This week we had the privilege of interviewing New York-based Costume Designer Tracy Christensen. Her most recent credit is every costume designer’s dream: the high-profile revival of “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard” starring Glenn Close, who reprises her role as Norma Desmond 22 years after the original production.
Christensen talks in detail about her knowledge of the craft, her creative process and her experiences in such a diverse career, covering Broadway musicals, plays, live concerts and film, both in the US and in the West End in London.
Costume Designer Tracy Christensen: An Interview
Having worked on revivals of iconic works by authors such as Sondheim and Shakespeare and also having created costumes for original plays, how does your approach differ when you create something from conception or re-imagine it?
It’s funny because the approach can actually be the same. It’s important to me to start at zero with each show I design and try to not be influenced by what has been done in the past. I avoid looking at images from previous productions of already existing shows because then I’m not sure if my ideas are mine or something I’ve unconsciously lifted from seeing other people’s work. However, the great fun of designing something completely new and original is that no one else is coming in with preconceived notions of what “should” be on stage. Generating a brand new set of ideas for characters that have never been seen before is a thrill and very satisfying.
For the current revival of “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard”, how did you start the process of designing your own costumes while still keeping the original costumes by Anthony Powell as a reference?
This was such a challenge! I remember when the original production of “Sunset Boulevard” was in Barbara Matera’s costume shop because I was there working as an assistant on “Beauty and the Beast”, but I had never seen the show live. After I watched the show on video at Lincoln Center, (director) Lonny Price and I went to Glenn’s home to meet with her. She took us to her amazing storage facility where every costume, shoe and hat she has ever worn in a show or movie is kept, and there, as if waiting for us to invite them back to the stage, were her costumes from 1992 – perfectly preserved in all their glory. I almost started crying – I felt like the spirit of Barbara Matera was there with us – her execution of Anthony Powell’s designs was so extraordinary. We don’t see costumes like that anymore. I got a big look at what Anthony had done to create this incredible wardrobe, then actually met with him in London to discuss this project, and finally started to spin the rest of the design around the centerpiece of the original Norma Desmond costumes. My color work for the show is such that only specific people and things stand out as part of Joe’s memory, with Norma being the most vivid and clear. Her costumes have nothing to compete with – I think it works very nicely.
What were the main costume changes from when “Sunset Boulevard” was staged in London by the English National Opera to its Broadway revival?
When we came to Broadway, Glenn asked for me to design some additional looks for her to wear in act one. I had to delve deeper into the Norma Desmond mindset to come up with some at home looks that could blend into that incredible wardrobe. No small feat! I had only a fraction of the time and money that were originally spent on the original costumes, meaning that I had to be very crafty and clever with my fabric choices so that the new clothing didn’t stand out from the rest of the collection. Katherine Marshall at Tricorne costumes was the maker for these new pieces and since she had worked on Glenn’s costumes back in the 90’s at Matera’s, she was the perfect collaborator. In terms of the rest of the show, I was able to make smarter color choices now that I know what the lighting is like for each scene, and I also was able to finesse and replace a few things for a more cohesive look.
When you have the opportunity to dress a character such as Norma Desmond, who defines herself by her appearance, how do you find the connection between her costumes and her state of mind?
We all dress for what we want, and Norma is no exception. Her journey through this show is tremendous and tragic and it was important to consider how memory plays into her choices of clothing, hair and make up. Director Lonny Price brilliantly guides our audiences to understand that the spectre of Norma as a young star in the 1920’s is a powerful motivator for how Norma looks and behaves in 1949. We moved away from all the turbans originally used on Norma and developed some great storytelling with hairstyles and make up. As the play moves forward and things being to spiral downwards for Norma mentally, she reverts further and further back to how she remembers looking when she was a young star. Glenn’s genius hair and make up designers, Andrew Simonin and Charlotte Hayward, worked tirelessly with us in London to finesse the transitions Norma makes towards madness.
Working with a professional of the caliber of Glenn Close and her own attention to detail and specificity in her work, how collaborative would you say the process was?
100%!! It was so awesome to discover that Glenn is a true collaborator and not interested in simply recreating her role from 20+ years ago. She is a true professional – respectful of the process, joyful in the development, tremendously attentive to the smallest details and very in tune with her body. She could have rolled in with her existing costumes and just dictated how things were going to be. Instead, she offered herself and her costumes to the production with the expectation of transformation and change – this literally could not have been more perfectly handled on her end and allowed all of us to bring this show to audiences with a fresh and exciting new perspective.
How do you know when you have reached the point in which your choices feel right and no changes need to be made? How does that moment come about?
It never really does. Live theater is an organic creation and changes will always need to be made. It would not surprise me in the least to get a call weeks or months into the run of “Sunset Boulevard” from anyone on the creative team or from wardrobe with a request from an actor – things evolve! But in terms of knowing that your ideas feel right, I think that happens little by little as you work your way through the process of creation to being on stage. What looks great in the fitting room can be not great under lights on the set, or may not be great for the action the performers need to do. I will say that for me, something clicks at the moment I see that what I’ve done is going to actually be in the right direction and not a disaster… I always feel like I’m one step away from everyone discovering that I don’t know what I’m doing… Does everybody feel that way?
When you work on a specific play or musical, with all the proximity to the material and your involvement, is it still possible to watch the actual show and immerse yourself without focusing on the technical elements?
That’s tough. I think I will always be present to design and technical elements when I watch the show but there are parts of it where I suddenly realize that I have just enjoyed a number or a moment without concerning myself with costume related thoughts. It’s a wonderful thing to experience the show with the audience because they are totally immersed and present to everything as it’s happening with no anticipation of what is next. That’s helpful to me and raises my enjoyment of watching without holding my breath over some costume change or trick.
How did you first hear of Manhattan Wardrobe Supply and how did your relationship with the store evolve through the years?
I first heard of MWS back in 1999 when I got hired on a Chris Rock film as the assistant costume designer. The wardrobe supervisor brought me along to grab costumes for extras (MWS had a stock of costumes for rent then) and I realized what a great resource this place was. Over the years, the expansion of what MWS offers has grown to the point where designers are just as well served as wardrobe departments so I’ve come to purchase lots of things here and have directed many others to the website as I work around the country and even the globe. I am always amazed when I roam the aisles as to what all is here – it’s like being a kid in a candy store. I find all kinds of things I “need” or just feel cool owning.
Thank you, Tracy!
And here are a few products that we think fit into that category:
Fischbach & Miller “Gloria” Opera Hairpins
Fischbach & Miller Wigmaker Tool Kit
Wooden Hat Stretcher