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The Language of Thinking About the Whole: Designer Susan Hilferty

Howard Sherman • Perspectives • December 18, 2019
Glinda and Elphaba in Wicked (photo: Joan Marcus)

Glinda and Elphaba in Wicked (photo: Joan Marcus)

Given that the musical Wicked is now the fifth longest running show in Broadway history, at 16 years and counting, and has also generated numerous tours and international productions, it’s fair to say that its costumes are in the number one spot in a ranking of Susan Hilferty’s best-known designs. But in looking at her extensive career of more than 300 designs in New York, around the U.S. and in London by the numbers, it’s important to take note of the designer’s decades-long relationships with two authors, who also frequently direct their own work: she has designed 34 shows with the South African playwright Athol Fugard and more than 30 with U.S. playwright Richard Nelson. On a number of those projects, she has also designed sets, and, with Fugard, directed and co-directed.

“Working with Athol Fugard,” Hilferty says, explaining the dual designer role she often takes on, “it was essential that there was one vision that was holding it together, with the sets and the costumes, as well as bringing in the visual of the lights, which I’ve never designed – but really working on the whole, both visually and dramaturgically. That early work with Athol, where I was doing both, inspired me.”

Hilferty says her work with Fugard informed the work with Nelson, most recently on his eight Rhinebeck plays, which began with the quartet known as The Apple Family Plays, after many prior collaborations. Working with both men, she says, “It has built not only in the specifics of the plays, but also built with both writers and the scope of their writing, working together to create a language of performance.” She notes that she has now embarked on a third sustained relationship of this type, with South African director Yaël Farber.

The Meaning of Designer
With the designation of “designer,” encompassing both sets and costumes, more common in U.K. theater than the U.S., Hilferty attributes the predominantly separate disciplines here to resulting from a variety of subtle cultural differences, pointing out that stage managers function differently between the two countries and that the role of the lighting designer developed differently between the countries as well, even as she thinks about the development of lighting design in the U.S. “Back in the ’40s and ’50s, it was the stage managers who did the lights. Then the great Jean Rosenthal helped us understand what light meant in the design process.”

Hilferty extends her thinking about wearing multiple design hats to the work of the graduate design program at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, which she has chaired for 20 years. “We embrace, as a way of developing thinking designers, that they think about the whole,” she explains. “It is not possible really to design text, without understanding not only the sets, costumes, and lights and sound, which should be one idea, but also how an actor participates in either moving through a story or moves across a stage. In the teaching, we’re constantly developing this language of thinking about the whole. Understanding not only the whole physically, but also adding the element of time. What is the whole from the beginning, middle, and end?” 

She continues, “The vocabulary of space, light, clothing, movement, sound, have to be combined in each of the designer’s heads as they’re working through it. So if you separate those elements, and think that, ‘Oh, the lighting designer’s going to come in and light the set, the costume designer’s going to come in and put people in the middle of a universe,’ if they don’t all have knowledge of the same universe that they’re creating, or culture that they’re creating, it has to go wrong. I believe that we need to be involved in the whole. Whether or not you are specifically designing the sets and the clothes for a production, or the sets and the lights, or the whole thing, you have to be able to think as a community creating a culture.”

In describing the various disciplines, Hilferty also considers the increasing areas of specialization in theater design. “As much as I embrace all of the colleagues that I have on any production, whether or not it is set, costume, lighting, projection, video, sound, hair, makeup – and I love having these colleagues be part of a production – it makes it much more complex for us to find a way to create a language together, before we go into rehearsals.” She notes that many of the design elements that involve technical operation, automation, or require cues to be called during every show, tend to be grouped together in the process, whereas costumes fall, in her words, “outside that vocabulary.”

Start of an Artist
Hilferty came to theater and design in college, where she began study as an art major, a painter, at Syracuse University. “I knew nothing about art really,” she says, self-effacingly, “and my mind was opened with incredible teachers there, understanding not only myself as an artist, but understanding the world of art.” She credits the rise of performance art at the time as fueling her interest in the possibilities of live collaborations.

She goes on to recall, “There was something about the visual storytelling that happened with the arts. I worked backstage, but I had seen almost no professional productions, until I did my junior year abroad. I was in London for the first time, out of the country for the first time, and I saw theater there, one or two performances a week. It was an explosion that went on in my head, that understanding that as a visual artist, and a visual art that takes place in time, but then it could be connected to a text, it was a passion, like a spark turning into flames.”

Returning to the U.S., Hilferty was immediately hired as assistant costume designer at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. She remembers, “Then the costume designer was let go, and I was suddenly a professional costume designer. I was very lucky to go from inspiration to actualization, within a year. It was a wild story. I’ve never looked back.”

Charting her progress, Hilferty explains that upon graduation from Syracuse, she moved to New York and spent two years working in costume shops as a draper, and designing eight to ten showcases a year, doing sets and costumes, mentioning such companies as the Irish Arts Center and Theater for a New City, as well as The Whole Theater in New Jersey. But despite these early credits, she says she made the decision to go to graduate school because she knew she needed more grounding.

