Designing Romeo & Juliet: An Interview with Katharine Horowitz & Andrea Gross

Theatre is, by design, a collaborative endeavor. In reality, some departments typically work more closely together than do others. Most people automatically interrelate scenery and lights, or lights and sound. But –be honest now- costumes and sound? So when Katharine Horowitz and Andrea Gross suggested that they talk about how their work affected and drove each other’s process for Park Square’s Romeo and Juliet, I was beside myself with excitement.

As a huge part of a successful collaboration is knowing when to shut up and step aside, I’m going to do just that and let you get on with it.

A huge thank you to Park Square Theatre, especially Production Manager Megan West. Check out the Romeo and Juliet trailer here, then go see the show with this conversation in mind!

Katharine Horowitz is a fixture of the community and has been designing sound professionally for well over a decade.

Andrea Gross is a Nimbus company member, a familiar face around town, and a well-known and highly-regarded costume designer.

This interview took place February 23, 2015.

Katharine: I’m Katharine Horowitz and I’m a sound designer and currently designing sound for Romeo and Juliet at Park Square Theatre.

Andrea: I’m Andrea Gross and I’m a freelance costume designer in the Twin Cities and also working on this production of Romeo and Juliet.

KH: We thought it would be cool if we got together and interviewed each other since Sound and Costumes barely work together, we’re like two ships passing in the night. But for this particular show I thought it would be great because it was Andrea’s costumes which influenced my sound Design for R&J. I really was unsure with where to begin with our director, David Mann’s, concept of the world, so I contacted her and asked what the costumes were going to look like, what the concept and the feeling was. That was able to guide me in the right direction of the music and the sound. And that is first time, I think, I’ve ever asked for help from costumes for inspiration. So, costumes for R&J?

AG: Costumes for this production we started conversations in April of last year, which is probably the longest lead time on a design in a very long time, maybe not ever. One of the reasons that it matters so much is it’s a very tight cutting of the play. It’s being produced for the theatre for young audiences program at Park Square. We’re down to 90 minutes. We have 9 actors playing all the roles. Romeo, Juliet and Father Capulet don’t double, so that leaves us with six bodies to play 18 roles. Those are some of the physical parameters that had to be considered. The fact that it will be remounted, hopefully in perpetuity… [laughs]

KH: ...I think so.

AG: …is also a consideration from a design standpoint, but ultimately what I’m really glad we had as much time as we did to work on, what the design concept that David wanted to present which was that it was of most interest to him, with a high school audience, was to highlight the conflict between generations more so than the conflict between two households. We wanted to really create a world that supports the text, but supports it for young audiences, so it needed to be something that people felt some amount of familiarity and comfort with, but also understood as soon as you looked at it this wasn’t modern day, it wasn’t something you would wear yourself, or you would see someone in on the street, but it wasn’t so rigid as to be a full, rigid, pitch-perfect period Elizabethan production. We needed to be able to support the sword fight. That was of utmost importance. We also couldn’t create a universe in which carrying swords didn’t make sense and it mattered to me in that realm of finding something familiar but also foreign that we were serving to support the text in the same way. I think that high school students approach the language of Shakespeare assuming they can’t understand it, and find that it in fact, not that different from the way we speak now, provided it’s done well, which I would venture to say it is, in this production.

KH: I would say it is.

AG: So those are some of the places that we started in conversation. Where that ended up for us and the research that Katherine asked me for and worked off of, ended up as sort of a mash up of current high fashion and Elizabethan silhouette and detail. The best example of that I think, where it’s most successful, is in the men’s wear. The young teenage boys are in extremely high-waisted skinny jeans and short motorcycle jackets that are only connected at the shoulder cap so they function like an Italian renaissance fighting doublet, but they look like a modern motorcycle jacket. The adult men, Capulet and Montague, have far more Elizabethan influence in their clothes: hanging robes, big loose vests, high collars, big cuffs on their clothes. It also became a world where the adults are in more metallic, brocade heavy-duty fabric and the teenagers are in lighter weight denim, more flexibility, more transience. We talked a lot early on about the true teenage nature of these characters and how everything changes from minute to minute to minute for them and that the clothes needed to reflect that. So that was the research I presented to you, Katherine, when you asked for it. So why don’t you talk about what you did with that, because I don’t actually know what happened after I sent you all that stuff.

