In 2014 I designed costumes for Venus in Fur at Seattle Repertory Theatre, a co-production with the Arizona Theatre Company.
A Tony-winning Broadway hit, Venus is a sexy, fast-paced play set in a whitewashed rehearsal studio in New York City. A director has adapted an Austrian novel published in 1870 and is at his wits’ end looking for an actress talented enough to play his ideal female role. When he finds her, the audition quickly escalates into a seductive power play.
Both actors, Michael Tisdale (playing the director, Thomas) and Gillian Williams (playing the actress, Vanda) came to Seattle from NYC to take part in the production.
The actors play themselves as characters, as well as the characters within the novel they are performing, moving in and out of dialect and dialogue while performing rapid onstage costume changes. As each character’s clothing is exchanged onstage, the costume pieces become integral visual markers of the shifting power dynamics between Vanda and Thomas.
The script called for specific costume items: a vintage shawl, a vintage dress, sexy boots, a period frock coat, a servant’s tailcoat, and a fur, all of which needed to come out of Vanda’s enormous bag.
Because the show was a co-production with Arizona Theatre Company, the costumes needed to withstand weeks of runs at both SRT and ATC. This required me to duplicate the built costumes — three identical lingerie costumes were constructed, one dress with duplicate sleeves was made, and a duplicate fur was built to travel to Arizona. Purchased items were duplicated for wear and tear due to Gillian’s physicality during the run. The design of a costume does not end with the concept; it must be strategically designed to withstand the physical needs of the performer and production.
Intimate collaboration with performers is always important to my process as a designer but for Venus, it was paramount to the success of my design. Vanda is extremely physical while baring it all in lingerie for at least half of the show. By working closely with the performer, we were able to find a balance of sex and modesty that allowed Vanda to be as provocative as possible while keeping Gillian safe and comfortable.
Seattle Repertory Theatre has one of the most accomplished professional costume shop staffs in the country. The staff for Venus in Fur consisted of a costume shop manager, costume shop manager’s assistant, costume design assistant, a shopper, a costume stock manager, a cutter, a first hand, a stitcher, a craftsperson, a wig master, a head of wardrobe, and a dresser, all of whom worked full time to translate my designs into reality. Working with these accomplished professional costume teams is a highlight of this production.