Designing in Duplicate

by Lisa Mulcahy
The cast of Lawrence University’s Pippin
The cast of Lawrence University’s Pippin

Designer Kärin Simonson Kopischke creates two vastly different looks for Pippin

Costume designer Kärin Simonson Kopischke was presented with the rare challenge of designing two different productions of Pippin back-to-back—and triumphed. Over her decades-long career, Simonson Kopischke has earned a stellar reputation for professional and technical excellence. She has designed for numerous regional theatre Tony Award winners including the American Conservatory Theater, Chicago Shakespeare, the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, the Long Wharf, Victory Gardens, the Children’s Theatre Company, Crossroads, and the Cincinnati Playhouse. Simonson Kopischke also works with many historical societies, notably creating a series of historical renderings depicting women in the garments they might have worn in a series called Garments of Our Foundations. She has also designed costumes for the feature film Feed the Fish, and for new works from Harry Connick Jr. and Stephen Schwartz. Her work has garnered many accolades, including the Joseph Jefferson Award, AriZoni Award, and a Prague Quadrennial nomination. As as a respected professor, she has taught costume design at The Theatre School of DePaul, Northwestern University, Carroll University, and currently at Lawrence University. And if that were not enough? She runs a successful upcycled clothing business online with her daughter, Anya. 

Arguable, though, one of Simonson Kopischke’s more satisfying creative achievements was designing essentially back-to-back productions of Pippin in the fall of 2018—a professional production at the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then an educational production at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she teaches. Both productions featured singular and striking design elements that were very different to each production, yet completely recognizable in terms of Simonson Kopischke’s evocative talent and style. How did she accomplish this stunning feat? The designer recently shared her experience with Stage Directions and offered some sage advice for costumers facing their own creative challenges, so they too can succeed.

The Learning Curve
Simonson Kopischke has always incorporated multiple interests in her approach to artistic work. She was drawn to and participated in theater while pursuing music and visual arts training in college. “I studied piano as well as studio art, and after getting two degrees, I realized how much I really loved the theater,” Simonson Kopiscke says. “Theater encompassed all my interests, different interests of mine, in so many areas.” At the time she was learning everything she could about her chosen field, her first exposure to Pippin happened. “While I was still in college in Wisconsin, I saw a small community theater production of Pippin in the late ‘70s,” she recalls. “It was done on a shoestring budget, but with very talented people. This production really showed what you could do with very little money, but a lot of creativity.”

When her husband was accepted into the graduate program at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco she applied for a job at ACT’s costume shop. Further honing her craft there was an intense experience. “That intensity informed how I approach shows to this day,” she says. “It taught me how important it is to be open to all the possibilities that come your way creatively. I also learned you should give your full attention to every person you meet along your journey,” she says. “Theater is a small world—it’s good to think of yourself as part of a bigger team. You’ll learn from everybody you work with. And see every show you can! When I look back now. I regret that I did not see as many shows as I could have seen, and that I didn’t spend as much time as I could have learning in that way. She also began learning how to deal with major work challenges.

“My biggest challenge in terms of my work, I think, has been being married to an actor,” Simonson Kopiscke reflects. “Having different jobs at different times is quite a juggling act, and when we had my daughter, that was a huge challenge, both financially and time-wise. We were both working to make a single income, basically. But you figure it out—you make it work. You stretch your budget. Also, back in 1994, there was prejudice I faced as a designer because I was a mother. I almost lost some jobs. I remember my husband would sneak my daughter into tech rehearsals so I could breastfeed. Now, though, I’m glad to say that theaters will embrace professionals who have families.”

The First Challenge 
Having successfully dealt with adversity to establish herself as a major creative force meant Simonson Kopoischke was undaunted when she discovered two productions of Pippin would be staged near her and was immediately intrigued. “I knew Skylight was planning to do Pippin in 2018, and I was so excited,” she recalls. “I loved the many creative possibilities. But I was committed to Lawrence’s production—an educational production, of course, versus a professional production. No matter how much I wanted to be involved with Skylight’s production, because of the timing, I came to believe it was just not meant to be, because of my commitment at Lawrence. But then, a good friend of mine, Keith Pitts, the Skylight set designer who was doing Pippin, called me asking if I was available to do their Pippin! And miraculously, the dates did not overlap! I decided to run the offer by the head of the department at Lawrence. I didn’t want there to be any worries that I would put more energy into the professional production. I explained to him what an interesting opportunity designing two versions of the same show at the same time would be. I wanted the challenge of considering, how many different ways can Pippin be imagined? I got the go ahead.”
Rendering of Skylight

Completely secure in her ability to tackle both shows, with a veteran’s eye, Simonson Kopiscke started her work at Skylight. “As much as I adored Pippin, I know people who don’t like it and think it’s dated,” Simonson Kopschke explains. “Keith, and Ray Jivoff, the director at Skylight, were among those who really thought the show was horribly dated and stuck in the ‘70s. Ray adored the music, but he wanted to give it a fresh look. Keith, being younger, wanted to put the show in the 21st century. He came up with a very modern architectural set. With this in mind, I became very inspired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heavenly Bodies exhibit, in New York. I was blown away by what I saw in that exhibit in terms of pieces by Versace, Chanel, and especially Dolce and Gabbana. Also, by the style of Madonna in the ‘80s. I wanted to do a modern take on Byzantine art, with that very 21st century feeling, for Pippin, so that’s the direction my design took.”
Kathryn Hausman in Skylight Music Theatre’s Pippin.

The Second Challenge
As she was proceeding with her work on that design, Simonson Kopischke’s second Pippin project was kicking into high gear and she explains with a very different take directorially. “Two or three weeks later, I started working on the Lawrence production. The director and I were about the same age, and we had the same affection for Pippin. His idea was to imagine the characters as a scrappy theater troupe that traveled around and created their own theater. Like ‘80s street performers. I was influenced by paintings done in Italian surrealism—empty streets, shadows, the absence of people, a sense of melancholy. I latched on to that idea, studying street performers; I was also influenced by new age vaudeville and commedia dell’ arte. It was a very theatrical look I came up with. I wanted to keep the palette pretty tight—black and white, sepia and white, really, and everyone had a bright red accent somewhere on their costume.” 
Rendering of Lawrence University’s Pippin design  

Simonson Kopischke’s approach—to look at both productions as completely unique and separate entities—worked like a charm. “Each show looked very different because of the images, renderings and photographs I had used separately for them,” she says. “There were just a couple of pieces I designed that kind of informed each other in both shows—I imagined those pieces in a different way for each production. I like that there was a little bit of continuity in my work there.” 

Ultimately, Simonson Kopischke’s successful designs for both shows were born out of her enthusiasm for Pippin as source material—and her love for the work she does. “I was shopping both shows at the same time at one point, but I never got any of the ideas I had for each production mixed up,” she says.

“I never worried about that. I saw the two shows as completely different, wonderful opportunities—that’s how I moved forward. I was just as excited working on the Lawrence show as I was the Skylight production—and that excitement let me have the work experience of a lifetime!”