there are many creative practices and many people who i work with all the time, yet i wouldn’t have a clue how they produced their work. i know artists who create amazing things in glass, photographers using carbon processes and people making complex flash websites, but if it came to it, i wouldn’t be able to tell you how they go from start to finish.
kyra is a costume designer who has been working in various areas of the united states for the last few years. we’ve been friends since school and kyra has explained to me tons of time what she’s working on, yet i’m not sure i’ve ever got a full grasp on how the business of costume design works. kyra has just moved back to the uk, so it seemed like a nice time for me to clear up my ignorance to what she does and post it for everyone to read.
what was your initial influence for becoming a costume designer?
it took me by surprise really. i had always been involved in theatre, but initially, from the performance side. after doing my a levels, i decided i didn’t really want a career in performance, but did want to do do something in the artistic realm. so i went to westwood school of art and design to do my art and design foundation diploma. i ended up specialising in fashion/textiles. however, my teacher noticed that my designs tended to have a narrative behind them and certain theatrical slant, so he suggested i apply for degree courses in costume design, as opposed to fashion design. it was a path i had never considered before, but seemed to make perfect sense once the suggestion had been made. i got into the arts university at bournemouth and it went from there.
i don’t know a lot about costume design, what is the process from beginning of a project to end?
the very first step is reading the script, ideally at least twice before having my first design meeting with the director and other designers- set, lighting and sound. (if i were dealing with opera or dance, i would listen to the music several times). the first read should be to get a sense of the flow of the play and feel for the characters, without taking any notes. the second read is where i start to make notes: practical things, such as the location where the play is set, the year, the season, times of day, the time- span of the play, the character’s occupations, etc. as well as noting these practical things, i would think about what i think the themes of the play are and try to summarise what i think the play is about in a sentence. also, i would note my feelings about the characters. these are the things the director will want to talk about in our first meeting. some weeks later, there would be another group meeting, where i would show research and have a more focused discussion about how i see individual characters and scenes. the next meeting would probably be initial sketches/collages of design ideas, then later, more finalised line drawings. once any necessary changes have been made, i would produce coloured renderings. once the designs have been approved and finalised, production can start. unless you’re doing a play on broadway and have a massive budget, it is unlikely the costume shop will be able to build all of you costumes from scratch. so, i may also pull costumes from the theatre’s own costume stock, shop for them, or rent from costume hire companies. throughout the pre-production period, actors will be called for fittings, where they try on the costumes and we can make sure they fit. if the costume is being built in the shop, a mock-up is made first, which means the costume is built from muslin. this means the draper can fit the garments perfectly before going into the actual fabric. many things can change from the initial design as a result of the fitting: it could be the size or shape of the actor that doesn’t work with the design, their complexion, or even their stance or body language that will make me want to alter the design slightly. typically, we have roughly six weeks of pre-production, before a series of technical and dress rehearsals. then finally, opening night, when I finally walk away.
what other artists, costume or not, influence your work?
my influences for my designs can come from anywhere and will vary greatly depending on the subject matter. there are no single artists i repeatedly go to, because then i would be in the danger of my work always looking the same. my first go-to is nearly always paintings. particularly when you are doing a period play, the paintings of the period are an essential tool for achieving an authentic sense of time and place. i find they are also a good way to establish the mood of the play, and often, my colour pallet for the costumes. for example, in a design i did for ibsen’s ghosts, a dark play of surpressed and distorted emotion, i looked at a lot of german expressionist paintings. in fact, one of my characters was almost completely lifted from a self-portrait by edvard munch. another design i did was inspired by pin-up girl artwork and film noir. it can be completely random. photographs are also important and not necessarily just of people, but also of landscape, architecture, interiors, still life, etc. i really just try to flood my mind with lots of imagery.
in terms of costume designers, there are designers whose work i admire, but i wouldn’t say they influence my work, as i would want to put my own stamp on a design.
what do you consider to be your best work so far? and how has your work improved since you began your career?
