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The Fabric of Design: Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic’ reflects on her work

Michael S. Eddy • Artist SpotlightMarch 2021 • March 3, 2021

 

This story can be read below or in our March 2021 digitial edition

Kuzmanić working with an actor on 2666

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ana Kuzmanić is Yugoslav-born costume designer for theater and opera. Her theatrical career started while studying costume and fashion design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade. Since 2003 Kuzmanić’s design work has been seen on Broadway, off Broadway, in the UK, and Australia. Nationally Kuzmanić designed costumes for the Goodman Theatre, The Guthrie Theater, McCarter Theatre Center, Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Trinity Repertory Company, Steppenwolf Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre, The Geffen Playhouse, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival among many others. Her costume designs have been honored with Drama Desk, Helen Hayes, Henry Hewes, and Joseph Jefferson nominations and awards. Her designs for the opera include Don Giovanni at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, directed by her long-time collaborator Tony Award winning director Robert Falls and world premiere of Eurydice, a new opera composed by Matthew Aucoin, with the libretto by Sarah Ruhl and the direction by Tony Award winning director Mary Zimmerman with whom Kuzmanić collaborated on several pieces including Steadfast Tin Soldier and Treasure Island. The Minutes, which two nights before opening on Broadway shutdown due to COVID-19, will reopen in 2022 with Kuzmanic’s designs. She is currently an associate professor of costume design at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. 

What’s a show that you’d love to design?
One of my very favorite projects was designing costumes for Bob Falls’ and Seth Bockley’s adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s masterpiece novel 2666. This piece was over five-hours long and incorporated five parts—each of a different genre, including film. I wish to work on more pieces that are, like 2666 based on an epic novel—one of my favorites being One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. 

What’s some of the newer technology that really excites you from the last couple of years?
Virtual reality and interactive gaming as mediums. There are deep intersection points between theater and virtual characterization, movement, and world building. Hopefully, this overlap between our disciplines and talent will get more exploration. 

What are some changes in workflow over the last few years that has improved your design process?
Back in Yugoslavia, I worked as a concept artist for an animation company. Through that work, I fell in love with the digital medium and programs like Corel Painter and 3D software Maya together with Wacom stylus pen technology. When I became an educator at Northwestern University, I brought this love and knowledge with me into the classroom. The School of Communication at Northwestern University as well alumnae of Northwestern were very generous in supporting my interest and providing funds for the technology that I introduced to my students who continue to embrace it throughout their study and work. As an educator and as a designer, I continue to explore the ever-growing role that the digital medium plays in all facets of design and creativity. 

Who are some mentors or people that have influenced your work?
I come from a small eastern European country, however from a very unique undergraduate program for costume and fashion design. Together with other art disciplines like sculpture, painting, printmaking, textile arts, and interior architecture, this program is housed within the Academy of Applied Arts in Belgrade. During my time at the Academy, I took part in numerous collaborations across the disciplines of painting, textile, sculpture, etc.—so I learned to cherish the process of design development because that’s when anything is possible.

My great inspiration has always been the Serbian painter and poet Milena Pavlović-Barili, who also designed costumes for ballet and theater and created beautiful fashion illustrations for Vogue and other fashion magazines. In her art, Barili used incredible colors and often portrayed beautiful women, in sort of mysterious and melancholy dreamscapes.

Is there a piece of advice you got at the start of your career that you find still applicable today?
Stay curious. Curiosity is what instigates creativity.

Is there a piece of advice that you would give to someone starting out in theater?
I think that an artist brings their whole being into their artistic expression. Creativity stems from a perpetual process of discovery. In fact, our particular profession is such that with every project another skill is acquired, the next chapter is open, and a new world discovered. So, my suggestion would be to constantly stay open to learning.

What has surprised you about your career path so far?
I enjoy the versatility of performances I worked on, various genres—drama, epic, musicals, and opera. While working on musicals and operas, I had a pleasure to costume dance ensembles. As a former dancer myself, I discovered the joy in that field and hope to design more costumes for dance and ballet.

“So many productions hold a special place in my heart…” – Ana Kuzmanić
Following are a few of those productions with some insights from Kuzmanić.

Lost Land

Lost Landdirected by British dramatist and director Terry Johnson in 2005 was the first large production I worked on at Steppenwolf Theatre. I am eternally grateful to the late Martha Lavey, who took a chance on a young designer and invited me to work in the capacity of a costume design associate to John Malkovich. This was truly a wonderful process during which John and I collaborated not only as actor and costume designer, but we also developed the costume design, chose fabrics, buttons, and accessories together. Additionally, John was instrumental in providing me with the experience of costuming for film.”

Camino Real

Camino Real was an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play, directed by the Catalan opera and stage director Calixto Bieito at the Goodman Theatre. The design process had a very unusual timeline, which for me, started in Stuttgart where I flew from Belgrade to meet with Calixto and his team over dinner. I remember that dinner vividly, we were all sitting in a restaurant in a group that spoke Italian, French, Spanish, Catalan, German, Serbian, and occasionally English, yet still perfectly understanding each other. During tech, Calixto rebelled against the long hours of the schedule, so we mostly did runs and finished early. I discovered this to be heavenly for the costume production since we got more time to work on the costumes which is usually not the case during tech. For this piece, I designed a pale-yellow silk brocade suit for André De Shields who played Baron de Charlus. I am humbled that André loved it so much and is still wearing it. Every step in the process of working on this beautiful and intense piece was different! I remember one instance in my kitchen, the Goodman Theatre shop director Heidi McMath and I were pouring red wine over various swatches of pearlized white leather, to test colorfastness for a leather tuxedo that had to be made within days.”