KH: It’s fascinating. It actually helped me to propel me down this sort of, divergent world of the two. David had mentioned inspirational music such as Moby, we were looking at. There was this particular Sia song called Breathe Me we were also looking at. Those also had the two kind of meshed up in that you could tell they were modern but they had a lot of different musical sensibilities. Like the orchestral wash over the acoustic guitar or the piano but they still had the beat to them.

AG: Like a classic support with a really modern take.

KH: David and I didn’t meet about this until November or December. I find it really fascinating that you had been working on it all back in April and had time to let it ferment. What’s so different about our working processes is that I really was not able to grasp the sound and the tone of this show until we really started digging into it and I was really actually was able to see everyone in front of me and see how it was flowing, but you had to have your stuff all set up right there from the start.

AG: I think that’s fairly typical, that sound works a lot later than costumes does. I think there’s something I’ve often envied about that, that you have a certain flexibility that I don’t have. I frequently feel like I’m in a position to say no to people because that ship has sailed, it’s already built, we already purchased it, it’s been in rehearsals, I can’t deconstruct it and make something else out of it-which isn’t to say that didn’t happen on this process. We deconstructed and reconstructed some things. But I think you have the opportunity to-I think in some ways you to co-create more than I do. Which is interesting because another thing that you and I have spoken about, in preparation for this conversation, is the fact that the actors have a much more intimate connection with my work than they do with yours. And yet, to a certain extent, I’m handing it to them finished. That varies with different relationships with different actors, with different rehearsal processes, how much give and take there is room for. But in this case, we really had the world kind of on lock down before the rehearsals started.

KH: And I was still sort of floating in free-fall. Panicking. But do you think, at least for this show, that the costumes are supporting the characters and the sound supports the atmosphere or the text?

AG: I do. I do. I think these costumes are so much more specific and again to use the word prescribed, that it is so much more of a character support than an actor tool. When I work on modern pieces and we’re using clothes that everybody recognizes and are comfortable in, I really try to consider my work to be a toolbox I’m giving a director and an actor to do whatever they want to with. And that’s been less the case here because these thing are to a certain extent more fitted and they don’t allow for as much conversation and shift and flow. But I also think that your work has created a world, which it’s interesting to me that you started your process out of my work and then there were times as we sat through tech during which I wasn’t sure what direction to go with something to go with, to stay in the world, the sound design is then what helped answer those questions because you had created something that works in the story and the text but also just rounds out the world. There’s so much underscoring, which isn’t always the case, I think. There’s a way that the arc of the story is supported but the world we’re in is really solidified by the soundscape. That often helped me as I considered what I wanted to shift or change. How modern to push it or how classically to base it.

KH: To touch on that a little bit, to touch on the dichotomy of our work, we were sitting around the production meeting giving notes and you were talking I think about Tybalt’s collar? And some way to…?

AG: Yes.

KH: See, I know nothing about costumes! It was something in terms of the stitching and how you could make it sit a little higher up, and I just found that, that tiny little thing that could shape the way a costume sits and the way that it looks, to be so fascinating and so I started thinking about the other ways that tiny little shifts in sound can change the design, like a cymbal swell can just sort of propel this scene and make it so much more emotional or more moody. Or even just the adjustment of three decibels.

AG: Right, or the timing of something too. The amount of time we spent working on, because it’s so heavily underscored, spending all that time in tech really working on getting the timing worked out. When we sat last week in tech in previews and watched it, it’s amazing how well it all fits together. I’ve worked with sound designers who feel that if their worked is not noticed, then they’ve done their job correctly.

KH: Right.

AG: And maybe you’ve felt that way about some projects you’ve done, but no one could feel that way about this project because the two are so integral.

KH: That’s the Sound Designer’s curse.

AG: And our curse is that people got up in the morning and put clothes on so they assume it’s easy. We can all sit and come up with what the thing is.

KH: David was very, very clear that he wanted a very cinematic type of feel for the whole show-for sound, costumes, lights , everything. And I think we’ve grabbed that.

AG: I do think so. I think in that same way that you’re talking about, so you’ve got this sort of structure and world that you’ve created, and you’re talking about small shifts in things, you’re right. Tacking things down in a certain way to create a sharper contrast is something that we’ve worked with a little bit on this show. We’ve worked both ways on this show: trying to make things more structural, usually for the adults, or more flexible for the younger people. Those are sort of then technical tricks, cutting, pattern, stitching that we’re doing that no one would necessarily notice. In the same way I might not hear the difference in 3 decibels, but I feel it. I know that something is different from the last time we ran it.

