Bright Ideas and Bright Colors

Bright Ideas and Bright Colors

Posted by: at 04/17/2014 02:14 PM

The Creations of Costume Designer Mara Blumenfeld

By Neena Arndt, Associate Dramaturg

When we read a book or a play, we use the writer’s words to create worlds in our minds. Each of us can paint a pic­ture of the realm in which a story takes place, filling out details as we please and allowing our imaginations free reign. We craft environments where the laws of physics may not apply, where supernatu­ral beings thrive or where a character is bedecked with glimmering jewels; for once, reality loses its grip on us. But when it comes to theater, costume, set, lighting and sound designers are charged with imagining a world for the story, while taking on the more practical task of bringing that world to life on stage. Mara Blumenfeld, costume designer for The White Snake, knows exactly how to deliver a magical, mythical experience to the audience, all while obeying the laws of physics.

White Snake costume sketches

Some plays call for environments that closely resemble real life; designers create living rooms and offices, or dress actors in jeans and t-shirts. Other plays call for fantastical worlds in which animals cavort or metaphors twist reality. It is these kinds of plays that Mary Zimmerman, director and adapter of The White Snake, tends to tackle— plays that take place in water, or where sheep are bright red or panthers can talk. In order to make these worlds come alive, Zimmerman relies on designers with whom she has collaborated for years: Dan Ostling (sets), T. J. Gerckens (lighting), Andre J. Pluess (sound) and Blumenfeld (costumes).

“I love working on very out-of-the-box things,” says Blumenfeld. She feels completely at home in the vibrant, any­thing-can-happen world of Zimmerman’s plays, which isn’t surprising considering she’s known Zimmerman since the two attended Northwestern University at the same time. (Zimmerman was a graduate student earning a PhD in Performance Studies while Blumenfeld was an under­graduate, though they never worked together in school.) “I went to school for acting, like so many people do, but fell into design,” Blumenfeld explains. After college, she secured a job at the Goodman, assisting visiting costume designers for three and a half years. At the same time, she pursued design gigs of her own, and first collaborated with Zimmerman at Lookingglass Theatre Company, a relatively new organization in the early 1990s, founded by several Northwestern alumni. Since then, the company has expanded and primarily presents works that stem from the ritual­istic roots of theater and use heightened language, stunning visual imagery and inventive physicality. Zimmerman’s pro­ductions, most notably Metamorphoses (1998), propelled Lookingglass’ success as well as Blumenfeld’s career.

Meanwhile, Zimmerman began to work at the Goodman in the early 1990s (her first production was The Baltimore Waltz in the 1992/1993 Season) and Blumenfeld earned her first Goodman credit with Zimmerman’s Mirror of the Invisible World in the 1996/1997 Season. Since the mid-1990s, Blumenfeld has been Zimmerman’s go-to costume designer, thriving within Zimmerman’s unique process, which involves beginning rehearsals without a script and creating text along the way. Blumenfeld must therefore design the costumes before the script is written. As with many of Zimmerman’s adaptations of classical stories, however, previous source materials give a basic framework for the story and characters. “The White Snake is as well-known in Chinese cul­ture as classic fairy tales, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, are to our Western culture,” Blumenfeld explains. “It exists in so many forms, from video games to comic books to Chinese opera productions. I looked at a lot of those materials for inspiration.”

White Snake costume sketches

Working on a classic story from Chinese culture also allowed Blumenfeld countless opportunities to flex her cre­ative muscles. “As with The Jungle Book, I really enjoyed studying and working within an Eastern aesthetic—in studying historic Chinese costumes I was struck by how many bright hues and strong patterns work together in combinations we would not normally think of using,” she notes. Blumenfeld also enjoys the challenge of bringing a fantastical myth from a foreign culture to a new audience. “We are Westerners creating a production based on this Chinese story. We can do all the research in the world, but we will always be telling the story through a Western lens.” That way of thinking informed Blumenfeld’s choices through­out the process: “There are certain tweaks we made so everything makes sense to our audiences. For example, the character of the White Snake has a companion who is always referred to as Green Snake. But in most of the Chinese illustrations she’s depicted dressed in blue, because historically, the same distinction was not made between blue and green colors in Chinese culture. But it wouldn’t make sense to a Western audience if she were dressed in blue; it would take them out of the story. So I chose to put her in jade green, which has a bit of blue in it, but to our Western eye still reads as being green.”

The clothing Blumenfeld imagines becomes a reality she shares with audiences, and her vision shapes our understanding of the story we are told. Even a small decision like making the Green Snake jade rather than blue colors our view of the play, and transports us to a different, and very specifically imagined world.


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