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The rock musical sensation Spring Awakening is an adaptation of the a 1892 German play of the same title. Image found on vaderbilt.edu.

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Q & A with Susan Hilferty, Costume Designer


Spring Awakening Costume Designer Susan Hilferty has designed more than 200 productions for theatres across America and internationally. She designs theater, opera, film, TV and dance and chairs the Department of Design for Stage/Film at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Her numerous awards include a Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award for Wicked, and the 2001 Obie for Sustained Excellence in Costume Design.

1) At what point in the development of Spring Awakening did you first meet with director Michael Mayer?

Michael introduced me to Spring Awakening during the workshop process. I was there for the moment when Michael decided to have the boys reach into their jacket pockets, pull out a microphone, and sing into it to express their inner thoughts. That was a pivotal moment for the costume design. I knew that I had to create a world that would live comfortably in the turn of the 19th Century and live in the modern world — the world of technology and microphones. This was more deeply expressed in the design when we decided to have audience members onstage and to have the actors sit among them throughout the performance.


2) What was your design goal for the show? And what was your muse in creating the look and feel of 1890s Germany?

The designers spent a great deal of time using images to express our emotional response to the play-images that included photos of schoolboys, paintings by Balthus, schoolgirls exercising with medicine balls and photos of Egon Schiele. Using the inspirational visual material and researching school uniforms from the 1800’s as well as children’s and adult clothes, I began to create a “feel” of the show.


3) Were there design challenges given the robust direction and high-octane performances? Were there any surprises with the costumes and/or accessories during the dress rehearsal?

As we rehearsed more, including the choreographing to the action, I started to refine the look. I knew that the actors would be onstage all of the time which meant we were not doing a lot of changes. The Man and The Woman play many characters with only a few physical gestures like a shawl to help them, which meant I needed to design something that could transform with them as they developed each character. Their clothes are rooted in the late 19th Century as well, though with their look you could imagine them on the runway of a  contemporary designer today. Some people might describe the look as neo-Victorianism.  The clothes are ostensibly dance clothes. They are meant to move easily and survive all of the physical extremes that the actors perform.


4) Do you design with pencil and paper or on the computer, and why?

Costume design and costume making is being done in the same way that it has been done since the invention of the sewing machine. I can draw much faster by hand than with the computer and it is much easier to let my had express a thought than to have it translated through a keyboard.  Once I sketch an idea, it is interpreted by a draper in fabric and fitted directly on the actor’s body. All by hand. Cut. Stitched. Pressed. Trimmed. All by hand.

I love the computer and use it constantly as a writing and accounting tool. The fabrics I designed for Spring Awakening are translated by the computer to be printed on fabric. But my pencil, paintbrush and paper are the tools of inspiration.


5) What is the greatest invention to revolutionize the building or functionality of costumes?  

The sewing machine, the safety pin, and stretch fabric.


6) What was the first show you worked in any capacity of costume design?  

In 1974, a made for TV movie with Shelley Winters and Nehemiah Persoff called The Sex Symbol.


7) What do you do to keep the creative well full and flowing, and who inspires you?

I observe the life around me and travel in time, to the past and present. I take my inspiration from everywhere, from the person in front of me in the subway or the way gasoline in a puddle creates color changes. I am constantly taking mental photos and referring to them in my work.


8) What’s the piece in your wardrobe that you couldn’t live without?

I am an Isseye Miyake junkie. It would be hard to give up any of his pieces in my wardrobe.


Interview with SHNews.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.