B: Frankenstein, Edgar Allen Poe, Hunchback, Okay, yeah, a trilogy of cautionary tales (laughs). So, now what's next? What is the next thing that gets us fired up and inspired and wanting to go jogging down that terrifying road of the unknown?! We don't know but we do it, right?! (laughs). So that's how he and I work. We start right from the long list of what's next projects. Then once we figure out what we're doing. It's a little bit of a free-for-all. We share images, or thoughts, or movies, or dreams, or nightmares we've had, or whatever it is, and we bring them to the table and try to find the world that the story lives in. Because it's all about what world does this story inhabit. And, because we're inventing those worlds, we're using period references or architectural references or installation references but not… We call it a dream logic. You know how dreams are completely illogical and yet they make total sense?!
S: (laughs) Yes.
B: (laughs) Well, that's the sort of logic we apply. It’s the logic of dreams. We keep coming back to wanting to build a world of imaginative possibilities. So, if you were the kind of kid who was read stories - or told stories by your parents before you went to bed - it's that kind of wild, vivid, imaginative, pop off the page, fairytale landscape we are drawn to. So that's the next step. Trying to figure out the world.
(Scott Walters. Photo by Layla Hyde)And, then there is a lot of drawing. A lot of composing. Jon writes the music before anything else. Music comes first to him. Images come first to me. But he's also a really image driven guy. There are very blurry lines. I always tease him that he could be the designer he just doesn't have the time (laughs). Which is true. He is a really visual creature so he's able to see things with very little to go on. Like he can imagine something just through a little thumbnail sktech or what have you. So we're pretty lucky in that we now have a short hand after years of doing this and of where we're going and how we might get there. So, there's a lot of back and forth.
Then, once we get into rehearsal, Jon and Laura are really the rehearsal team. Then they are building that vocabulary of visual movement. How the storytelling is going to work through the body and face. And, we work with a woman named Betty Moulton who does the same thing but just does that with voice. So, there is a team of us. And, Laura is fantastic because by the time they are in rehearsal I am often - I'm in and out of rehearsal because I'm building stuff in my office - which is just 10 feet away. So they'll grab me and say "'Kay, come watch something" and I'll watch and then we'll talk about what's possible or what that inspires. Most of Laura's breaks - bless her heart - she comes into my office and says "Okay, if Edgar is doing this with his back leg and this with his arm and his head is over here, how do you think we can make this work with his costume? What can he possibly be wearing that will work?” So, she's really great at doing this back and forth with me. Nothing ever arrives in rehearsal and it's like "oh well, obviously that's the thing". There's no "there's the hat" like there is no negotiation or discussion. It is more "Here's the starting place for the hat. Now let's see if we can make the hat work. And, if we can't make the hat work, what do we want to do with the hat to make it better?" You know?!
(C: Ava Jane Markus & Ron Pederson with the cast. Photo by Layla Hyde)
S: Yeah, yes.
B: So, it requires a certain amount of flexibility on the idea front. You need to have a really long, very patient, extended feeling about what you do because nothing is ever right. And, nothing is ever done. It's always an evolution. (laughs). Trust me.
S: (laughs) Yeah.
B: (laughs) We've become extremely good at letting go. It’s a highly trained skill of art.
S: (laughs) I can imagine, yeah. And, so in saying that, it's a very particular process for you guys and obviously very open. So do you find that when you work with other theatre companies or on other shows, it is very different? And, how do you do that? Is it easy for you to do that? And, do you like working both ways? Or, do you kind of bring your aesthetic with you and go this is how I work, do you know what I mean?!
B: I do. I think what I love about what I do is that there is a lot to be learned from every project. From example we just opened Enron at Theatre Calgary. Theatre Calgary - a big theatre - full of people with incredible skills and talents. So I'm able to work with - I did the Set & Costume design for that show - I'm able to work with people in wardrobe who have a whole range of skills that I do not have.
So, there are these Raptors in this show. They are Raptors that eat the debt. For Enron, right?! So they are these strange dinosaur characters that I drew. Then from what I drew I built a prototype in my office in Edmonton of how I would build it. Because that's all I know to do. I know how to do it the way I would build it so it's made out of painter's coveralls and then stuck to it is a bunch of foam core cut into pyramids that's placed on the costume and then those are covered in duct tape. (laughs). Because that is how I know how to do it. How I would do it.
So, I take this prototype to Theatre Calgary on the bus. (laughs).
B: (laughing) So glamourous.
S: (laughing) That is hilarious. That's awesome.
B: (laughs) So I take it on the bus. And, I show the director and he says "Cool. I totally get it. That makes sense to me. I just want to make sure they look tough, right?!" And, I'm like "Yep, I'm totally in". So I take them into wardrobe and the wardrobe guys then look at it and say "okay, great. What is it about this that is important." Because with the kind of style of theatre we're doing at Theatre Calgary they are not going to make them out of paper and tape because they actually know how to make them properly (laughs).
