Devised Theater on a Grand Scale

Article by Sonya Berlovitz

Costumes by Sonya Berlovitz from The Miser, exhibited at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial.

Costumes by Sonya Berlovitz from The Miser, exhibited at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial.

I've never had the good fortune to meet Sonya Berlovitz—but I have had the good fortune to see some of her work with companies like Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Children’s Theatre Company, Guthrie Theater and, of course, Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Her costumes are sumptuous and joyful—the word that comes to mind is “bright,” although not always because they use bold colors. Her costumes, like their creator, are intelligent, animated and clear, and Sonya's love for her trade is clear in this essay. —Matthew Foster

I love the chance to develop costume designs in rehearsal. It's a laboratory, a place I am free to fail without recrimination. It presents the perfect opportunity to study an actor’s physicality, nuances, intentions, etc. The goal being to find a silhouette—architecture, so to speak—that enhances each character the actors are trying to portray. 

As a costume designer, a part of my role is to facilitate this process by trying on rehearsal costume pieces, padding, hats, wigs, cans, plastic bags or anything else that might enable the actor to "find" his or her character through improvisation. Sometimes it takes several attempts; sometimes I’m completely wrong. That's the beauty of it. By being wrong I can find something that is right.

Theatre de la Jeune Lune, where I worked between 1980 and 2008, was the Eden of this transformative process. It was a privilege to have a space devoted solely to theater which allowed for anywhere from five weeks to two months (and sometimes longer) to spend on this labor of love. It gave a thorough opportunity for directors, designers and actors to be part of the conversation about what worked or didn’t. The design of the show grew out of collaboration, a conversation, and cooperation between performer, other designers and the director. The Moving Company (Dominique Serrand, Steve Epp, Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin) grew out of Jeune Lune, and I’ve had the fortune to continue that process with them.

In the larger regional theaters where timelines aren’t as flexible, completed designs are usually due well before the actors start rehearsal. A recent exception to this was creating costume designs for Refugia by The Moving Company at the Guthrie Theater. In this case, I was able, due to a generous grant, to attend a three-week workshop held at the Guthrie in the fall, seven months prior to the opening. Those weeks provided ample time to experiment with different actors’ looks for each of the chapters, each decidedly unique in setting and design. As part of the workshop, I spent time rough sketching various costume ideas to facilitate further discussion with the director, Dominique Serrand.

The show had been previously been workshopped with student designers at the University of Texas at Austin; it then consisted of five chapters addressing refugees and displaced persons in various locations. For this phase of the process, four chapters were added, including one about an immigrant couple from Marseilles, a scene of a polar bear speaking to displacement because of global warming, a scene between a father and his son who has run off to join ISIS, and a scene of Kurdish Syrian refugees arriving in Greece. 

Based on sketches and notes from the workshop, I pulled rehearsal costumes in April to give the actors a chance to “live” in their costumes long before they made it to the stage and to allow for any changes that might need to happen while the costumes were still in process.  

Providing these rehearsal elements is essential for scenes that include "choreography." Such was the case with the disguise skirt and shawl worn by Jamal Abdunnasir in the “Allah Akbar” scene in Refugia. He had to be able to slip both off at the right time and without skipping a beat during his impassioned text delivery. Trying various pieces in rehearsal made it possible to come up with the best solution prior to tech, ultimately saving time and making construction of the actual garment much easier. 

Costumes for dancers require the same advance planning and experimentation. Dancers need costumes that can move with them, that feel one with their bodies and that have fluidity. For this reason, it’s vitally important to bring in rehearsal pieces or actual costumes early in the rehearsal process. Sometimes “happy accidents” come about to everyone’s delight. 

Such was the case with the dancer in Refugia, Kendra "Vie Boheme" Dennard, who has an intricate dance with a polar bear. Originally, I had designed an elaborate Ethiopian tribal costume made from midweight cotton with many traditional accessories. During rehearsal, she started working with a lighter weight, cotton gauze skirt. The director and I quickly agreed it worked much better for the scene, which was going to be very windy via a fan. Luckily, there were several fabrics available to choose from in the Guthrie’s large stock, which we used to remake the skirt. I also simplified the accessories, both to make it easier to dance with the bear and to meld better with the clean and stark aesthetic of the scene. 

In Refugia, costumes were also used to create sound. In the same polar bear dance scene, Ms. Dennard’s brass bracelets were incorporated into the sound design during rehearsal by adding a pulsating, percussive element to her dance. In another scene, Kurdish Syrian refugees arrive on the shores of Greece after crossing the Aegean Sea and are given space blankets. During rehearsal, we discovered if the blankets were manipulated the right way, they produced the sound of the sea's rolling waves as the refugees prayed.

The freedom to experiment with costumes during rehearsal was new territory for the Guthrie—and it was tremendously gratifying to have the support, resources, and flexibility to help the Refugia designs come to fruition.