Add detail, mix colours, but go easy on the buttons
Irish theatre's best costume designers of the past year tell us about balancing creativity with practicality, while making a character out of cloth, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL
Each of the costume designers nominated in this year’s Irish Times Theatre Awards brought to their productions a diverse range of backgrounds.
Take Peter O’Brien, for instance, a well-known fashion designer whose career in theatre was late starting but is now flourishing.
Artist and designer Lisa Zagone arrived in Cork from San Francisco 13 years ago with a background in fine art and sculpture, and has made a significant impact on that city’s cultural life since. While third nominee Richard Kent has a schoolteacher to thank for picking up on his interest in performance and art and suggesting he combine the two by studying design.
The work the designers are nominated for moves from historical drama to opera, and the level of research and thought each designer put into their productions highlights just how far costume design has come in recent decades. Theirs is a collaborative art, made in consultation with set designers, actors, directors, a close reading of the script, an understanding of historical fashion, and their own interpretations and artistic input.
Richard Kent, nominated for Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioners Enquiry, 1912), written by Owen McCafferty, had the luxury of being able to reference real people and their costumes when it came to his designs for this production at Belfast’s Mac. Using archive newspaper reports, Kent could see exactly what several of the main characters in the play wore, but that also posed a dilemma in balancing historical authenticity against theatrical adaptation.
“Getting the class divide right was a tricky thing,” he says. “At the actual inquiry, all those called would have worn their best clothes, so we needed to get closer to more working-class costumes. Obviously, the bigger society names were well documented, and in particular Lady Gordon, who is in the play, was very interesting. She wore quite a sombre outfit in real life, but we wanted something more theatrical as she was the only female character in the play.”
Kent says that he consulted the actors about what felt right for their characters, and how far they wanted to push the boundaries of the historical costumes for theatrical effect. “I have to say I think we did a lovely job on the detail. We worked really hard to get a mixed palette across. I imagine in real life most would have worn black, but we decided black was not a good colour for a cast of 13. It could become very boring, so my job was to try and get some subtle colour into the space.”