Bretta is the Resident Designer for Catalyst Theatre and has designed the Set, Costume and/or Lighting for a variety of theatre companies across Canada. She is the recipient of over twenty Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, Jessie Richardson and Betty Mitchell Awards and has been nominated twice for the Siminovitch Prize (Canada’s top theatre prize). She is a theatrical genius and I had the great honour of spending an hour chatting with her last Thursday over the phone.
Our conversation starts out rather awkwardly probably because I was slightly (okay, okay, a lot) nervous:
Overlapping: Hello?! How are you? (we both laugh).
S: I'm good. How are you?
B: I'm really well thank you.
S: It's nice to talk to you.
B: Awww, thanks! It's great to talk to you too.
S: And, so you're in Victoria right now.
B: I sure am.
S: Designing for Pacific Opera?
B: That's right. Yeah. We're doing a new production of Carmen.
S: Great! And, then are you coming to Vancouver to see the show here? Or, do you go back to Alberta?
B: No, I come to Vancouver the morning after we open here.
S: Kinda crazy for you, right?! Busy all the time.
B: That's okay. It's a good kind of busy. That's for sure.
S: Just quickly I wanted to ask do you have a time limit or anything? So, I make sure I get my questions in or...?
B: No, I think I'm good for the next little bit. You just do whatever you need to do.S: Ok, great. That's perfect. I just didn't want to take up too much of your time.
B: No, no, that's ok.
And, that folks, is right off the bat, how nice of a person she is. She doesn’t know me from a hole-in-the wall and she’s willing to just sit on the phone and chat with me for who knows how long.
S: Okay, I guess then, where did the idea come to do Hunchback after you guys did Nevermore and Frankenstein? How did you and Jonathan [Christenson - writer, director and composer for Hunchback and Artistic Director of Catalyst Theatre] decide on this particular story?
B: Um, well, it's a story that I've always loved. It's a beautiful, romantic, and yet very harsh tale of the underdog, you know?! I mean it's been, of course, Disney-afied and turned into a pretty romantic fairytale. It's not really a fairytale. It doesn't end well. (laughs)
S: No, it doesn't. That's for sure.
B: The true story does not end well. Nor does ours. I just love the complexity of the characters and we talk a lot about the fact that in life no one is hero or villain. We are all combinations of those in whatever percentage of that happens to come out on any given day. And that is true for this tale. That no one is hero and no one is a villain. It's a beautifully written story of character.
Because my background is architecture I also love the passion that Hugo writes about Paris and about every sort of cornerstone of every building. He invests and he humanizes and gives personality to all the structures that existed for him in his downtown Paris experience. There is something about the combination of those two things. The human characters are so rich and full and complex and confusing and full of beauty as is the architecture of the time he writes about. And, how that was a dying art, you know?! How masons and stoneworkers and ironworkers were even then starting to become artists of the past. So, all of that sort of ties itself into a really beautifully woven story that we were fascinated by.
S: So, then is the architecture of that time then one of the inspirations that you used to then create this world for Hunchback? Or what was your inspiration?
B: Yeah, yeah, it is. He writes in such a visual poetic way that you can sort of imagine all of the windows and walls and shapes, interior and exterior, of all these structures he's talking about. So, that becomes the visual landscape, if that makes sense?! A landscape that I then take into the building of the designing of the show. Obviously Notre Dame plays a big part in inspiring how the set came to be but the same is true for the costumes. The costumes have a very architectural, structural feel to them as well. There is the occasional costume that walks past that actually looks a bit more like a building than a costume. (laughs). But, hopefully in a fun way.
(L to R: Ryan Reid, Loretta Bailey & Molly Flood. Photo by Layla Hyde)S: Well that's one of the things that I really love about your designs and appreciate is that they are so unusual but in a really great way and still applicable to the story. And so I just wanted to ask too, often in Nevermore - and I didn't have a chance to see Frankenstein which I still regret because that was before Nevermore and I hadn't yet gleamed the awesomeness that is Catalyst Theatre…
B: Oh my goodness!! How nice is that?!
S: (laughs)… But I did see Nevermore - and from what I've read of Frankenstein you often use different materials in your designs in costume. What I would not normally describe as costume materials. How do you come up with that?! And what is your inspiration for that? And, what is being used in Hunchback that's kind of different and interesting and not your typical fabric, right?!
B: I think necessity is so much invention born, right?! (laughs) You start with the fact that you're trying to create really structural pieces like the costume themselves could be stand alone structural elements, right?! And, that is not an easy thing to do with fabric. (laughs).
S: (laughs) No.
B: And second of all, I don't sew. (laughs) So…
S: Yeah, I read that. And I was like "that's so crazy!"
B: (laughs) Yeah, I'm hopeless. I don't sew. But I build. I can make things with my hands. My fascination is with space and light and how to sculpt with space, light and time. So I end up using materials like sticks and cardboard and chicken wire and things that I can get my hands on easily and cheaply. That I can manipulate and play with and figure out how to do what it is we want to be doing. So much of it is for me is learning with my hands and in staying open to materials that you wouldn't normally think of. I get lots of inspiration from places like construction sites, right?! Because they are using industrial materials on a really large scale so you know that you'll be able to find those things relatively inexpensively because they are used in massive amounts. And often they have inherent structure, right?! So, how do you take something that you use in a building and use it on a small scale on a body, on a costume and also respond to what's happening in rehearsal in terms of movement and style and character building, right?!