KH: Right. So what’s the trick, the technical trick that you have, if you’re not going to fully reshape a costume like I’m not going to fully reshape a sound cue or a piece of music, but you need to make it slightly different in shape, not literally, but you know what I mean?

AG: Or literally. So the example you’re talking about with Tybalt’s collar, I had found layers of fabric that, flat on the table at a certain distance created a really fantastic texture that I loved very much. In practice, once they were applied to this large shawl collar that stands up and floats out to his shoulders, there were too many things going on. It looked all muddy and mushy and he sort of looked like he had a scrunched up scarf instead of a sharp motorcycle jacket. Ultimately we ended up recutting that collar out of different fabric that had more body to it to create that stiffness, but before we got there, we started by sizing it. I folded it under and stitched it place to get it to be a little bit shorter so it wouldn’t flop so much, and then I placed swing tacks in certain spots at the shoulders and center back to get it to stay standing up, which helped, but didn’t totally fix the problem. So ultimately what we did was find different fabric to use, removed that collar from it and reapplied something that looks much better.

KH: It’s just-I can sew my socks when there’s a hole in them. And I knit. And that’s about it.

AG: Yeah?

KH: I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated by the fit and the fabric in this show. What I think the compare and contrast of the costumes versus the sound is, more that I think about it, is the, not the theme that I created, the little waltz-y thing, but what is underneath it. So underneath that theme that we’ve got going on and in various other transitions or these orchestral washes or harps and little cymbal swells and things like that. Looking at the costumes, that deep color of the scarlet or crimson that the boys have on, really came into play in terms of the sound. The long, sustained, tension string wash. I don’t know if I’m describing that correctly.

AG: That’s cool.

KH: There’s a whole album on iTunes of orchestral washes. When I found that I was like, “Oh my God, my world has changed!”

AG: I would point out that when Katherine says “that little theme,” she’s talking about the thing she composed, which repeats itself in many ways that you never really understand that you’re hearing the same thing, you’re just having an emotional experience that’s tied together by these notes in succession with each other. It’s not a little thing at all.

KH: Well, here’s another thing we could talk about: it’s the first time for things, because this is the first time that I’ve really kind of composed a show from scratch in a deep, profound way. More than just, here’s a little bit of ‘euh’, a little ‘eugh,’ but an actual melody that goes on-

AG: A full compositional piece.

KH: A full composition. I’m super proud of it and it was a heck of a lot of work, but I think it’s made even more powerful by the fact that this is a show that’s going to go on in perpetuity and I think that’s what made probably both of us go just that extra mile, you know?

AG: Yeah, this is the first time, outside of an academic setting-I ran a shop at a liberal arts college, where I, in theory, had a tribe of labor that I could exact my designs out of, it didn’t always work that way-but as a freelance person, on my own, this is the first thing that I’ve built from the ground up.

KH: Really?

AG: Yeah, outside of an academic setting, without a shop support – well, by cobbling together a shop to support the work.

KH: Because all of these costumes, I mean, they’re not pulled, they’re all original.

AG: The two adult men are based on modern suits that we bought, but we bought two of each of them so we could use one for yardage to create other things. That is actually the only purchased thing. Everything else has been patterned and built from scratch. So that hasn’t happened for me in years, and certainly not when it was just me figuring out how to get it done.  With the fantastic help of many other people, by no means do I mean it was just me figuring out how to get it done. That, I think, has been personally really rewarding and professionally really rewarding, but I also am extremely gratified to recognize how much that supports the story-telling in this version. How much it matters that we didn’t just buy skinny jeans and try to make that work, that we built these pants with these really high waists that we couldn’t have gotten and how that elongates the form of the person wearing them and the way it creates this really dynamic physical element. Another thing that David and I talked about early on what the incredible importance of how dangerous this world is.

KH: Right, exactly.

AG: Never losing sight of how dangerous this time and place is. I think that by creating this line, to repeat myself ad nauseam, is both familiar and foreign, they’re pants and jackets, we know what that is, but we’ve never seen them in this combination, it’s a little bit strange, a little bit skewed. I think it helps people’s attention stay with it, I hope that’s what happens. I think we couldn’t have done that if we had tried to alter existing things.

KH: Exactly. There’s no way that he sound design would have worked if I had pulled pre-existing music.

AG: Right.

