The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown 


—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

The costume shop is one of the magical rooms at IU Opera Theater where textures and colors of fabrics are combined to create spectacles on stage. Through the artistic view of the costume designer, her vision and research, together with collaboration with and masterful craftsmanship of the artisans at the shop, we will have glowing characters for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính. Here is costume designer Linda Pisano before the performance of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, sketching her way into the Fall pre-premiere production, getting ready for the real shows on February 7, 8, 14, 15 of 2014.

What are the things you look for in terms of fabric for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính?

It is very interesting that I don’t have the designs done yet because I have to meet with the scenic designer, the lighting designer, and the stage director again. However, in my research there are a few things that I discovered. One of the things that we’ll be doing is looking at not only traditional costume but also the type of costume that was used in the theatrical events in the North Vietnamese traditional performance which is, to my eyes, almost like shredded fabric, pieces of fabric that are attached, and each character is symbolized by the colors that they wear and the types of fabric and how it is created. It is going to be really exciting, somewhat complicated to figure that out.

There is a lot of texture, and there’s some pattern. Vince Liotta, the stage director, wants to make sure that we separate the look of the Vietnamese colors and Chinese colors. So we are looking at yellows more than reds, and variations of that. And it is going to be very vibrant on the stage.

Obviously there are parts of the story that are somber and sad, and the colors are going to be, not dull, but softer. But then there are some moments that are going to be vibrant.

When we talk about authenticity in costume, what are we talking about?

The first thing in costumes is we always want to tell a story. So that means that we may have a slightly different color on the character because for an American audience, a certain color in another culture might have one meaning but have another meaning to us. For example if an American audience sees white on stage, oftentimes they think of weddings or summers or they might think of Christian religious event like a Baptism. If it is black, they think of funeral or somber. And the opposite sometimes in another country is true. For example, in India we might have white as a color of mourning. So sometimes we stay true to the culture, the color, the symbols of the culture, but sometimes we manipulate it a little bit so they are more accessible for an American audience. However, we want to stay true to the story telling, we want to stay true to the culture where that story comes from because it is very important.

So in terms of authenticity for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính we really want to stay true to the composer and the intention of recreating the story. We’re modernizing it a little bit in terms of the composition that we want to stay true to telling the story that came from the Vietnamese culture.

akhnaten-linda pisano
A scene from “Akhnaten” – costume design by Linda Pisano – Photo: IU Opera Theater.

What are the joy and hardship so far from this project? 

The same things bring me joy and hardship. I’ve never done any design or production work in Vietnamese culture. And, unfortunately like many Americans, sometimes my history of Việt Nam stops at the end of the Việt Nam war. Many of us, unfortunately, do not realize the rich culture that exists. We know only the American relationship with the Vietnamese in terms of the Việt Nam War which I am embarrassed to say that that is how many of us are raised. What I am finding is that, as I am researching, I am learning about this world that I didn’t even know about. I’m learning about the architecture, I’m learning about the artwork, I’m learning about the lifestyle, I’m learning about the story-telling, I’m learning about the theater, and all of that reflect the people.

So the hardship is that I have so much to learn. I’m completely reeducating myself on this. But the joy is I’m learning about this culture I had no idea about. I’m learning new stories, I’m learning new architecture. I’m starting to be able to look at things and tell the difference between subtle variations between various parts of the culture. So that is exciting. So the hardship is that I don’t know enough yet. I’m having to work really diligently in reeducating myself, but that’s also the joy – the learning, the whole process.

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is a cross-cultural project, and Akhenaten which you designed, is the same. Are the challenges in working on them the same?

The challenges are the same to some extent. I am more educated in Western European culture because of my arts training and so forth. So if we do a German or French or Italian opera, I still have to learn a lot but it’s not difficult for me. The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is a whole new way of telling a story. It is a story I didn’t know. We’re telling it in a theatrical way that is specifically Eastern and not from Western culture. So that makes it a little different. With Akhenaten, I knew a lot about it. But it was minimalistic, very modern. So it wasn’t that we were trying to do it in a very specific Egyptian theatrical way; we were simply doing it in a minimalist theatrical way. Whereas, I am not only going to be doing something in a new theatrical way but in an Eastern way. I want a lot of audience members to look at it and say, “Yes, I know this. I know this Eastern culture.”

