Costume designer interview

This is a transcript of an interview with costume designer Nicky Gillibrand about her work on the RSC's 2006 production of The Tempest.
Interview by Suzanne Worthington for RSC Education on 2 August 2006.

How did you prepare for meeting with a director?

Normally I would read the play quite a lot, but if it's an initial meeting there's not much you can do until the director has told you or given you some idea of where he or she wants to go with it.

I automatically make my own assumptions about the play then working with the director you hope it'll come together and you can start going down the same path.

Initially it's a case of me reading about it and then having my first meeting. If it's a director I know, then I know the way they'll go anyway, and you might have a couple of phone conversations. For instance, Richard Jones will always throw loads of adjectives at me, and then that's fine because I can take that away. But in this case, I hadn't worked with Rupert before so I didn't have an idea of what his process was. I think it's quite unusual at the RSC to have a costume designer and a set designer...

Yes it is. So have you worked with Giles before?

Giles and I did A Midsummer's Night Dream at the RSC- I thought it was completely fantastic! That was fabulously collaborative. Giles and I have done quite a bit before together so I knew how he would be interpreting it, what the quality and style of his work is and I knew what I could bring to it.

How did you research for the play?
Was there any one image which crystallised the play for you?

Rupert mentioned the Arctic on the phone. Then you instantly start looking at stuff to do with the Arctic! But I never go for the obvious. I would always look behind something. So I looked at Eskimos, yes, but I was more interested in Eskimos from very early photographs (1890s), seeing exactly how they would cut up furs to make clothes. In that way, you can update it so it's not just a period costume which would be dull and limiting for an actor on stage.

For other things, like the mariners' clothes, I researched old army things, again because the way they're cut is interesting.

Various things lead me on. I love 'working-clothes', you know, things that are made for working in. It's very interesting when you find for example, a Second World War overall. I can relate that back to the Eskimo clothes.

I work in an abstract form; that's how I get to the point where I can draw it. I looked at Francis Bacon's The Harpy. There was no one particular image but I have got a lot of books and old photographs from obscure periods of history, which I often work from.

Were there any ideas or emotional qualities you and Giles wanted to draw out in the clothes?

To me, The Tempest is all about these separate groups of people so I was keen to give them a separation. There's a quality of isolation about it all. We weren't particularly concentrating on that. It was more important to get the feeling of being very cold and a quality of being lost.

And Prospero?

I like the way Prospero looks in the bear-skin and his costume at the end. I think it could probably go further. I just draw like a lunatic - thousands and thousands of drawings and it just begins to form itself from the drawings.

So you always draw as you're developing ideas? Some designers use computers...

Yes, just drawing. I draw and do a lot of research. I found this American army stuff from 1965 in Camden Market, and it was just right – there were parkas, cut in an interesting way. The ideas I found in them were fantastic; they reminded me of those strange-shaped clothes I'd seen in the photographs.

Before I draw, I go and buy stuff - clothing - for research. It's better to be doing it rather than sitting at a computer - I'm probably too old for that! I think it works quite well for a two-dimensional model but costumes aren't the same.

How long would you say it takes you before you show your designs to the rest of the team?

I never consider anything to be finished until the point at which we're handing it in [to the theatre's costume department]. It can take three or four weeks. You just have to keep thrashing it out on paper until it feels right.

It also depends on the availability of the director: how much time we have; what the input is. I can draw very quickly and I might be doing 10 or 15 drawings a day in order to get something ready for three days' time, so it does vary.

What's ideal is a gestation period. It's good to do a load of work, then let it settle for two or three weeks, and then come back to it.

In terms of the director's input, what's helpful and what's not helpful?

Ideally they have to be quite rigorous, and have a rough plan of how they're going to work. If it's not well thought through, and not communicated to me, then I don't have anything work with and can struggle to form it myself.

You get to a stage where it's like a mathematical equation: you know, A has to be here and B has to be there. How does the way I'm going to make them look relate to how they are on the set at that point? How does that then to relate to the character? I think I have to project the character out to the audience. I don't think my job is about putting my ego on the stage. It's about facilitating the actors' ability to be that person.

Director-wise, I prefer them to be rigorous and sorted-out in how they are going to go through all the scenes and what each scene requires, rather than being left to come up with a mass of stuff I'm not sure about.

So you think you can be more creative if you're given more restrictions?


What about collaborating with the other designer [Giles Cadle, set designer]?
Did you discuss what you were both doing?

Yes absolutely, and I always find colour is very important. Early on I always need to see what colours the set designer is going to use because then I can work out what will work with it from my point of view. So the set is a kind of a blue-white, so that's how I knew that the orange of the oil-skins would be a good colour to put on it; they would resonate; they would work against each other. Then you're dependent on the lighting designer, because if the lighting designer puts pink on it, then it doesn't work at all!

So you talk to the lighting designer as well?

I try to. I don't have a joyous relationship with lighting designers because they can trash everything, unless it's someone who's very sympathetic to the way you're working. The lighting designer's the last cog in the wheel, if you think about it. It's not about the ego of the lighting designer: it should be about the collaboration, bringing the whole thing together, putting the last cog in and it's marvellous.

Plays can be updated for a contemporary audience. One can't quite place this Tempest in history. What do you think about updating plays in this way?

As long as you're thorough and you have a good reason for doing it, you can do anything. I work with Richard Jones a lot, and he would never place something in the period it was written in unless he felt it was totally relevant, and it would give some interest to the audience, or the audience would get something from it, maybe understand the play more.

I've been going round the stores here – where they keep old props – because our budget's so limited, and there are some extraordinary things from the past. I don't think people do period productions very well anymore. I think you have to be very inventive with it for sixteenth century to work. It would be great - I'd love to challenge myself to do it. For The Tempest, these costumes don't feel that they're particularly rooted anywhere at all. I know they're just modern suits and so on.

They're familiar though, aren't they?

I think period can really hinder the performers if you're not careful, and switch the audience off. So I would always be careful - I would never do it just for the sake of it; it would have to have a relevance to the play. It's a more relevant question for Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, where if you do update it too radically, you have to have a very good reason to shift it, and then be very clever about why and how you do that.

Finally then, a biographical question.
How did you train, and how and why did you end up as a designer?

I did a textile degree; I've never trained as a designer. I worked in a place called Burns and Leyton when I first came to London - a huge theatrical costumiers. Although I'd done a fashion degree, I'd never realised that period costume was so interesting. I had a fantastic time for two and a half years at the costumiers – that started me off, and then I was assistant to three designers in London: Tom Cairns, Anthony MacDonald and David Fielding, for five or six years and I did all their costume research. It was a bit like an apprenticeship – a great way of learning because I sat in front of the model box with them while they were doing it, rather than just learning about it in theory. Then I started doing my own work. That was probably 16 or so years ago...

Interview by Suzanne Worthington for RSC Education © RSC

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