King Lear

“In 2006, King Lear was the very first of many shows I collaborated on with Bob Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre. This production of King Lear took place in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, so I had a strong personal connection to the visual research and people that served as inspiration for the characters. I created the costume world mixing Shakespearean research with my own background and history which, on a darker note caused me to re-live the period of war that marked my student years back home.”

 

 

 

 

The Minutes

The Minutes is another, a more recent project I worked on with Tracy and Anna. It was first produced at Steppenwolf in 2017 and then scheduled to open in March 2020 on Broadway with Armie Hammer in the leading role. The design process included careful calibration of the silhouettes and color choices to achieve the right levels of realism, comedy, and horror. Though modern dress, most costume pieces had to be specifically fabricated to support the storytelling. Unfortunately, this was one of the shows that have been affected by theater closures due to COVID-19—only two days before the opening night in New York.” [The Minutes has been announced to reopen on Broadway in 2022.]

August: Osage County

August: Osage County, a Tony award and 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, directed by Anna D. Shapiro was my Broadway debut. Devising the costume design for this show was a unique experience because Tracy created many of the characters for August: Osage County with specific members of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble in mind, so extensive recorded conversations with those actors became a vital part of my research.”

 

 

 

 

 

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, directed by Eric Tucker at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017 was a boldly reimagined vision of the musical for which I got to design some of the most outlandish costumes of my career. The costume shop at OSF was incredibly supportive, as these costume pieces had to be created not only using traditional dressmaking and tailoring techniques but also engineered using sculpted forms, fiberglass, and 3D printing.”

 

 

 

 

 

Willful

Willful was an original piece devised by the founding artistic director of Sojourn Theatre Michael Rohd. This piece was produced by Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We began working without the script, consulting the fragments of dialogue that emerged through director’s process of devising in and out of rehearsal. The first pieces of dialogue that we encountered explored the impossibility of human existence without the ability of storytelling. This fragmented dialogue allowed me to access the piece and ignited the initial design concept. In terms of costume design, I imagined silent, empty installations vaguely resembling old manuscripts that silently spilled over from the binding and came alive only when inhabited by the actors. These installations crossed the border between costumes and scenery, as was the case with all design disciplines during the creation of this piece. These costumes were constructed using metal, carpentry, Tyvek, leather, jute, and surface texturing and painting.”

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni, directed by Bob Falls, was the first opera I designed for Lyric Opera of Chicago. Designing costumes for opera is my true love, because the art form is so epic. One has to breathe the music in fully and create the visuals of the equal scale. Scott Marr, the director of costume, wigs, and makeup production, who is an artist himself, was incredibly supportive and a delight to work with. For this opera I designed one of my very favorite costumes, inspired by the paintings of Pablo Picasso. When Donna Elvira arrives to Don Giovanni’s party in her masquerade costume, I wanted her to emulate modern flare and cause a visual stir, similar to the effect of Picasso’s art at the time—the opera was set in the late 1920s in Spain. This costume was built by Eric Winterling in New York.”

 

Eurydice

Eurydice is another opera that holds a special place in my heart, because it is based on Sarah Ruhl’s play of the same name, a beautiful love story told from Eurydice’s point of view. Eurydice is currently scheduled for The Metropolitan Opera’s 2021/22 season and was my latest collaboration with Mary Zimmerman. She wanted the costume aesthetic to blend the mythical with contemporary references. To highlight the Greek origin of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice I collaged the patterns from ancient Greek art pieces onto the 1950s-inspired clothing. In this way, our own world in which the epic and mythical co-exist with everyday modern was invented. The same was true for the creatures of the Underworld. The Stones were especially delightful to design. They look down on the Dead and occupy a higher rank in Hades’ posse, so their silhouettes span several centuries and reflect the clothes of courtiers. I was amused by the individual characters of the Stones—which involved malicious traits as well as some good humor. Each Stone has a distinct personality, and I wanted the costumes to reflect that. The Little Stone has pebbles sprinkled all over since those are usually tiny in scale. On the contrary, the Big Stone’s headpiece resembles a tall cliff to emphasize her grandiosity.”

Every show for Mary Zimmerman which I designed was a milestone in the sense of stretching my imagination and further honing my creative process. From devising costume pieces for Greek Gods and Demigods for Argonautika and larger-than-life pirates for Treasure Island; creating period-inspired designs for musicals like Wonderful Town (including a human-size cockroach) or Music Man, to inventing unique costume worlds for The Steadfast Tin Soldier and a new opera Eurydice, composed by Matthew Aucoin with the libretto by Sarah Ruhl. Mary Zimmerman is an auteur with a total artistic vision and thus, always a pleasure to work with.”

 

You can see more of Kuzmanić’s work on her website: www.anakuzmanic.com  

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