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Three Costume Designers Meet for Tea on the Edge of a Cliff

Bringing together three designers—let alone three designers of the same discipline, costume design—for a conversation outside of the context of a specific production is not your typical interview. New York–based Lux Haac, bicoastal Dominique Fawn Hill, and Washington, DC–based Deb Sivigny collectively hold over thirty-eight years of professional experience and many stories from the field. They were introduced to each other by series curators Porsche McGovern and Kate Freer, who thought that a dialogue between costume designers would illuminate the interpersonal side of design and the current struggles within their profession. The conversation allowed them to speak openly about how they bring their values and identities into their individual practices, revealing a solidarity they didn’t know they shared.

Lux Haac: I am really excited to be able to have this conversation with two other designers in different parts of the country. It’s rare to get to spend time with other costume designers.

Dominique Fawn Hill: I wonder, why do you think that is? We organize various meetings and check-ins with other professionals without an issue, but when it comes down to communal transparency, we tend to fall short.

Lux: I think this is an industry that tends to pit us against each other as competition, rather than bring us together as a community.

Deb Sivigny: And with one costume designer per show, unless we’re assisting each other or doing shows back to back in the same regional theatre, we never see each other.

Dominique: This has me thinking about the new journey I am embarking on. A friend of mine recommended to me the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The premise is to allow the inner artist—which Cameron believes is in all of us—to come to fruition. I could not agree with her more on this subject. I single-handedly believe within my spiritual practice that your talent is God’s gift to you and what you do with it is your gift back to God.

For the longest time I felt behind in some way by not having a traditional upbringing, but I can see now how it was a blessing. It taught me how to make rocks into rubies and trash into treasure. It established a rare sense of grit, and I am more empathetic towards all walks of life. I say all of this to ask: What do you think is your unique song that only you can bring to a project as costume designer?

an actor onstage

DJ Curtis Jr in Portland Center Stage at The Armory's production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch directed by Chip Miller. Musical direction by Amir Shirazi. Band Director Darian Anthony Patrick. Scenic design by Britton Mauk. Costume design by Dominique Fawn Hill. Lighting design by Av Sheehan. Sound design by Em Gustason. Video design by Jamie Leonard. Wig design by Jessica Miller. Crafts Artisan Barbara Casement. Graffiti Artisan Narangkar Glover. Stage Manager Janine Vanderhoff. Dialect Coach Karl Hanover. Production Assistant Dana Peterson.

Deb: That’s such a beautiful question. For me, it’s empathy. And my collaborators have said this about me, and I’ve started to believe it: My brand is whimsy. I can see a costume in almost anything—similar to you, Dominique, like riches from rags, miracles made out of a bottle cap, and something from nothing. I can see a whole bunch of disparate ideas and can draw the lines between them and connect them in a new unexpected way.

Dominique: The Queen’s Gambit of costume design.

Deb: Call it organized chaos.

Lux: I strive to see and celebrate the unique stories we’re all trying to tell. I think we’re all storytellers, whether we’re aware of it or not. Even when people are just getting dressed for the day, they’re telling a story through their choices.

We have so much power as costume designers to influence how people are perceived through the way we represent them. We can fight against stereotypes, uplift and empower marginalized voices, and show people the world we want to live in.

Deb: Even in the unconscious, instinctual choices that people make, which to me are always the most interesting. How do we embrace and use the differences between our deliberate and unconscious choices? How do we explore that as designers? Because that’s where the magic is—that’s the crux of who a character is at their core.

Lux: Yes! Discovering those small details is what helps breathe life into a design.

We have so much power as costume designers to influence how people are perceived through the way we represent them. We can fight against stereotypes, uplift and empower marginalized voices, and show people the world we want to live in.

Deb: I think about underwear a lot when it comes to that. It’s always about the underpinnings, whether you see them or not. What’s underneath all of it. There are choices made there—the actor knows.

Lux: And shoes. How comfortable are their shoes? Because for me, that will dictate my entire day.

Dominique: It’s the details for me, the secret nuances between the breaths of the character. I always love to think about this. We are in the business of conducting tangible objects out of the observation and study of the human psyche. I honestly think when an actor runs across an intimate design secret on their costume and they connect it to the profile of their character, that’s what magic is. That moment when stillness and belief become one.

