A Fantasy of Fools: An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly

A Fantasy of Fools
An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly
By Shannon Stockwell

Costume designer Candice Donnelly's
rendering of a female member of the Liebeslieder
quintet for A.C.T.’s 2015 production
of A Little Night Music
“For the sheer beauty of all the satin and ruffles, costume designer Candice Donnelly should have bouquets delivered to her sewing room every night,” wrote Washington Post journalist Peter Marks in his review of Center Stage in Baltimore’s 2008 production of A Little Night Music. Seven years later, Donnelly revisits Sondheim’s classic for A.C.T.’s production, directed, as it was in Baltimore, by Mark Lamos.
    Donnelly’s vibrant costume designs were last seen on the Geary stage in Indian Ink, Tom Stoppard’s cross-cultural romance about the complex relationship between a poet and a painter, set against the backdrop of the struggle for Indian independence in the 1930s. Donnelly says she has an affinity for designing period pieces: “The research is very interesting to me. It’s a bit of a time travel experience.” A coproduction with New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company, Indian Ink was recently nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Costume Design. Since Indian Ink, Donnelly’s designs have been seen in the musical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a coproduction between the Guthrie Theater and the Acting Company.
     A Little Night Music is set at the turn of the twentieth century, and designing the costumes of any era other than our own involves careful research and a watchful eye. Donnelly was happy to share with us her process of designing costumes for this sensuous musical. 

Is your costume design at A.C.T. the same as it was for the Center Stage production?
There will be some tweaking, but it’s essentially the same. It’s a completely different cast, so that impacts things.

Do you design musicals much, or do you normally work with straight theater?
I do a little bit of everything. I’ve done several musicals and a few operas over the years. It’s actually the most fun to design a musical, because it is a bit more fantastical and very theatrical. It’s harder to design those types of costumes for film, and sometimes modern-dress plays end up being a little too similar to a filmed experience.

Compared to the costumes you might design for a straight play, what kind of practical elements do musical costumes require?
It depends on how much dancing the actors are doing and what the movement is like. The actors need to be miked, obviously, so you have to figure out a way to do that. Other than that, it’s not necessarily that different.

Does the dancing in A Little Night Music affect your design choice?
When we did the play at Center Stage, the dancing wasn’t so complicated that the actors needed special shoes. The shoes needed to be comfortable enough for them to move in, but they didn’t need to be dance shoes in particular.

How did you come up with the designs?
I did the same thing that I always do. I look at a lot of photographs and research, especially if it’s a period piece. A Little Night Music takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, which was a very feminine and extravagant era; the clothes, the fabrics, and the colors are very beautiful.
    This is a romantic piece, and Mark [Lamos] feels that it’s very sexual. It’s about love and romance and the foolishness of people when they fall in love. It’s also about the whole idea of the midnight sun and how it makes people giddy. I put all of those factors together and came up with frothy, lacy, summery designs.

What kind of resources did you use in your research?
I used a lot of period magazines, and I have books of old photographs. I also used a French website, associated with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It has old photographs from 1860 up to the present.

You said that the period itself was very feminine. Does that hold true for the men’s costumes, as well?
Their costumes are much more formal. At that time, there were a lot more people who really dressed up. They wore clothes that were appropriate to their station. The people in A Little Night Music are upper class, so they adhere to rigidity in social roles. People are so aware of that kind of style now because of Downton Abbey—people dressing in tuxedos, tails, and gloves for dinner, even when they’re at home. That is a wonderful fantasy world for us today. It’s nothing that we would ever experience except in a play or a movie.

What are the costumes for the Liebeslieder quintet like?
Mark wanted to make the quintet young and sexy, so they’re getting in and out of bed, and they’re in corsets and underwear. I had research from dancers and carnival-goers from 1900, and the quintet is almost reminiscent of Pierrot [a stock character from the Italian comic theater of the eighteenth century that may have been the origin of the sad clown; he was often seen in white face paint and flowing white clothing]. The men are in black tails, and the women are in patchwork silk-satin dresses; the outfits are very fun and playful.

How do you decide what color a particular garment should be?
Sometimes it has to do with what the set looks like, because you want the characters to stand out from or complement the set. In this case, at the end of the show, the women are all in paler, shimmery, nighttime, starry colors.

What sort of costume choices have you made for Desiree’s play-within-a-play?
I had a lot of pictures of actors from the turn of the century doing various period plays, and what I tried to do was a nineteenth-century version of an eighteenth-century costume. If you look at these picture, you’ll notice that the costumes are trying to look like they are from the eighteenth century, but they’re cut like nineteenth-century clothing. So that’s what I did.

That’s fascinating; it’s a twenty-first-century version of a nineteenth-century version of an eighteenth-century costume.

What excites you about A Little Night Music?
It’s a perfect musical. It’s just very pleasing. A Little Night Music allows me to do what I love: design beautiful clothes.

For more about A Little Night Music, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to A Little Night Music visit act-sf.org/music.

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