At Yale School of Drama, Hilferty says, “I was able to step back and begin to really develop a process of design. Understanding how to work with a text, how to work with other designers, how to work with the directors, how to use my point of view toward the text as a springboard for design ideas. 

Meeting Fugard
“Then I was lucky, in my last year, that Lloyd Richards brought Athol Fugard over to the States to direct for the very first time, a production that started here in the States, and I got to do A Lesson from Aloes. That was another miraculous moment, where from the moment that I was inspired to do theater by seeing Sizwe Banzi is Dead [during her London semester abroad], to now having the possibility to begin a shockingly long relationship – that the three years at Yale, made me ready to be able to start my work with Athol.” She goes on to say, “Working with Athol has always fueled a passion in my life and work, which is telling the stories of the underrepresented, and trying to understand the human. Athol’s stories have always transcended South Africa, because they are stories, though rooted in South Africa, tell truths about how we behave with each other as human beings.”

Regarding her experiences as a director or co-director, which have all been with Fugard, Hilferty says, “I’m not a director on every production, but I’m responding to the text and the director on every production. I believe that a great designer is able to have a robust dramaturgical conversation with everyone, from the writer, director, actors, artisans, everyone. That is why I do theater in the first place, I’m interested in telling stories, I’m interested in how the stories are told. Costumes and scenery happen to be the medium in which I speak, but it all comes from working with the text. Unlike a painter, who can go off and work on their own personal inspiration, we’re all connected to a text. It’s the thing that holds us together.”
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Passion Needed
What kind of qualities in graduate design students do Hilferty and her colleagues at NYU Tisch look for? “Passion is at the high end,” she says. “Somebody who is ready, willing, and able to expose themselves to many, many challenges, which would be rewarded over the time of being at school. Curiosity – it’s interesting how that isn’t a common feature in many people. A real sense of being a visual artist, as either a set, costume, lighting, or film designer. Understanding and having a passion for telling stories. We’ll sometimes interview someone who is interested in doing a set, but not interested in story or actors, so ours is not the right place for them. The combination of passion, curiosity, visual artists, and storytellers are the key ingredients. 

“At the heart of the program are classes in design, which is the center of the curriculum, but also art. We do drawing classes, and make sure that being a visual artist is essential in all the disciplines, the craft. We delve deeply into the craft of design, but dramaturgy is huge for us as well. We have directors on our faculty who spread the word about working with the text as part of the process, and production. We work really hard to have the classes embrace all of the things that we think are essential for well-rounded designers, but then we also get to use New York City as part of our classroom.”

A Wicked Legacy
Calling the show’s 16th anniversary “a crazy number,” Hilferty expresses pride in Wicked, saying that the show’s producers have been vigilant in maintaining the standards of the show wherever it has played, with every iteration as close a reproduction of the original as possible. “Right now, my involvement is only to meet regularly with the supervisor of the production, just to answer questions. Whether or not it’s a fabric that’s no longer being made—how do we have it milled—to questions about what we might do. We just had our first African American Glinda, we now have our first trans Morrible, and just making sure the design decisions maintain the thread of the design, and make it not change, but enhance each of the new performers.” She goes on to note that there are tiny differences in Wicked’s costume construction depending upon where it’s built, calling it a “strange, beautiful experience.” Describing the process of maintaining the show over many years, many companies, and many performers, Hilferty points out that Elphaba’s signature hat was designed to pop open, although it finally was never used that way, saying, “The other part that’s really interesting is keeping track of all the slight things, vestigial things—‘Why did we do that?’ and remembering, ‘Oh right, that’s because this happened.’”

Designing for Now
With text first and foremost in her thinking, Hilferty says that she has been increasingly drawn to work that speaks to what’s happening in our society and in our country. “I’m finding this moment in time,” she relates, “in our political situation—and I say our, meaning what’s happening in the United States, what’s happening across the world—has put me in a very specific place about what I want to explore in my life and my work.”

“Now, in many ways it’s also ignited by my work with emerging artists, trying to make sense of the world that is in front of us. I’ve been choosing to do work like A Bright Room Called Day, Tony Kushner’s examination of the rise of Hitler, reflecting it in the time of Reagan’s presidency, but now updated to reflect a world in which Trump is president. At the same time, doing Richard Nelson’s The Michaels, which is subtitled Conversations in Troubled Times. Doing Blood Wedding at The Young Vic in London, which is a play written by Lorca, who was then murdered by the people in his hometown, as fascism spread across Spain.” 

“I’m always interested in Greek plays or plays that hopefully we can learn from and understand the world that we live in and drive us to make some kind of change. The last word in A Bright Room Called Day is ‘act.’ Which is a call to action, an action for art, a call to action to artists, a call to action to human beings, a call to action for all members of our community. I feel that’s exactly the idea that I want to be moving me in my life right now, which is to act.” 

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