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Behind the mask: Costume design

Behind the mask: Costume design

In the fourth of our blog series on our creative teams, Elizabeth Whiting discusses how she got into the arts and why costume design fits her so well.

Bursting at its seams with paintings, paper and fabric, Elizabeth Whiting’s studio spills outside the room and around her home. Brightly coloured saris are draped across the bannister and working documents adorn the table. In the middle of it all, Elizabeth sits to talk about the 30 years she has spent in the theatre.

How did you get involved in theatre?
I had a bit of theatrical background, having done speech and drama as a kid. Then I was at university and my husband’s parents were working at Mercury Theatre. I helped out there and I really loved it. Such amazing energy — much better than what I was doing at university at the time, which was law!

What about theatre did you love?
I just loved the people. I found that relationship with all the people, discussing the work we were all producing together was definitely where my heart lay. And that’s what I’ve done all my life, in different areas — I’ve done Film & TV, opera special events, but it’s always been in that performance situation where you have a team firing ideas in together and coming up with something bigger than you would do if you were sitting by yourself.

How did you learn your craft?
I did a lot of training with a designer named Eve Schloop, who had run her own business and she taught me pattern making. It was a one-on-one tuition situation, I was so amazingly lucky because I could sit next to her in a production week and she would say what worked and why and what didn’t work and why.

Then I did a course in Production Management at AUT University and started working as a wardrobe supervisor, then I moved more into the design.

Elizabeth at the first reading of Welcome to the Murder House, showcasing a part of her working document.

Why transition to designing? 
When you start doing the research and start reading the script, ideas pop into your mind all the time. And you don’t see your ideas on stage unless you design!

What’s something else you love about costume design?
I love the research, and I love the fact that every project that you’re working on presents different problems and makes you look outside your normal life. And also, you meet such extraordinary people.

Also, it helps a performer develop a character. It’s not just fashion, where you make a garment, hang it on a rack and somebody comes along and chooses it. It’s much deeper.

How did you get involved with Indian Ink?
Through John Verryt. I’ve been peripherally involved for a long time, and increasingly I’m designing for them. It’s [Indian Ink] got a family feel, and I enjoy the process.

What does the process look like?
I get a script and I’ll read it through for my pleasure, just relaxed reading to get images. And then I read it really carefully, going through and breaking down time frames, characters and work out where my research needs to sit.

At the production meeting, where everybody creatively discusses the images, colour and lighting, I take a paper sheet that has ideas of the colours I want to use, and the ideas of the type of character. It’s not precious, it’s a working document.

Welcome to the Murder House (premiered 2017) was the first show you designed for Ink, what was that like?
That was such a great process because everybody worked together, even the performers. We had talks with them, which was pretty unusual because normally it’s just the design team working together. So, everybody was on board with the project right from the beginning. That was amazing.

How does the performer influence the design?
I analyse the character that I’m dressing and I go down a path, but then I talk to the performer because they’re doing the same process independently and may have come to a completely different conclusion to where that character goes, and we have to mesh.

Performer Quentin Warren examines the proposed designs for the show’s choir, made of death-row inmates.

The show has a chorus line of prisoners, how did you design their looks?
They’re very individual people — they’ve got different hats, and their clothes fit or don’t fit.  It didn’t look too precise and the fact that the trousers are more recent and the jackets have faded is all quite interesting. We had to make the fabric for their prison garb and I wanted it to be quite faded. We did some experiments on how to print it and make sure that it lasted.

Costumes of the death row choir are individualised through headgear and how the garments hang.

Have you ever had any costume disasters?
Not really, that’s my job not to! When I first started with costuming, I learned a lot of techniques to make sure the trousers didn’t split.

But the biggest mistake was at an opera. This performer had to dress himself and he put his beard on backwards so that he had the net on the outside and the hair stuck to his chin. I watch the performers very carefully, now.

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