KH: The party scene has pre-existing music but that’s kind of because it’s of the world, they’re actually having this party so there’s music playing. I pulled that. And it’s true, I’ve thought of that. If I had pulled something, like some of Moby’s music that we used for inspiration, it would have been nice and it would have sounded great, but there’s no way I would have been able to shape it to fit the certain moods that we needed, the timing that we needed, to break it apart in the different layers, the multi-track layers of sound. It just wouldn’t have been the same and it wouldn’t have been as gratifying. That’s mainly what it is.

AG: That’s true. And it wouldn’t have been any less work.

KH: Yeah.

AG: There’s this methodology for all of our disciplines that, “If I could just do something with found objects…” I think that there is a world in which a design concept of found objects where they’re meant to continue looking like or sound like found objects, that’s one thing. But if you’re going to purchase something and pull it apart and put it back together as something else, then the only real advantage to that is that it has the texture that you want or another quality that you couldn’t replicate on your own. Otherwise it’s no less work. For sure.

KH: It’s the same amount of work, I’d say, and it’s less gratifying because you didn’t create it yourself. Now granted, I did pull the orchestral washes, because I don’t have an orchestra at my fingertips.

AG: Sure.

KH: But it’s the same. It’s just there to sort of boost it and support it. So here’s a question I think we both came up with: What sort of things capture your imagination about a script when you’re starting off the design process?

AG: I often tell theatre students or young designers, young theatre people that I am a just storyteller and that costumes are my medium. So there’s something about a story that captures my mind. It might be the relationships between people, it might be the way that language is used. It’s usually something image based, so in the case of relationships, whether they’re balanced relationships or inequitable relationships, or there’s a power struggle going on and how that manifests itself in an image is of interest to me. I think the style of language or the style of storytelling matters a lot to me, whether something is epic in nature or in short, small little vignettes, that can really influence, sometimes from a technical standpoint of how are they going to change clothes that many times or that fast, but hopefully before I get into the nitty-gritty of the problem-solving of it, I get an opportunity to sit with what it reminds me of, what it makes me think of and try to think about why that is. Like if a particular art style, a particular color comes to mind and what is that about and why. Sometimes I just grab it and run with it, sometimes it’s just yellow. But there was a version of this design early on where the Capulets were green, now they’re kind of a mustardy yellow. And I’m not even entirely certain that I can remember why the first was true or why it was changed, but having the luxury of being able to really think about what things play opposite each other well, what things play together well and how you can use that, I think is a really great thing. I don’t think I always have the opportunity to be really overt with that, but I’m also not sure that every story is served by it all being overtly designed with a heavy hand. This is super exciting because this story totally lets me go nuts with all of that in a way that, if we were telling The Cripple of Inishmaan, I don’t know, I’m just trying to think of something like really realistic and really immediately documentary and you’re not serving the story by doing that, you’re showing off. That you’ve got the paint brush and you got to do this.

KH: Right, Right! We were talking about that earlier when we went out to dinner, about maturing as designers to the point where we now think, “are we serving the story or are we just showing off?”

AG: Right! I mean I’ve had some moments this week where I’m like, I don’t want to make that change, what’s that about? It is because I’m attached to the idea I had or is it because I actually think the idea we have works better than a different idea?

KH: And there are a lot of moments during tech that I was acutely aware of, is the sound design insisting upon itself right now? Is it too – not is it too loud, but is there too much of it, is it too present? Could we do without this right here? Because we want it to be sort of cinematic, but I don’t want it to be like, “Hey hey!” For instance, we had a little sort of cello-y underscore for when Mercutio dies, and I saw that during one of our runs and I was like, “Nope, nope, too much. Too heavy-handed. Here’s a frying pan! Let me beat you over the head with it. We’re cutting that. We do not need that. Or we can pull back on the volume a little bit about this.” Because it’s not serving the story and it’s just making fireworks out of the sound design and that’s not the point. Even though sometimes I love to just have a big fat, sound show.

AG: Right. What captures your imagination about a script?

