The brilliant Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday In The Park With George is a natural fit for the Arvada Center. It is a musical about an artist and art Inspired by the painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La GrandeJatte by Georges Seurat, and the Arvada Center celebrates all art forms. After seeing the opening night performance I’m certain there will be plenty of reviews highlighting the wonderful performances, the spectacular music, the sheer beauty of hearing so many Colorado voices conquer the Sondheim score. So, I chose to explore one of the marvelous design components. Here is my Q&A with costume designer Clare Henkel.
Many artists in various disciplines say they appreciate having rules or parameters in place when they begin creating. You had an iconic painting as the guide for the majority of the costumes in Sunday In The Park With George, What impact did that have on your design?
This is the first time I can remember in all these years of designing costumes that a painting was literally the source for the design. I frequently use a painting as an inspiration for the color palette for a show, but not as an attempt to recreate the exact painting. That fact put certain restraints on my designs, which I found restrictive at times, but also a lot of fun! For instance, the color palette in the painting (although certain colors had faded greatly from the original because of the kind of pigments Seurat used) is not one that I commonly use. I found the oranges a challenge, but am very pleased at the individual hues that we ended up with. With the use of an icon comes certain audience expectations. We worked diligently to meet and hopefully exceed their expectations.
The script begins;
“White, a blank page or canvas
The challenge, bring order to the whole
This entire production design; set, lighting, and costume really seemed to embrace that philosophy. How did you find the visual language as a team?
We all adhered to the painting as a basis for the design. The elements of design that begin the script are universal, and ones that Brian Mallgrave (Scenic designer), Shannon McKinney (lighting designer) and myself all work with every time we design. Most good design comes from these basic ideas–although at times one wants to break them. The three of us work well together, and trust each other. We show each other colors, fabrics and other choices at each step of the way. If we have concerns, we discuss them. This ensures that the design elements will complement each other. For this show, it was an exciting process to literally bring the painting to life.
There could be some freedom in the modern, 1984 period costumes. Where did you find inspiration for those designs?
Well, the truth is that I was in my mid-20s in 1984 (yes, it’s true!). So I have memory and photo evidence of that time. And of course I have research books and Google Image, as well as other online sources to draw from Costume design comes from an understanding of people–why they choose to wear a certain item of clothing or outfit at a certain time. It was fun to take the characters in the script and to dissect them, bringing them to life. I have attended lots of gallery openings, and know a lot of artists. There is a great variety in what people consider to be dressed up–or not–at an event like that.
The dresses, all the dresses have real character, the confection for the American lady tourist is a delightful example. That could so easily become a mere punch line, but it is more than that. Tell me about creating so many specific characters’ wardrobe.
The people in Seurat’s painting are, for the most part, middle class Parisians. There is some variation in that, of course. But their socio-economic level was important to convey. Rod and I talked about this quite a bit. [Rod A. Lansberry, Arvada Center Producing Artistic Director of Musical Theatre, also directed this production.] We did not have the luxury of building all of the women’s dresses (the 1880’s are a particularly challenging, time-consuming era to build), so we concentrated on building the dresses that I couldn’t find either in our stock or to rent elsewhere. I tried to find dresses (or separate bodices and skirts) that are of the period, help to define character or status, AND are in the correct color palette for the painting. Although the American couple is not in the painting, they are in the script. I wanted the audience to know immediately that they are not from Paris. I wanted them to look like overdressed Americans who want to show off to the French, who look a bit like the pastries they are eating. They were a fun couple to design! And with Dot, I wanted to show the arc of her character in the play and how she matures somewhat, although she is still fairly young and self-educated.
The Arvada Center costume department creates Broadway caliber costumes. What is the process for you as a designer when working with them?
We start months in advance. Brenda King, the costume shop manager, runs a tight ship. She has very high standards, and she and I have worked together for years. We are all on the same team, working toward a common goal. I do loads of research, often making a Pinterest page to compile it all. Then I do sketches for each character, and when they are ok’d by Rod, we start to source each item of clothing. This is a combination of looking through the Arvada Center’s stock, other local stocks, fabric stores and many online sources as well. I usually do painted renderings so the shop, other designers and the actors know more or less how a character will look. I also make a lot of lists–a costume plot, piece list, wig and facial hair list, crafts list, etc etc. I carefully talk through any items that are being built with the shop. There are so many alterations needed for pieces that aren’t built–these can be tedious and time consuming, but necessary. The fit of men’s clothes is important to me as well as the women’s. The shop really did beautiful work on this production. The two dresses of Dot’s that we built were so well made and fit her so well. Crystal McKenzie, Samantha Saucedo and the gang really came through on this one. We begin fittings before rehearsals start with any actors who are local. We fit any out of town actors as soon as possible when they get to town, so we can finish everything up and be ready for dress rehearsals. Wig and facial hair fittings are usually done in the evening (Diana Ben Kiki is also the wig designer for the Denver Center, and I am lucky to get her when I can). With a short, approximately 3-week rehearsal period until Opening, we have a lot to do in a short amount of time!
I wanted to mention the challenge of creating a real person’s look–like George Seurat. We revisited the idea of George in Act Two wearing jeans, which Rod and I had dismissed earlier, because Cole Burden, who plays George, brought it up in his fitting. I have to make so many decisions in advance, before the actors get involved, that when an actor I respect brings up an idea which I like, I am open to using it. And this was the right thing for him to wear in Act Two.
What else should we know?
This production has been a joy to work on. After all of these years, I am still thrilled to see something I sketched come to life onstage. And when those actors are assembled in the painting positions at the end of Act One, and the lush Sondheim score swells with those gorgeous voices, my hear sings!
(Disclosure: Clare Henkel and the Arvada Center Costume Shop team provided advance costume measurment of me for the American Repertory Theater before my appearance in their 2016/2017 Season)