What is your working relationship with the director and stage designer?

I work with Vince Liotta a lot, and Vince is great for two reasons. One, he is probably the smartest man I’ve known in terms of his vast knowledge of theater. If he doesn’t know something, he will find out and learn everything he can about it. So I really rely and trust the direction of his knowledge. The second thing I like about working with Vince is that he allows me to make choices. If I make choices that he thinks are wrong, he is very open to tell me that. But he allows me to make the choices before he says, “That’s not going to work,” and that gives me certain freedom as a designer. In terms of the scenic designer, I have actually not met him yet, however, I have seen his work and it’s beautiful. I’ve got some information about what he is doing from Vince, the Director, and he is such an artist. So I look forward to working with his set and designing the costumes that work with that.

What is your design going to be?

I’ve only got some nails down and the director has not looked at them yet. Some nails are just pen sketches. For one character I might have ten or twelve different designs done in pen so that we can just quickly look at the silhouette. But right now, I am looking at an evolution of colors throughout the entire production to tell the story. I’m looking at some very simple traditional basic costumes with really interesting things added on to show different characters. For example we have some characters that are very different social class. And so some of them are in far more elaborate and some will be in very simple costumes. I want to make sure that we have something very cohesive in the picture. So when we, the director and the designers, look at this production, we want it to be very much Eastern and not a Western story.

merry widow-pisano
A scene from “Merry Widow” – costume design by Linda Pisano – Photo: IU Opera Theater.

When will you start working intensively on this?

I have been doing a lot of research and I have been doing rough sketches. I will present the color sketches and the bulk of the research in July. And then I will start shopping in September.

This is one of the more exciting project that I have done in a long time. One, it is an original work which is amazing. It is a very rare thing to be able to design an original work, especially an opera. I did Vincent which was a new opera also and that process was so wonderful. Things are changing, the story is changing, the music is changing. No one has done it before, this is the first time, but also it is forcing me to learn so many things.

Would you elaborate more on designing a premiere?

To do a premiere is interesting because normally when you enter a play or an opera that has been around for a long time, you don’t have the composer or the author there. And so you really rely on the director’s interpretation. When the composer or the librettist is there, you have a resource – they can explain things to you that you might never have known. It is great to see a work that no one’s seen before ever. It’ll be something very different than the workshop, obviously. There’ll be a lot of changes and the entire interpretation now has been everyone’s input. It becomes pretty much a community of artisans creating it.

For your research, you read the synopsis but you don’t need to read the music?

I don’t read the music but I listen to it. It is really interesting because when I hear music, it informs my choices of colors. I don’t know if it is a physiological thing that the music is impacting my sense of color, or if I just have some draw toward certain tones for certain colors. I don’t know, but I definitely hear color, so when I get to the music sometimes my choices of color change.

What are some of the physical aspects of the designs you have to attend to?

Sometimes you have very diverse physical body. You have really large people and really thin people. And sometimes they are together, that is how the world is – we are all different. But on stage when you are trying to create a picture, we have to sometimes modify that, especially in an opera when you have two casts. The two different casts might look very different. So not only do I have to build two different costumes but sometimes they have different designs. So if you see a production on one night, and the next cast on the next night, you might see modifications, because we want to give them the best attributes we can. If the character is supposed to be petite but the singer is not, then I have to modify the design to give them the illusion of being as petite as possible. But normally I try to celebrate all the different body types. And most performers are very aware of their body type so they are willing to listen to whatever you need to do to make them look their best.

linda pisano- Akhnaten
AKHNATEN comes to life with the most amazing costumes designed by Linda Pisano. Featured in this photo are Brennan Hall (Akhnaten) and Laura Thoreson (Nefertiti). Photo: IU Opera Theater.