S: (laughs) Yes.
B: (laughing) You know what I'm saying?!
S: (laughing) Yeah, absolutely.
B: They take the essence. And, they say "okay, what's the essence of what's important with this?" And I say "well, okay, it has to look fierce. And it has to look mean. And they can't be funny, like Barney, purple dinosaurs. They have to be nasty Raptors. So I like that it's jagged and pointy and the tape makes it rugged and tough". So we talk about that and then they come up with methods of making that work within a wardrobe rather than a workshop which is essentially what I have. So, it's that kind of difference. I still bring what I bring but then it's built in a completely different way by people who have very different skills sets. Does that make sense?!
S: Yes, totally. They probably figure out how to... well exactly, they have an entire wardrobe team to figure out how to make it from fabric - or whatever other materials - to then make what you've brought.
B: Yeah. Now what's happened is that they're built [by the wardrobe team at Theatre Calgary] but they're built more like a soft fabric jumpsuit that then has a mask head and all these foam pyramid things that are covered with a different fabric. Then I did the finishing. The finish details are red tape. Literally. The question was "Are we going to paint this or...?" And I said "You know what?! I'm just going to tack this thing with red tape." (laughs).
B: (laughing) They said "Okay. You go to it." (laughs). So, that's kind of how we work as a team and make it happen.
S: And, for that kind of production: do you show up on the first day of rehearsal and have those designs already done in your mind and present them? Or is it still more of a collaborative process as you go through rehearsal?
B: No, I show up with a model. The set was already built prior to rehearsal starting so I show up with a model and talk through the designs in a pretty normal way. And, the costumes are all sketched - and I think it's a pretty common thing that they are drawn as they are intended – but then you actually meet these people and see them in real life. And, you see bodies, hair and faces and then you might make slightly different choices then you did on paper because they will work better for a particular actor or they will look better in combination with other actors. Do you know what I mean?! There's still an evolution on the wardrobe front but the basic idea is all on paper.
S: Yes! I'm just always curious to find out - I don't know how much was mentioned to you about me - but I'm a costume designer so I'm always very curious to find out what other people's processes are.
B: Ahhhhhhh, there ya go.
S: So, that's why I'm asking you all these questions.
B: Yes, for sure.
S: Because I know my process and how I'm used to working. And, I'm still quite young. I'm not by any means… So I'm always curious to see what other people's processes are and especially people like yourself who, you know, I really admire your work. So, yeah, it's just a curious thing to me. Because I find that too and, I think that's what I like - I don't do Set or Lighting design - but I like the collaborative process even once you get into rehearsal. So that you're seeing actors bodies and that something that might come up in rehearsal that you didn't think of prior can inspire a choice. I like to have that freedom. So, it's just interesting that that happens in your process - and elsewhere - as opposed to just what I'm doing or projects that I work on.
B: Yeah, yeah, No, I think it's really important. I think it's really important to stay open to the evolution that happens in rehearsal. It’s really important to listen to performers because they know all sorts of things that you don't know. You learn from them what their fears are, what their needs are, what their wishes are, and at the end of the day, what is critical is that they go on stage feeling absolutely fantastic. And, that doesn't mean that they look fantastic. Maybe that part is not about looking fantastic but that they the feel right. There is nothing more frustrating to me then people who close off options because they know better. I never know better. I bring what I bring. You bring what you bring. We come up with the best solution to the given problem but there is not a lot of room, for me, for being shut down or of one mind.
S: Or imposing something on somebody. If you come in and think this is the only and best idea and then imposing that on somebody that maybe has other ideas then there's no give and take. There's no meeting of minds. There's just...
B: That's right, that's right. Then it's not an organic art form. Then you could do it on your own, you know?! Certainly for me I need the input of everyone. I'm happy to make decisions. It's not about that. It's just that it will be better if we're open to keeping the ideas free flowing...
And, that's Part II. I think my favourite thing from this part of the interview is that she took her Raptor prototype on the bus with her to Theatre Calgary. I can just imagine the looks on the faces of the people riding that bus. Priceless!!
The final installment of my chat with Bretta will be up on the blog on Saturday (just in time for their first preview). We chatted for almost an hour last Thursday and when I transcribed it into Word it ended up being 15 pages long! And, I just felt that there was nothing extraneous in what she had to say.
Part III has some of her most inspiring words and thoughts that came during the part of the conversation when I asked her if she had any advice to give to young, aspiring designers and/or theatre artists. Plus we'll come back to more about Hunchback and the thing that surprised her most about the production.
So, stayed tuned...