater design was.

And I kept a diary, and as I watched more, I thought, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” It was eye-opening. I understood what the process of design was, or I guessed the goal. I understood what directing was about. I came back to New York and knew I was going to be a designer. I teach costumes at NYU, but I’m actually the chairman. So I deal with all aspects. I’m much more fluent in the specifics of the craft of being a costume designer than a set designer. But in terms of the conceptual thinking, I’m both.


I started teaching at NYU in 1992, and I think this is my seventh year as chair. I wish there was a specific teaching strategy. I have actually written, and been really interested in, mission statements identifying what we’re doing. But I’m lucky because I’ve got great colleagues like John Conklin.

John is basically what I would call the dramaturg of the department. We spend a lot of time connecting text to students’ work. At the same time students have to really develop as visual artists, so we try to braid together all these threads, so that they can understand how to make connections like an artist. One thread is understanding the technique, whether it’s stagecraft or model making or drawing, and bringing it in. The other part is how we all work with the other collaborators: what happens in the rehearsal room, in the cauldron—the place where it really matters.

Students hate that question: why? What happens? What is the event? And you can constantly ask them really hard questions in terms of their work. Of course, some will understand the experience better than others. Some will get it, and others will wrestle with it and not necessarily understand how to put it together. Since you’re dealing with an art form, you can only keep asking questions, but you can’t make somebody think in a certain way. You can’t say, “This is the way to do it.” But I can guide them and say, “These are the things I think you should do.”


I prefer theater to opera. For me, as a not-for-profit baby, that’s where my heart has been, because I really believe in theater in terms of its connection to a community. I loved working at the Guthrie, because I knew I was connecting with a whole community in Minnesota. And when I worked in San Francisco, at each of those places I really felt as if I was a part of a community and doing work within it.

Broadway has different values. It’s so complicated to produce on Broadway these days that you’re constantly struggling with confused values. I have also just done a huge commercial hit, so I can’t be critical of it. It’s unbelievable what happened to Wicked: it’s taken off as a production, and there’s something really interesting about having a huge success. The work we did for Rodney’s Wife, Richard Nelson’s play—it was just over; it was being compared to great plays, it was a great production, but it’s gone. I’ve always been able to live with that. But it’s also interesting to have something that’s running and running and running.

Now, in another year or so I might get really bored with it. There are always things that are vestigial—that, when you did it the first time, needed to be fixed. As a designer I work with actors, and they’re changing the actors all the time. So I’m constantly going in. The producers would love to have me put them in the same clothes as the person before them wore. But now that new actors are doing it, they’re different: emotionally, physically.


The Wicked story is an interesting one. I’m actually one of the few people who is ultimately disappointed in where we went. When I first joined, I did so for two reasons: the story, and Joe Mantello, the director. I am a director-designer. When people ask me, “What kind of play do you want to work on?” I wouldn’t want to do Hamlet just for Hamlet’s sake; but if Joe Mantello directed Hamlet, then I would want to do it. And the money—well, it’s fantastic to be able to spend so much in terms of being able to realize your designs.

As a not-for-profit theater artist, what I think is a crime is the funding, the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). I don’t see what happens in commercial plays, because that really is separate. But the NEA, and the fact that the budgets have been cut back, that’s a crime. The thing is not recognizing that the essence of any culture is the arts, and that at this moment—when we are at war and at a crisis moment in terms of our time—silencing the inquisitors and those who are asking questions, that’s a crime.


Joe Mantello is directing Glen Garry Glenn Ross, and most people would say, “That’s just a bunch of shirts and ties, so why would you want to do it?” But I would love to do it—those characters are so complex. And I’ll do anything that Richard Nelson does. I’ll do anything that Athol Fugard does. They are incredible craftsmen, so you know that you are in good hands. You’re going on a complex journey, but you’re not going to be abandoned somewhere in the middle of it.

I remember Garland Wright once did this beautiful production of Medea, and he said he was laughing at himself because he was in a bookstore and saw this book, Susan Faludi’s Backlash, and thought, “Oh no, I’ve already done Medea, I don’t need any of that.” He just laughed at himself. But that’s what happens. Once you step into the play, everything that you do, you start holding up and asking, “Is this right?” That’s why research for students is critical, in order to expose them to everything.

One of the big issues that I see in the future is people’s use of the Internet—they don’t understand that it doesn’t allow you to browse. You can’t truly browse.


I’ve always been a reader—a close reader. I spend as much time as I have reading. Once again, you become obsessed. You have to become obsessed.

I hope that reading critically is a learned experience. You can’t teach it to students, but you can question them. I send them all a reading list before they come to classes. It used to be a long list of about 200 plays, but I have actually shortened the list to about 15. And then John Conklin and I do a test. The first week, before they even start classes, we ask them questions about the text. And that leads to a long conversation. For instance, “In what text is this important prop: a purple flower?” Immediately somebody gets it, so we get them to look at Midsummer Night’s Dream. You have to design the purple flower. What’s its importance? Why is it purple? What does it represent? And you have to keep asking all these questions, until you get to: Is this a place of sexuality? What is the purple flower? And it just goes on and on.

It’s a great experience for the students at the beginning, because we make it clear before they even start classes that they are going to be close readers. And that they will design based on the text. They aren’t allowed in class without the text in their hands.

One of the things that’s exciting about teaching is that you have to keep challenging yourself about what it is that you’re trying to teach. I mean, you could teach decoration tools, all about color and drafting—and then call it a day. But somewhere along the way it’s important to have both elements, so that you can have a dialogue between the two. That’s what I believe—I believe that is the essential.