Lux: One of the things that’s so magical about working on a theatrical production is creating a story from nothing. You start with an empty theatre and by adding different design elements and actors, your audience is transported to a different place or time. Hopefully, if all the pieces come together, audiences experience a journey that leaves them entertained and possibly even transformed.

Deb: I would say we are transformative alchemists through tangibles and visuals.

My empathy is in high gear right now. The level of cultural competency I’ve had to reach as a costume designer to do all of the work I have done over the years has been a great boon, but it’s also been exhausting. Costume designers have such a heavy lift in understanding everybody else.

We’ve had this beautiful conversation about what it means to bring yourself and your artistry and your whimsy, determination, and ability to make something from nothing, yet I think about so many experiences I’ve had where I’ve had to just put myself away, to be like, “This play’s not about me.” My skills become separate from my personage, and I have a little bit of dissociation at that moment. Today it all came caving in like, “Oh my god, where am I and who am I when I’m alone?”

Dominique: That question is necessary. It sounds like you’re going into a whole new chapter of who you are because you used these identities as tools of survival, but quite frankly they are no longer serving you, thus the internal resistance. Ascension at its finest! I mean obviously your race and ethnicity plays a big part in who you are, and you should own this fully.

Lux: I think, for better or worse, we are always in our work. We collaborate on productions but our creative voices are present in all of the choices we make. None of us are interchangeable—we all have our unique approaches to storytelling—we just have to trust we’re there for a reason.

It will be interesting to look back at this point in our careers in twenty years and see whether or not this industry-wide pause brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will have resulted in a more introspective, impassioned approach to the projects we take on.

Deb: Certainly it’s made me a stronger communicator in the way that I am very aware of time. I have to be succinct with my language. I have to prepare more in advance so I’m using my time effectively. Although meetings for my projects have been shorter because of screen fatigue, they have increased in frequency, so I’m always on my toes because things are cycling more rapidly than they would in non-pandemic times.

Dominique: This time has taught me how to manage my own time and how to advocate for what I want and deserve. I think, as much as we can, it is imperative to check in within ourselves and ask, “Will this nourish my soul?” We seek so often outside validation but why? Singers sing with or without a stage, so no matter what, we need to design with or without a playbill.

I think, as much as we can, it is imperative to check in within ourselves and ask, “Will this nourish my soul?”

an actor onstage

Theatre Alliance's 2019 production of Klytemnestra: An Epic Slam Poem by Dane Figueroa Edidi. Directed by Danielle A. Drakes. Assistant Director Sisi Reid. Stage Managers Ayesis Clay and Ricky Ramon. Lighting Design by Niomi Collard. Costume and Scenic Design by Debra Kim Sivigny. Sound Design by Kenny Neal. Technical Director Chris Foote. Master Electrician Elliott Shugoll. Dramaturg Otis Ramsay-Zoe. Photo by Manaf Azzam.

Lux: We are so used to tackling projects given to us by others that it can feel jarring to ask ourselves, “What projects do I want to work on for myself?”

Dominique: Yeah.

Deb: I went through a personal artistic upheaval a few years ago when I wrote my own play. It meant giving myself permission to be the creator and the originator of the idea—which of course we do all the time as costume designers, but on what sometimes feels like a scale that is still controlled by other people. If there’s anything this time has taught me, it’s that we have to harness that agency to say, “This time is mine.” And I’m going to figure out who I still am without the parameters of the theatre we’ve been working in, without the scripts we’ve been given to do.

Lux: We limit ourselves by only sticking to the roles we’re comfortable in. We’re capable of so much more than we think. I have used this time to continue to work with my fellow collaborators in All My Relations Collective to create a new piece that looks at astronomy from an Indigenous perspective called GIZHIBAA GIIZHIG | Revolving Sky. We’re sharing leadership roles and blurring traditional departmental boundaries to create something that truly feels like it belongs to all of us. We didn’t wait to be offered the show, we took the initiative to create one that we wanted to be working on. It’s freeing to regain that creative agency.

Deb: We’re not less valid because we’re not actively working. I am watching a lot of my friends go through periods of depression, wondering, Where am I without my work? I fully understand that because I’ve been there—I continue to fight that own rut for myself. If I weren’t teaching students right now where would I be?

