When I went to college, the costume design professor grabbed me at a department barbecue and told me I had to take her class and work in the shop with her. I did, and fell in love with it. But I moved back and forth between costume design and acting for many years. After living in New York for a while I was restless: I was doing a lot of improv with Los Banditos Chocolates. I loved doing improv, and they were my family for several years. But I wasn’t feeling like there was a core indie theater community then, and that is really what I was looking for. I decided to go back to school and study design further, so I enrolled in the Master's program at Brooklyn College where I got to study with Becky Cunningham. The minute I met her I knew that I had made the right decision. She was so generous to me with her knowledge and her friendship. Once I was fully immersed in the program, spending all my time designing and learning, I realized how much a part of me it really was.
Why New York? How did you make your way to the city?
I'm from Virginia, and I had moved slowly southward from theater job to theater job. I was living in Orlando, working at Universal. I was ready to split, and a friend said "Come with me to L.A." At the time, it felt there were really only 2 choices—L.A. or New York. I felt more of an affinity with New York and theater, so I came here. Another co-worker was coming back to Long Island, so I stayed with her for a few weeks while I looked for a place on my own. It was during the blizzards of '94, and to save money I would walk everywhere to look at apartments—it was miserable! But I found a great place in Hell’s Kitchen. Once I started designing again it was perfect because I was right next to the Garment District with all the fabric stores.
How do you negotiate artistic need and limited resources? Is there an artistic difference between how you approach an indie show versus a show with plenty of time, money etc.?
Well, I don't know if I should let this get out, but limitations fuel my creativity. My favorite design is Mrs. California, which I did with River Heights Productions (now Retro Productions) in 2005. It is about a home-makers competition, and called for 4 kitchen setups onstage. We had $200 and about a 200-sq. foot stage. I was only going to design the costumes, but then I had a vision of a 2-dimensional set and props, so I approached Heather Cunningham with the idea. I think it's the only way the play could have worked in that space, and once I came to that conclusion, I started thinking about the significance of these women being pushed into a flat, cut-out world while struggling to find their place in the 3-dimensional world. I think that gave the director another point of view to work with as well, and the playwright loved this interpretation. If we'd had a lot of money, and a lot of space, I don't think that it would have occurred to me to design it that way at all.
I can't say that I have ever designed a show with plenty of time or money! I think we always dream big, and always want to do more than the available resources might allow. My ninth-grade art teacher made us create a print using the phrase "art extends itself to the time allowed." I think that is so true, and it is also true if you substitute "money" for "time." I hope that I will always push myself to the limits and beyond.
What's exciting for you about doing an indie show? What makes you cringe?
I have found that the directors I have worked with in indie theater are so willing to let me think way outside the box. Coming to a meeting and saying “have you heard of Harajuku” or "I think The Tempest lends itself perfectly to Steampunk" and having someone explore those ideas with me is very exciting. I definitely cringe when a director has a laundry list of costumes that he or she wants and has no interest in my input.
What could the indie community do to make things easier for costume designers all around?
Support our work. So many actors and directors run around seeing each other’s shows, but I feel a much smaller percentage will go see a show because they know the designer.
What could scene or lighting or sound designers do to make your job easier on a specific production?
Keep us in the conversation. Share your research and ideas with us. Remember that it all ends up on the same stage. I find most designers want to do this, but sometimes we get so busy that we move forward without considering the other designers.
Tell me about something you achieved in 2013 that makes you feel really good:
2013 was a good year for me. I worked with Retro Productions on The Baltimore Waltz, which carried the very important message that we must not forget about the AIDS crisis; AIDS still exists, they are still searching for a cure, and it still is a disease with stigma and dire consequences for people all over the world. And we must remember the lessons learned about how the crisis was originally handled. We did some community outreach but I want to do more with future productions. I am very passionate about theater that touches the community. I found out how hard it is though, and will have to learn how to be more effective on that front.
I also received a nomination for my design for A Midsummer Night's Dream at Theater 2020. This was my second IT nomination, and I just love going to the nomination parties and feeling like a part of this wonderful community. Seeing all this great work around me, and meeting the people behind it all, making friends and collaborating with them, and being excited for them about their work, I just love that.
What's coming up in 2014?
I am just starting on Candide for Theater 2020 in Brooklyn. I have never designed a musical before, and just reading it was hard for me because I'm not musical and I look for so many clues in a script. But it's going to be very colorful, and I am playing with patterns and silhouettes, so it's going to be a fun project.