So those things all sort of tend to work together. There is never anything imposed. I don't say "oh, well we have to do everything out of sticks because that's what feels right." (laughs). It really is a necessity of the mother of invention and you just keep experimenting until you find the right fit. Does that make sense to you?!
S: Yes, absolutely. That it is more of a process. That it comes from the story and from rehearsal and then you sort of see what works, I guess, and then keep going (laughs).
(Ryan Reid. Photo by Layla Hyde)B: Absolutely, absolutely. You know like with Nevermore. We knew that we wanted characters to be able to disappear into the darkness and then appear. It's a very tricky thing to do something scary in the theatre, right?!
S: Yeah, yes.
B: It's very hard. It's very hard to make something scary because you don't have the point of view advantages that you have with film. So, we were trying to invent this world where everything was black enough that people could disappear and reappear just by using light, right?!
Well, it all went extremely well until we started lighting it and I was like "I can't see anything!" because we had been so good at making everything disappear. So that's how the masking tape came out and everything got outlined. Everything you see that's cream is all masking tape because it needed to pop. You still needed to see the form and to see the shape of a body, or a skirt, or a hat, or what have you, and finding the right balance between appearing and disappearing, I guess. It's just always being open and being in response mode is kind of how I work.
S: And that's interesting that that element of the design didn't come in until you saw the lights on the costumes, right?! And, that is one of my other questions. I was looking at a video clip of an interview that was done with you guys from the production at the Citadel and they were saying that you were coming into rehearsals and sketching and all that kind of stuff. So, you obviously don't show up at first rehearsal and present designs so do you present something? How does that evolve? Do you then go through rehearsal and work on designs or how does that all happen for you and with Catalyst?
B: It sort of depends on what our timeline is, like anything. Sometimes you need to know what the set is, for example, ahead of when you'd like to because that is a big build. I tend to do a million and one little thumbnail sketches and sometimes things stick and they make sense and they work and sometimes they don't.
So, for the first day of rehearsal of Hunchback - for the workshop - all I had were a bunch of thumbnail sketches, a bunch of ideas, and I just sort of talked through - trying to hit on every page one or two - just to try to get people caught up on the conversations that Jon and I had been having before they got there, you know?!
Like I try to put them in a world of scale and some notion of what might come.
Then I watched what was going on and of course listened to music, text and watched what Laura [Krewski – choreographer] was doing with movement and so on. And, then I started playing with wire and forming these arch pieces and just sort of sticking them into cardboard and looking at space. And, how that might help to define space, or redefine space, because it's quite an episodic show. So, literally a whole bunch of bent wire became this thing that Jon, and eventually Laura, and I played with to create these archways that are - some of them are 3-legged and some of them are 4-legged - that work to delineate space. Now, that got built at the Citadel prior to our actual second rehearsal process.
But then I had ideas about costume that I sketched in really loose line drawing fashion and some of those stuck and some of them didn't make any sense because the character went a different way. Or, in the case of the Captain - Captain Phoebus is one of the characters - and he has this giant headdress and these sort of giant hockey shoulder pad things that we glued a bunch of foam onto. So, that kind of thing comes from the way he was standing in rehearsal. That doesn't come from me necessarily. It's a read. I read what's going on on his body and kind of where the energy is going and come up with something that feels that might work. Then, you know, put it on him and if it makes him even bigger and better then you know you're going in the right direction. (laughs). Or if it gets in his way then you know you have to start again. (laughs).
So, it tends to work like that. It's a lot of give and take. Tons of feedback. And it's also about desire, right?! When [people] sign on they are basically saying they are open to and desirous of being in a process that is in evolution. Because it's hard. It's not an easy thing to be in a state of constant change.
S: Yeah, because most more traditional styles of working, are you know, designers show up and they present and then you rehearse and it's very sort of structured whereas I'm guessing that what you do has much more flow, and sort of, evolution in the process which is a non-traditional way of working for some people. But exciting at the same time!
B: Yeah, it is exciting and you have to sort of be on board that the best idea or the best solution could come from anywhere. It's not about you (laughs). You know what I mean?! (laughs)
S: (laughs) Absolutely, yeah.
B: And, that applies to all of us. It's not about us as individuals. It's about what we can create as a team of people who are all aiming for the same finish line.
S: All aiming to, you know, represent the story and tell the story in the best possible way, I guess.
B: Exactly, exactly. It could be the text that takes the lead. It could be that choreography takes the lead. It could be that music takes the lead. Or visuals take the lead. It all depends on what tells the story best in that moment.
S: And on that note, what's the relationship or how is it working between you and the director, Jonathan, or you and Laura, the choreographer? How does that all work? When you start what's the director-designer relationship? How do you guys work that?
B: I was out for a run with a friend of mine and on that run I was talking about how Jon and I are starting to talk about what is the next the story. So, Jon and I talk about the story before there is a story. We try to figure out what is the next story we want to tell. And, right now, it feels like the end of a trilogy of cautionary tales, right?! (laughs).
S: (laughs) Yes...
And, that is the end of Part I of my interview with Bretta! On Thursday stay tuned for Part 2 where she talks more about her collaborative process with Jonathan and Laura as well as takes us behind the scenes of the Canadian premiere of Enron at Theatre Calgary.