News Column

Ovation-nominated costume designers talk about their work for 'Parade,' 'Triassic Parq' and others

November 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 01--Theater costumes can transport an actor to another time, place, emotion or social status. And if done well, they can help audience members suspend reality and journey deep into the story being told on stage.

This year, 13 talented costume designers have been nominated by LA Stage Alliance for their work accomplishing just that. The winners for both large and small theater costume design will be announced at the LA Ovation Awards tonight, at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. This award is among 35 to be announced and celebrated.

The Los Angeles News Group recently chatted with four of the nominees about how their designs are often a critical the thread to a production:

Shon LeBlanc

Award-winning costume designer Shon LeBlanc is nominated for his work on "Parade," the show with the most Ovation nominations (12) produced by the Long Beach-based 3-D Theatricals.

"It's such an honor being nominated," said LeBlanc, who owns The Costume House in North Hollywood. "Even if you don't win, it's still an honor. It's saying that your work is being recognized, and that feels amazing."

LeBlanc loves theater and was excited to be part of "Parade," but it was also a challenging production.

"All productions are different, but I approach them all pretty much the same way," said LeBlanc, who has designed for more than 600 productions. "I read the script first and find out the needs of the production; basic things like when it is, where it is. 'Parade' must look real. It's not a lighthearted show where people are out walking and humming. A little girl gets murdered in the first act and a Jew gets lynched in the second."

Because LeBlanc has almost 30 years of experience in costume design and is versed in period and script, he is able to create costumes through research, working closely with the set designer and listening to the actors.

"History is my drug of choice," he said, laughing. "You have to know history. You have to know why people do what they do and why they wear what they wear. You have to know this is what a cop would look like, this is what a trolley car conductor would look like. Everything is important down to the smallest detail. The devil is in the detail. You want it to look like the character went into their own closet and got dressed."

LeBlanc, who won last year's Costume Design Ovation Award for "I Love Lucy," said ultimately it is all about trust.

"It's not about my clothes, it's about (the actor) going out there and doing their work," he said. "It's about when the costume ceases to be a costume and becomes part of them."

A. Jeffrey Schoenberg

A. Jeffrey Schoenberg is nominated for two productions at North Hollywood's The Antaeus Company: "Mrs. Warren's Profession" and "You Can't Take it with You."

Making things more challenging for Schoenberg is every role in the company's productions is double cast.

"They are all working actors there and they never know when they will be called away to work," Schoenberg said, who owns AJS Costumes in Burbank. "Often times the two actors cannot wear the same costume, so double casting, in many cases, means double costumes."

For instance, "You Can't Take it with You," a comedy pairing two families of very different personalities and economic status together, had actors with very different characteristics playing the same role.

"I had to make sure the costumes chosen worked for either cast," he said. "Choices must serve various combinations of actors playing a number of roles and you know theater, we're always trying to get 30 cents out of every quarter."

Schoenberg, as with many costume designers, saves money by renting costumes, refurbishing, searching thrift shops when they have time or making them.

Such was the case in "Mrs. Warren's Profession," that took place in 1890s England.

"The director wanted a very specific look and I was concerned we wouldn't be able to find those clothes elsewhere," he said. "We did end up building them ourselves and since one design wouldn't work for both actors, many times, we built the same design twice."

Schoenberg explained to make building costumes cost effective, many designers who own their own shops retain the costumes and rent them out as needed.

He also spoke on the intricacies of costume design in general.

"You have to know what the function of the costumes are going to be," said Schoenberg, who won the 2011 Costume Design Ovation Award for "The Malcontent." "In some shows, if your costumes get noticed you've done it wrong. They are there to help tell a story, you do that by informing the audience either directly or subliminally."

Schoenberg, who's been a costume designer for 30 years, reads the script to get a sense of the story and speaks in depth with the director to learn the approach and tone for the production.

"Sometimes it's subtle and you just want to give just a flavor of who this character is, and sometimes you want to be out there," said Schoenberg, who attended the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts and has a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Boston University. "You want to be able to take the audience on this trip; sometimes it's into reality, sometimes it's surreal, sometimes it's dynamic."

Each show has its own unique personality, he said, even if the show's a classic.

"I have directed 'King Lear' six times and each time there's been a different concept," Schoenberg continued. "It's so exciting to re-envision and re-imagine a show and then to view something in a new and different way."

Sharon McGunigle

Nominated for "Rudolf the Red-nosed ReinDOORS" for The Troubadour "Troubies" Theater Company, Sharon McGunigle faces unique challenges when designing for the high-energy group.

The Troubies are unlike most theater groups. It's described on its website as being a "free-wheeling, no holds barred, Commedia Del Arte flavored, slapstick driven Los Angeles-based ensemble of actors, musicians and comedians."

Their productions are fast-paced, laugh-filled, loose adaptations of classic plays, literature and film that are typically mixed with pop music and improv.

"Rudolf the Red-nosed ReinDOORS," for instance, combines the holiday tale with the music of The Doors.

"Usually I start thinking about how the different characters do their changes," said McGunigle, who has a MFA in costume design from Cal State Long Beach. "Every actor plays multiple characters and costume changes sometimes need to be done in 30 seconds. I have to think about how can I facilitate the changes between characters."

Costumes for The Troubies, McGunigle said, need to be multi-use.

"They need to be able to dance in them, do gymnastics; the shows are very physical," said McGunigle, who also works full time for the Los Angeles Opera as its head tailor. "They used to just get a real good pair of wrestling shoes and throw something on. In the last 10 years they've really worked on character development."

McGunigle is passionate about the artistic side of costume design and is glad that her passion is equaled by others who help her visions materialize.

"There are way more people who make costumes happen than just the designer; there are cutters, sewers, shoppers, people digging through costume houses. The effort and manpower hours to make the show happen are endles," she said. "There may be one designer, but then there are about 30 other people making that vision happen."

While this is McGunigle's third Ovation nomination, she won in 2010 for "Alice in One-hit Wonderland 2."

Anthony Tran

This is the first Ovation nomination for Anthony Tran, who is nominated for his work on "Triassic Parq -- The Musical," which received 11 nominations.

The story is a reverse "Jurassic Park" told from the dinosaurs perspective and Tran was thrilled when the production's writer/director Marshall Pailet didn't want him to be literal and design dinosaur suits.

"He didn't want them to look like mascots," said Tran, a 24-year-old UCLA graduate. "He wanted to keep them more 'human' because though the story is about dinosaurs, it's really not. It's about humans."

Tran and Pailet agreed on a paired-down, '90s club type of vibe using various patterns and textures to achieve surreal humanism.

"We found ways to mix fabrics; to make pants and jackets other-worldly," he said. "Then when the actors were cast there was another dimension added. It turned into something even I wasn't expecting."

Tran's thought process for this show was atypical from his usual shows, but his approach was the same.

"I always start with the director and find out what they are looking for," said Tran, who started designing when he was 13. "Then I gather reference images and share them with the director to see if we're on the same page. Then I move onto the actors to see what works for them."

Another way this show differs from others Tran has designed for is he had to build almost 90 percent of the costumes. Despite all the work, however, he said loves the fast-paced atmosphere and camaraderie.

"The first time I see it under the lighting and with the band playing, is magic. There's nothing like theater collaboration," he said. "It's always better than you thought it would be."

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(c)2013 the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, Calif.)

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