KH: Um, I am really fascinated about the psychological effect that sound design can have on a person. And so, if the script is something that serves in that capacity, I just glom onto it. The way that sound can sort of creep up on you, almost literally, and you don’t know that it’s there until it’s there and it’s like, what the hell? Or when it’s taken away. Or if we want to segue way to a different show, I’m currently designing Hir at Mixed Blood by Taylor Mac and it’s not a sound heavy show at all, but what it does have are a lot of different frequencies. So there’s a portable air conditioner that’s constantly running, and you’d think that’d be really easy, and in a way it is, but there’s like five or six different air conditioner sounds I have. It’s like, does this work? Does this work? Does this work? This is too low, this is too high, this is too – this, at one point, the director Niegel said, no this air conditioner sound matches too well with Sally Wingert’s voice. She’s the star of the show. Because she’s an alto and it’s competing with the tone and the timber of her voice and I was like, “Ah! Cool!” And when that gets taken away, you just notice the stunning silence that just hangs over the room.  And there’s also, they have NASCAR Racing on, so we’ve got that “nerrrrr” sort of beehive sound-

AG: I’m having a psychological reaction to this without even knowing the narrative of the story or anything else about it, but just the idea of these two things happening –

KH: And it’s supposed to be this discordant family drama sort of thing, so there’s a point to that. So anyway, that’s what I’m really fascinated about and I love, I mean, like you, I love creating worlds. So that’s what captures my imagination when I read a script. It’s like, alright, how I can most effectively capture the world of this show that people actually feel like they’re there? Another example is when I designed Ruined at Mixed Blood several years ago, I read, every book I could about the Congo and I wrote down in my diary – my diary, ha – I wrote down every sound description there was and I poured through all the ornithological sites for the birds that are specific to Uganda and the [Democratic Republic of the Congo] so that it was just like, there’s not a robin, it was a Rufous Nightjar. Which is also my drag name. [Laughs] But that’s what I’m really fascinated about, that’s what really captures my imagination is capturing that world and capturing the psychological essence of that world.

AG: I think again what we’ve managed to accomplish here is a real degree is specificity without it being any one time or place.

KH: Absolutely.

AG: Another thing that we were joking about when we were talking about how we’ve matured as designers, and I think that sometimes it is a lazy choice when someone says I want it to be all of the time periods and none of the time periods, and I think that in this instance it really is the best way to serve this version of the text. Because it’s so brief and so specific and so concisely cut, that it doesn’t make sense to put it on parade as a big period spectacle, but you can’t effectively tell it in jeans and t-shirts either. Maybe that’s an overstatement, to say you can’t effectively tell it that way, but that was never the idea here, that was never the desired outcome. We wanted to present something truly theatrical in spite of the fact that it has all these wonderful cinematic  qualities to it, there’s something about this experience and I think too, somebody else mentioned this is the first thing that’s been fully developed for the thrust space at Park Square, for the new three-quarter thrust.

KH: Oh really?

AG: Because they’ve done work there all year, but they’re plays that were written in other places or have been produced in other places in different ways, it’s not to say those weren’t successful, but I think there’s something about the immediacy and the danger we’ve talked about and the specificity that then having teenagers three-quarters of the way around the stage on top of what’s going on, is also really well-served by the way that we’ve produced this. I think that if we were going to do even the same 90-minute cutting in their proscenium space, with that much of a reserve from the audience, that much distance, that much throw, all these other things, I don’t think either of our work would be the same at all.

KH: No, vastly different.

AG: I hadn’t thought about that until just now, but that’s really interesting to me.

KH: The other thing that I find interesting is that this show is in perpetuity, so we have a chance to improve upon our work every year. Or bemoan it.

AG: We have permission at this point in the process to say, that’s not something I’m going to go after this time around.

KH: We do, but at the same time, since the public performances are this year, we want to get it on right now, but I’m really interested in, and I don’t know that we can answer this right now, but I’m interested in what we’re going to think about it next year, what we might change about it next year, and then four and five years from now.

AG: I’ve never had that opportunity before, this is the first time that I’ve done something knowing that it was going to be remounted this way and it’s a fascinating opportunity. To pace myself a little bit as a designer too, it’s so exciting, we’re going to build the whole show, it’s the first time I’m doing that, I could just keep going and going and going… and then where would I be? Or we can make sure that the goals we’ve set for ourselves have been met this time around. Nobody’s embarrassed by their work, certainly, but also at some point, there’s no reason to beat it about the neck and shoulders trying to force it to be something that we don’t have the physical or monetary or personal resources anymore to keep going at, because we’re going to have the opportunity to take a big breath, to literally put it away in a box and bring it back out and reconsider it again.

KH: Right, right. Check in again with us in like four or five years and see what we think. Anyway, I think you have to get back to work on the rest of your costumes. And I have to get back to my tech at Mixed Blood. So anyway, thanks!

AG: Thank you!