January 18, 2013
Posted By: Emer Kelly
Members of the cast of The Heidi Chronicles. Photo by Barbara Banks.
Jennifer Caprio caught the theatre bug when her parents took her to see a Broadway production of Les Miserables at age 13. She immediately abandoned her original plans to become a competitive swimmer and turned to the arts. She has attended Ithaca College for a B.F.A in Theatrical Production Arts, Carnegie Mellon for a M.F.A in Costume Design, and designed costumes for over 100 plays, musicals, and operas. Now she is here with us at Asolo Rep, pitting her extraordinary skills against the incredible challenge of creating 100+ costumes for The Heidi Chronicles.
101 costumes: where do you start?
Generally on a project like this you start with the principals. About 35 of the 101 costumes are principals so that's Heidi, Peter, Scoop, and then all of the characters that have dialogue around them. We started there and discussed how we wanted to portray them and what was most important to us. We wanted to use vintage clothing to tell the story as opposed to making it feel like costuming. This makes it feels more real. We have managed to achieve that because the Asolo's stock is so incredible.
What kind of direction did the show's director, Laura Kepley, give you at the beginning of the process?
What was important to Laura was to tell Heidi's story through Heidi's eyes and have the world change around her. Heidi’s very solid in her beliefs, she's a feminist, she wants love, she wants a career, she wants all of these things and it was important for us to keep Heidi as consistent as possible and then have everyone else completely change around her. For example, the character of Susan is a chameleon. She goes through time and takes on four different personalities. With Heidi we had the concept that she's in a white dress in the beginning, which is emblematic of the raw space that she ends up in. As the play progresses, she puts on pieces and takes off pieces and then in a pivotal scene in which she meets some women in a church basement she has her first big change. As we progress through the play and as the other characters affect her, she starts to change more and more and then ends up where we first see her, which is the construct of the play-it starts in 1989 and ends in 1989.
Heidi's on stage for the entire duration of the show, so we had to be very clever about it all. We had to design all of her clothes to be built, whereas everything else in the show, except three other garments, were pulled or purchased. There is a point in the play where Heidi gets undressed onstage so an outfit that looks like a dress ends up becoming a skirt and a jacket. Heidi has to be able to become somebody else within seconds; her quickest change is 30 seconds and in another scene she has to go from being a liberal feminist to a guest at Scoop's wedding in 45 seconds. In order to achieve this we have things like a hat with long hair so that it looks like it's 1968, when she takes the hat off, her hair is shorter again and we know we have moved to a different time.
Lizzie King-Hall as Heidi Holland Photo by Gary Sweetman.
Describe how your design process works, particularly in regard to the looks you get to actually sketch out and draw vs. pulling.
Usually in a project like this, because the characters are so specific, even if I know I will be pulling clothes I will draw them because that helps the director see where we are going. It also gives me more of a specific idea of what I can shop for. Laura and I did a lot of fashion research for the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s from various fashion magazine covers. I drew anyone we were building, and the four principles: Scoop, Peter, Susan, and Heidi. For everybody else we made collages out of the magazine pictures or photographs we found. I sent all that to the shop, and they started pulling while I started shopping. We tried to find garments that were as close to the pictures as possible.
Sketches by Jennifer Caprio
Pulling garments from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s is actually what made this show so difficult to costume. Those periods exist in people's memories but the clothes aren't in the stores anymore, whereas, with a show about the 40’s you can see that fashion back in stores again now. Additionally, the clothes need to say something about the character, so it's not just about finding period-appropriate garments; they need to be character-appropriate too. There is a fine line between making people look and feel good, and also telling a story.
Collages by Jennifer Caprio
Were you influenced by any of the actors? Did any of your ideas change once you met the ensemble?
Yes, especially because so many of the costumes for the ensemble were pulled. There are nine graduate students in the production and we fit them a month before rehearsal even started. Working with them was a really fun process whereby we worked to create a character that didn't exist yet and learned about how their bodies moved and what they could or could not pull off.
For the principals, I will admit to Google and Facebook 'stalking' before rehearsals begin to get an idea of the actor's personality and the kind of clothing they feel comfortable in. I also try to look at them in other shows and see what they're wearing and how they're wearing it. That really helps me because most importantly, I want the actors to be comfortable in the costumes I design for them.
Did you make any fun discoveries about fashion from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s during the course of your research?
I wish I had been older in the 80’s and could have really worn some of that crazy stuff because it's so fun. It's that mid-80’s period before we get to the late-80’s grunge where there is just this high fashion absurdity and everything is exaggerated with the shoulder pads and the tiny waist and all the accessories. Even putting the jewelry on the actors was just so much fun!
Many people know you as the designer who designed the iconic costumes for the original production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Broadway. Tell us a little bit about that experience, and the experience of having so many people follow in your footsteps when designing their own productions of the play.
This is a question I get a lot. I find it incredibly flattering that my designs are still being used and I also feel it's very flattering to the original cast who sat down with us in the character development stages and worked on these characters and their costumes with us. It's amazing how these characters and their clothing even wormed their way into the dialogue of the play, "Coneybear makes his own clothes" is one of the lines.
I actually got to meet and spend time with Wendy Wasserstein (Author of The Heidi Chronicles) while we were in technical rehearsals for Spelling Bee on Broadway. She was close friends with the director, James Lapine, and the composer/lyricist, Bill Finn. Spelling Bee would never have happened on Broadway if it weren't for Wendy. The “Bee” started as an improv piece called Crepuscule off-off Broadway. Wendy's baby girl's nanny was one of the creators of the show, and it was Wendy's idea to turn it into a musical and to introduce them to Bill Finn. She was present for some of our tech rehearsals and is one of the most generous spirits I've ever met. I feel very grateful to have been asked to be a part of this production – particularly one directed by such and intelligent, talented, and kind woman as Laura Kepley – having met Ms. Wasserstein and gotten to experience a touch of her beautiful soul in my life. It feels a little "full-circle", as Susan says in The Heidi Chronicles.
Is there a particular story you have to tell, just for yourself, when you create these costumes so you can come to logical conclusions about what they would have in their closet?
Yes, definitely. It's very important to think about the characters and their motivations to wear certain things in a show. For example, in Spelling Bee a lot of people ask me about the Comfort Counselor (Mitch Mahoney) and his jacket and how did I come up with that? I just thought “Well, what if I was just released from prison, where would I go? Probably the sale rack at Macy’s or something,” and that's where I found this jacket.
It's interesting to look at TV and movies in this way too. For example, the film Clueless is very brilliantly designed. The costume designer clearly thought about where these people shop, what's in their closet, what they would wear when they were feeling grumpy vs. feeling good. You have to approach every show this way or it just looks pretty. There’s nothing wrong with things looking pretty, but to be able to tell the story you need to really get inside these characters’ heads. I like to get started on projects as early as possible and live with these characters for a while, and The Heidi Chronicles has been great as we started it back in June which gave me plenty of time to do that.
What is your favorite piece in this show, one you would love for people in the audience to notice?
My favorite piece is a suit that Susan wears at the top of Act 2. It's a vintage Ungaro suit and she looks like she's walked off the cover of a fashion magazine. It's my favorite piece in the show hands-down.
Susan (Gail Rastorfer) in an Emanuel Ungaro suit. Photo by Gary Sweetman.
The Heidi Chronicles plays at Asolo Rep until March 17th 2013