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

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.”

Lisa Zagone

Lisa Zagone designed both the set and costumes for the stunningly visual Pagliacci at the Everyman Palace Theatre, and her approach was influenced by the ornate space she was working in. “Every single costume was different,” she says. “We had a group of musicians who needed to appear as though they were part of the architecture of the auditorium. The idea was of a play within a play and so each costume was very different. The main cast had to be very distinct and show their personalities and needed to be over the top, but not too comedic. It was a difficult balance to crack.”

The opera was set in the modern day, but the ornate interior of the theatre was recreated in both the costumes and makeup of the performers. Much of the set was thrust into the auditorium, so Zagone had to take account of the role lighting would play, as well as the closeness of the performers to the audience and the colour contrasts she was creating between the set and the costumes.

“The interior of the Everyman Palace is beautifully ornate. It is very difficult to compete with it, so we needed to blend in.”

Having worked in costume design since 1984, and with a background in fine art, Zagone says that for any costume designer, it is important to put his or her distinctive mark on a production. “If you don’t have a style of your own, then there is no point having you employed on a production as a designer.

“I try to approach shows as if I can’t understand the language or what the cast are saying, and I have to be able to see the story visually. Funding is also an issue, even though we were fortunate to receive Arts Council money, it is a struggle and you have to find clever ways to be efficient with materials and say what needs to be said in the least expensive way possible.”

More recently, Zagone has taken on some teaching work with the Cork Institute of Technology, and is now playing her part in inspiring the next generations of designers who opt to remain and work in Cork. She is hoping to exhibit some of the costumes from Pagliacci at the Camden Palace in Cork, before they are recycled and reborn for her next production.

Peter O’Brien

Peter O’Brien, who is nominated for Talk of the Town at the Project Arts Centre and A Woman of No Importance at the Gate Theatre, designed his first costume for the stage aged 50. Up until then, he had worked extensively in fashion, although he long held an interest in theatre. Marie Rooney, a former deputy director of the Gate, happened upon his drawings for a programme at a Paris fashion show, and he was asked to design for the theatre.

Since then, he has worked on several productions, and while the budget limitations of theatre are a challenge, he says he enjoys recycling old costumes or rummaging through the costume collections at the Abbey and Gate in order to come up with new designs.

“For Talk of the Town, the play about the life of Maeve Brennan, I raided the archives, looking at jackets people wore, and it was easy in a way because the actress Catherine Walker looked so like Maeve Brennan. The play is set over a long period of time, during which the character becomes an alcoholic mess. I had to find a costume that told that story and as Catherine was on stage all the time, we had to do all kinds of tricks to ensure the costume remained the same yet changed.”

O’Brien’s work on Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance at the Gate was heavily influenced by a book of photographs he found by Paul Nadar of Marcel Proust’s friends.

“The director wanted the play slightly darker and so I started to do a lot of research on costumes between 1860 and 1870. Eventually we set it in 1893 and one day I found a book of photos by Paul Nadar. They are black and white shots of real life friends of Proust and it was fantastically helpful in practical terms, as it showed me very detailed pictures of how jackets were cut. As a result, we ended up designing all the costumes in various shades of black and white.”

O’Brien says there are significant differences in designing for the stage as opposed to the fashion industry, not least of which involve some basic practicalities. “With the stage, even though clothes are on the outside, you need to illuminate what’s inside them in terms of the character. My job is to make the actor happy and that’s not the case always with models in fashion,” he says.

“Clothes have to be worn several times a week on stage and so it would be hard wearing something with say 500 buttons. That might look fabulous on a Paris runway, but it is not possible backstage during a play. Having said all that, compromises have to be made all the time. That’s the same if it is on the Abbey stage or a Paris runway.”

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