i recently designed the costumes for a production of the merry wives of windsor, which i felt pretty good about. it was the biggest show i have ever designed and was also the first shakepeare play i had designed for that was actually realised (meaning it was actually staged and wasn’t just a paper project). additionally, we decided to set it in shakepeare’s time, in the 16th century. previous to this, the earliest time period i had designed for was the late 19th century. historical dress can be a litttle daunting, especially when you are dealing with the pre-photography years and only have paintings to rely on for research. however, i think i pulled it off and other people seemed to like it, which is always nice…
you’ve spent the last 4 years working in the states, what made you make that move? and how do you think working there differs from here/other places?
i was offered a job to design four shows of an eight-show season for a summer theatre company on cape cod. i was out there for five months. i was working with other theatre design students from the states, many of whom were doing their mfa (master of fine arts). we don’t really have an equivalent here in england. the ma here tends to be more academic, where as the mfa in the states was for three years and gave you more practical experience. this was something i felt i lacked. additionally, unlike in the uk, where you have to pay to do an ma, most mfa courses in the states offer assistantships, which is where you work a certain amount of hours for the university’s theatre department and in return, receive a wage. so basically, you’re getting paid to go to school, which sounded alright to me. so i enrolled on a course at the university of tennesse, knoxville, which I just graduated from.
obviously, america is bigger than the uk, so there are just a lot more regional theatre companies. there are also a lot of theatres who just open for the summer, which is great for students who need to bulk up their cv’s and earn some money during the in-between school years. in terms of how the design process works, it seems to be more regimented in america. there are very definite deadlines, whereas in europe, i think it’s a bit more organic. another difference is here in england the set and costume designer tend to be the same person, whereas in america, they are nearly always two separate people. however, i think this is largely due to less budget in the uk.
do you ever work on personal projects?
i haven’t ever done a personal project. theatre design is usually going to involve a team of people: director, other designers, performers, etc. it wouldn’t be impossible though. i could be the sole director, designer and performer, but i don’t see my self doing that…at least not the performer part. i do find the idea of having a more directorial hand in a project appealing and have had ideas about projects i would like to do, though i think it would be a collaboration with somebody else.
what would be your favourite working situation when you think you produce your strongest work?
that really depends on what you’re given. fast deadlines can be exciting: if it’s a small project, when you’re just expected to give your gut response. but then, if i was expected to produce work for a huge project, like my fair lady in broadway quality, but in little time, i’d be pretty miserable. the more prepared i am, the happier i will be. yeah, lots of research is great, but that’s really more down to me and how deep i dig.
i guess my most successful and enjoyable working situations have been when i have really connected with the director and team of designers on the show. my favourite project so far was for a very small contemporary show. it was particularly rewarding due to the fact that director and designers were all very passionate about the show. from the first meeting, we talked extensively about the play and its contents and really analised the characters. it felt like we all really cared about the characters and the play. often, with bigger plays you don’t have the luxury of having those kind of intimate, indepth discussions; it quickly has to move on to more practical matters: set transitions, quick changes, effects, etc.
any words of wisdom for the fans?
hmm, words of wisdom…i’m really at the start of my career, as i just came out of my post- graduate degree, so i could probably do with some words of wisdom as much as anyone. but, i would say i have got myself this far through a combination of hardwork, determination and a lot of following my gut instincts. there have been many times when i took a chance and jumped, with no idea what was on the other side, but just had a firm feeling is was the path i was supposed to take. i’ve never had it all planned out, but it seems to have paid off so far. so i guess my advice would be, don’t be scared, just do it, otherwise you’ll always think, ‘what if?’. i have found that when you put yourself out there people are more willing to extend their hand to you and help you along.
kyra was raised in scarborough, north yorkshire, before studying for her ba in costume design for the screen and stage at the arts university at bournemouth. while there, she had the opportunity to work on the bbc’s waking the dead, which then led on to a position as costume supervisor on a bbc sitcom pilot episode, small fish, and later, some short films for channel four. kyra went on to design costumes for half of a summer season at monomoy theatre on cape cod, usa. the shows kyra designed for there included: see how they run, steel magnolias, a midsummer night’s dream and you can’t take it with you. she then went on to pursue a masters in costume design at the university of tennesse, where she designed for the productions of flyin’ west, little shop of horrors, speech and debate and the merry wives of windsor. kyra graduated from her masters in may of this year and has since returned to the uk.
her work can be viewed on her website at: www.kyrastewart.com