One thing I’ve regained in the pandemic is realizing my value as a thinker and as a thought leader for at least my own community, even on days when my thoughts are addled and messy. We let so much energy and worth circulate around our careers, and we need to remind ourselves that we’re worth so much more than what we do.

Dominique: I have a light question: What would you like your legacy to be when you leave this earth one day?

Deb: That I helped people to see the world differently, which could mean a bunch of different things. But I think that in all of my work, my goal is to help audiences and my fellow collaborators consider life from a different angle.

Dominique: I hope to help other souls recognize the rarity within themselves and to know that no matter what stage they’re at or on, they’re enough.

Lux: I hope my work inspires people to have confidence in their own creative voice and sparks curiosity in the world around them. Maybe someone will realize how much they have in common with someone on the other side of the planet, or get inspired to go out and see the world for themselves.

Dominique: How rad, in the end we all just want to help others.

But “we deserve more than what’s been offered to us” is about just being yourself and speaking out about what you need, and being okay with expressing your needs and your values in a way without fear.

Deb: Dominique I’ve heard you say this brilliant statement: “We deserve more than what’s been offered to us.” I think my life, my education, and my upbringing taught me to be small, to be accommodating, to be well liked. But “we deserve more than what’s been offered to us” is about just being yourself and speaking out about what you need, and being okay with expressing your needs and your values in a way without fear.

I’ve lived so much of my life and career around fear, so that made me think about what it means to step out and what it means to really be seen and heard.

Dominique: I think it starts with you asking yourself, Am I giving myself a phenomenal chance at everything I’ve felt I did not initially have the credentials for? Inevitably this stream of deep consciousness will lead you down a path of questions about self-love, validation, and life purpose. To be frank it can be grotesque and uncanny in terms of facing all of the times you did not deem yourself worthy, but once you get to the other side, you will find that you are so much more than the accolades.

You are abundant! You know that all along you were more than qualified to do any job that was called to you to do, because everything happens in its own divine timing. There’s no need for scarcity—the projects you have were meant for you to slay. We all prepped ourselves for every moment that is to come, so we can tap into the confident badasses we’ve always known we could be.

an actor onstage

Justin Gauthier and the Ensemble in Between Two Knees by the 1491s (Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan Redcorn, and Bobby Wilson) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Directed by Eric Ting. Scenic Design by Regina Garcia. Costume Design by Lux Haac. Lighting Design by Elizabeth Harper. Composition and Sound Design by Jake Rodriguez. Original Songs by Ryan Redcorn. Projection Design by Shawn Duan. Production Dramaturg Julie Felise Dubiner. Production Stage Manager Jill Rendall. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Deb: That’s a drop-the-mic kind of moment. Yes, I would like to be a badass.

Dominique: But you already are! I was talking to my friend the other day about our upcoming conversation, saying, “These people are really cool and they’re so in with the theatre community” and she was like, “Yea Dom, so are you, that’s why you are there.” And at that moment I had to check the glass ceiling I had built for myself. As an African American female, whenever I walk into a room I am hyper aware of my race, every time, period. But I have claimed that this is not an observation of ostracization but rather an observation of power.

I am growing to understand that life is about balance, and it is unfair to have your profession harness all of your wellness. Once you get still within yourself and remind yourself why you started in the first place, you will come to find your inner child, and that will lead you to learning about who you are as a person outside of design. In a way the pandemic allowed for me to have this point of view, and for that I am thankful.

Lux: If you only tie your creativity to work, when there is no work, what are you left with? We’re still artists when we’re not working. I think the three of us are good examples of that.

Thoughts from the curators

What would it mean to have a culture of justice in theatrical design? This week, we are uplifting the work of the design community, both on stage and off. This series aims to build a deeper understanding of what work is being done and engage in discussions around the impact of structural oppression on our communities, the social position of designers in the larger theatre industrial complex, the interconnectedness of artistry and advocacy, and strategies for co-creating a roadmap into the future. There’s a lot to cover. We’re not going to get to everything or everyone this time around. Luckily, this is only the beginning.

Design (in a Time of Reckoning)

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