The Pollitt family at the heart of Tennesee Williams' time-honoured drama, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is, to all appearances, a picture of wealth and tradition. Brought forward from the 1950s into contemporary times by director Kip Williams and his design team, this affluent family from America's Deep South still symbolises a bygone era of formality and finery.
Dressed for the evening of the family patriarch Big Daddy’s birthday by costume designer Mel Page, these characters wear costumes that are timeless, classic and striking.
In this interview, Mel provides great insight into her process as a designer, including first conversations, collaboration with actors and last-minute changes on stage.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is playing at Roslyn Packer Theatre until the 8th of June.
How do you prepare for a production as costume designer? What are those early conversations like, before you even reach the rehearsal room?
I begin by reading the play, then the director and I will have a meeting about it. This was the first time Kip Williams and I had worked together, so that collaboration was exciting in itself. Working with people over and over you often have a shorthand for how you talk about the play and the ideas within it, so when you work with someone new you're not just developing ideas, you’re developing a new language.
Our conversation went very well from the start. Kip and I had similar opinions on the play itself, and similar ideas about how the world of the play was going to look. The set designer David Fleischer and Kip had started talking about the show before I joined the conversation, so there was already a sense of where the set design was going. That often has great influence on me as a costume designer because usually the space creates a world that the clothes and the people inside them can then inhabit.
My next step was to bring references to Kip. These could be photographic portraits of people that remind me of Tennessee Williams’ characters, or have some connection to those characters. Or I might have seen an element of Big Mama’s character in something as specific as a fabric texture, or a dress with certain type of sleeves. Kip and I discussed what was most interesting within those references, and then from there I went on to do costume drawings.
In what direction did you decide to take the costumes for Cat and why?
Tennessee Williams’ characters are very relatable, yet there is also a whimsical, poetic feeling within his writing. I wanted to capture that feeling in the costumes. They have an epic quality, but are also familiar. As the play goes on, its world seems to fall apart and become increasingly dark, so I also tried to find a way to make the costumes go on a journey with the characters and with the writing.
To what extent do you work with the actors throughout your process?
I'm a collaborative costume designer, and quite open during the rehearsal process. The actors get to know their own characters so well and so deeply, and they have interesting thoughts and ideas about how that character might be portrayed, including what they might wear. The rehearsal process is really fun and interesting for me because of this.
So I'll do a drawing, often very sketchy and not particularly detailed, and then I'll talk to the actors about their character, and often find we have a very similar approach. Later we’ll have fittings, and that’s where you can really start to see the character’s style emerging; it’s also an opportunity to notice if something doesn't quite feel right. So you work together to create that character.
When I was at university at VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) in Melbourne, I had a lesson where the lecturer instructed half of the class to dress the other half. I found this an incredible lesson as a costume designer, because I realised what a strange thing it is to have somebody else dress you. Every day we consciously construct the way we want to present ourselves, and so to have somebody else do that for you is actually a very odd feeling. That's why it's so important to me that the actors feel happy and involved in what their costume is.
How much do actors work with their costume in the rehearsal room? In this show, for example, Nikki Shiels, who plays Mae, is heavily pregnant. The prosthetic belly becomes a big part of her performance, so how much does she need it in the rehearsal room?
It depends on the actor. Nikki, for example, was really keen to have the belly in rehearsals, but the maker of her costume also needed her belly at the same time, so there was a little bit of back and forth about who had the belly when! Especially when we do a full run of the play in the room, actors often like to have a few items of clothing, especially things that are practical, like shoes. Shoes are really important because they can really change the way you move. However some actors don't want anything until they come to the theatre, so that's another thing we talk about and establish in the rehearsals and fittings period.
When the actors come to the theatre and start wearing the costumes properly, do you make changes at that point as well?
Yes, sometimes. That's one of the fun things about my job, you create these characters individually, so when you get to the theatre you're seeing everything together for the first time, and costume pieces might not work together in the way that you thought they would. I like to have some options in the theatre. With Harry Greenwood, who plays Brick, we had a strong idea about his costume from the very beginning, and then somewhere in the rehearsal process it shifted for various reasons, and I provided other options. When we got to the theatre, however, we realised we needed to go back to the original idea.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 29 Apr – 8 Jun 2018, Rosyln Packer Theatre
Seeing the show? Pick up a souvenir play program from the Roslyn Packer Theatre foyer for $12, featuring in-depth articles, photographs and info about cast and creatives. You can pre-purchase program vouchers for $11 when booking your tickets. Season Ticket Holders can pre-purchase vouchers for $10 with their Season Ticket.
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