Hello and welcome to Talking Theatre!
I’m Alex Donovan and today I’m joined by Stephanie Bahniuk, the Costume Designer for Studio Theatre’s recent presentation of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. You can read an excerpt of our interview here, or listen to the podcast for the full experience!
Welcome! Do you mind giving a bit of an introduction on your background as an artist?
Sure! I actually started theatre design while I was in high school. My school had a great theatre arts program where the students did all the design and building of the elements that went into the school play. I actually started doing costume design then and did costumes for three shows there. I really liked visual art and loved the theatre (I was a performer for a while), so design seemed like a natural path after finishing high school. I started looking for programs and saw that the UofA had a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre Design program, applied, got in and was here for five years completing that. It’s a unique program because it’s one of the only ones that combines all three elements of set, lighting and costume design. So I graduated almost two years ago and now I’m doing the freelance design career which is always interesting and fun.
How did you get involved with this production?
I was actually approached by Kate Weiss, Chair of the Department of Drama. She sent me an email saying she had a design opening and wanted to know if I was interested. It was the coolest offer because I’ve loved my time here and as a part of the BFA program we assisted on the Timm’s stage, but we never actually got to design a show on the Timm’s stage so that was a really great opportunity. I got brought in a little late in the game; it was a sudden opening, so it was a very condensed process but I was just so excited to be a part of the show.
What is your first step as a designer when you take on a show?
To read the script first, of course. [laughs] That defines what the requirements of the show are, how many characters, how many costumes are needed, and so on. I wasn’t super familiar with Twelfth Night so I had to read that first and go into a bunch of discussions with the director, Ashley Wright. They had already set the concept for the show in production meetings that I wasn’t a part of. But it was kind of nice coming in with a set idea that I was then able to play in.
Could you walk us through what your process is like?
I have a bit of a different process for every show that I take on which is part of the fun of this job. Every show has a different challenge with it and requires different things of you. I started this process by talking with Ashley and he shared his ideas with me. He had this great idea where he wanted it set as a play within a play, these are players presenting Twelfth Night. He wanted it to be very interactive and wanted the characters to be themselves at the top of the show. The actors would come out at the beginning and interact with the audience as themselves. He also didn’t want to set it modern day for a number of reasons. I think within the show the servant master interaction gets tricky to define in a modern setting. And he just really liked the style lines and aesthetics of the nineteenth century. So he wanted a travelling troupe and they all have their own personalities and wear what they would be wearing in the dressing rooms. They come out during the beginning of the show and warm up so it really is like they’re coming straight from their dressing rooms.
There was a beautiful variety of colour in the show. How do you like to use colour in your work?
I like to be very specific with colour and use it to define certain characters with it. Colour was very important for this piece because the stage was black. So I had to really make them pop from the background which got a little tricky. It all started from Olivia’s character because Shakespeare has two specific colour requests in this show. Olivia is mourning her brother so she is in all black and Malvolio has yellow stockings. A pretty vibrant yellow to be funny. I started with Olivia and knew she was going to be the darkest character on stage but still wanted to use fabrics that would make her pop from that background. I tried not to use very much black within other characters so that they would stick out. Ashley and I started talking about the colours of the nineteenth century, a lot of charcoal’s, navy’s and blacks. It was pretty neutral. But men also had vibrant vests and patterns which is how we brought different patterns in. We came up with something that had pops of pinks, reds and blues but against a neutral palette. We also looked into vaudeville and what they wore. It has a bit of a vintage clown feel to it.
I do this podcast to help people learn about what goes on behind the scenes. What do you think are some elements people aren’t aware of about design work?
The specific reason I like costume design aside from set and lighting is the interaction with the actors. I think a lot of people don’t realize there’s such a bond between the costume designer and the actors. Fittings are my favourite part of the process because the actors get to put on these clothes. It often helps the actor because they get to see how these clothes feel, move and how they’ll influence their character. We have great discussions about their costumes and what their characters would actually wear. For Chayla Day, who played Viola for example, she had a lot of movement scenes and she was wearing this big skirt so we talked about how she would do the rolling around and dancing in that scene. Even going into tech week the actors will be coming up to me with questions and suggestions to enhance their work. I don’t think people quite realize how important that costume designer and actor relationship is.
If you want to learn more about the process then take a listen to the podcast on Talking Theatre!
Hear more about the Studio Theatre production of Twelfth Night in Alex’s interview with Director Ashley Wright
Full details of the show can be found on the show page.