Speaking Her Truth Q&A with Costume Designer Elsa Hiltner

by Lisa Mulcahy
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Elsa Hiltner’s skill, intelligence, and curiosity have contributed to her accomplishments as a costume designer for theater, film, dance, and events during her 10-year-career. Based in Chicago and working nationwide, Hiltner holds a BA in costume design from Western Washington University, and a wigs and hair production certificate from DePaul University. A company member of Collaboration Theatre Company and an artistic associate with First Folio Theatre, Hiltner’s costume design work includes an impressive list of theater companies, including work for Steppenwolf, Next Act, Lifeline Theatre, Teatro Vista, American Blues Theater, Walkabout Theatre, American Theater Company, Oak Park Festival Theatre, Stone Soup Theatre Project, Balagan Theatre, and Signal Ensemble. Hiltner’s interest in Middle Eastern dress is a great influence for her, and she’s studied fashion history in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Morocco.

Hiltner last year opened an important dialogue within the theater community with her thoughtful and solution-oriented opinion piece for HowlRound, A Call for Equal Support in Theatrical Design. [Read it here] A look at the gender bias in the industry and how it manifests in the area of costume design, the only area of technical theater in which women make up the majority, the piece made a big impact. 

Stage Directions spoke with Hiltner about her influences and how those experiences shaped her viewpoint as an artist and person, as well as asking her about the reaction to and the ongoing effect of her opinion piece.  

SD: Talk a bit about your background. What drew you to costume design?
Elsa Hiltner: I was very lucky in that I went to a public high school that had a full theater program, where I was able to take classes in technical theater and costume design. I was really interested in both social issues and art in high school—I still am—and costume design is really the melding of those two. Using art to discuss people. I went to Western Washington University, got a degree in costume design, and from there started freelance designing. I also really love working with other artists, and so theater was a natural fit.

 What early experiences as a designer were influential/inspiring for you? 
Growing up, I had, and still have, a wonderful mentor and role model, the contemporary artist Liz Lefmann Blair. Liz exposed me to lots of designers and artists, who I was then able to collaborate with in an interdisciplinary way. Plus, my mom is a freelance artist, and my dad was a freelance architect for all of my childhood. So, I was surrounded by models of how to make a life of designing—learning things like self-promotion, to the importance of bookkeeping, and working late at night. Because of this, I felt pretty confident jumping into freelance design straight out of college.

My first year out of school, I designed full-time in Seattle—it helped that my rent was so cheap. Then I moved to Chicago, and kept day jobs managing costume shops for about four years while designing at night. After that, I transitioned back into full-time freelance design.

What has been the reaction to your HowlRound piece and what were the conversations it started?
I didn’t know this at the time, but when I was writing the article in the summer of 2016, a few costume designers in Chicago were starting to organize around these and other issues. These designers started meeting regularly around that time—I’ve since become part of it. This group of designers have really united the costume designers of Chicago—we’ve been meeting monthly for about a year now. I’m really encouraged by the progress the group has made, and what is being planned for the coming year around the issues of labor.

In my own life, I’ve talked with the companies that I design for about labor inequities, and several companies have been very willing to make changes and move towards fully equal support. Most of the critique I’ve received has come from designers in other areas of the industry who also don’t have full support, and it started conversations on how unequally supported a lot of different design aspects are. The fact remains that costume design as a whole is the area of design most impacted by institutionalized sexism, and that the theater industry has benefited by playing different designers off of each other. As a costume designer and labor activist, I’ll support other designers as they work to right inequities in their fields, just as I’ve benefited from the support of other designers.

How is this conversation fitting into the state of regional theater at the moment and is it bringing positive changes moving into the future?
I am really encouraged by the progress being made in Chicago, as I mentioned. And I’ve been having conversations with designers all across the country over the past year. We’ve been building solidarity, sharing tactics and methods, and comparing regional differences. It’s going to take a lot of work, but seeing so many designers working toward the goals of equal support is very encouraging.