Did you encounter technical issues with the costumes before, like something may fall off?

Well, the costume shop here is very good. In the productions that I have done, I have had nothing that is poorly made. It is always well-made. Oftentimes, the wardrobe crew or the actors aren’t sure how it is supposed to be worn. For example in Akhenaten, it was several rehearsals before the actors knew how to wear the head dresses. In terms of construction, we have never had anything bad. This show would be interesting because one of the attributes of Eastern costume is the simplicity with which it is made. The fabric is often woven at a very narrow measurement in comparison to modern fabric. So you have these beautiful fabrics that are narrow and all of the clothing is very simply made based on that measurement. And you have really lovely things. Sometimes making things simple is much more difficult than tailoring all the pieces together making it fit. Sometimes it is difficult to find the simplicity.

Is there anything surprising popping up during your research for this production?

Many things are surprising, but I expected surprises. I think I was most surprised with how rich this culture is and how little I knew about it. It makes me sad that there isn’t more Vietnamese culture when we learned about Asian cultures. It makes me concerned that so much of our history about Việt Nam is stuck in the Việt Nam War, that we are not actually learning, in my general education we didn’t learn, about Vietnamese culture in terms of their architecture, their artwork, their stories, like this story for example, the story-telling, how the communities work. I think that what has been surprising is how little I knew about how rich this culture is by itself, not as an Asian culture but as its own culture.

The fabric for this show doesn’t have to be historically authentic, does it?

No, it doesn’t. We wouldn’t be able to afford it. But to get the look of the clothing on stage there will be a lot of silk and linen. That is what I am seeing. In some areas we may use rayon as rayon is a sort of artificial silk, so it is less expensive but on stage it can look very similar to silk. In order to get the lightness of the flow that we’ll need in these costumes we’ll use silk, raw silk, linen – linen looks great on peasant characters because it moves beautifully but it is rough.

These days there is polyester that is woven in a way that makes it look and feel like silk. Could you use that?

Yes, absolutely. We will use that on costumes that can’t be cleaned very well like silk – silk has to be dry cleaned or hand washed. We use polyester on things that have to be durable because actors can sweat like crazy.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version.

Linda Pisano-1
Photo: Indiana University.

Linda Pisano’s Bio

An IU Theatre & Drama faculty since 2002, Linda heads the Costume Design Program and directs the Theatre and Drama Department’s Study Abroad Program in London. She has served on the faculties of Iowa State University and Kenyon College. A member of the United Scenic Artists Local 829, Linda’s work has covered a broad range of theatre, dance, musical theatre, ballet and opera. Her work has been featured in the Quadrennial World Design Expo in Prague and the World Stage Design exhibition. She is a four-time winner of the Peggy Ezekiel Award for Excellence in Design, a three-time jury winner in the National Design Expo and a two-time recipient of the Kennedy Center /ACTF Meritorious Achievement in Costume Design Award. Linda regularly designs with such companies as the Utah Shakespearean Festival, Indiana Repertory Theatre, BalletMet, Phoenix Theatre, Lyric Repertory Theatre, Contemporary American Theatre Company, Brown County Playhouse, IU Opera Theatre at the Jacobs School of Music and others. Several of her ballet designs continue to tour through Canada, England and the U.S.

She received her MFA in Costume Design & Technology from The Ohio State University, an MA in Theatre with an emphasis in theory and criticism and a BFA in Acting and Directing from Utah State University. Linda has served as an Associate Editor for the Costume Research Journal and she holds membership in The United States Institute for Theatre Technology and The Costume Society of America and the Costume Society of Great Britain. Linda is developing specialty research in the masks of commedia dell’arte and 18th-century Venetian dress for which she has received various grants and fellowships. At IU Theatre and Drama Linda has designed HamletSeussicalThe Birthday PartySweeney ToddBetty’s Summer VacationThe Bacchai and She Stoops to Conquer.

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