PlayhouseSquare writer, Robin Pease, spoke with five time Tony nominee Paul Tazewell costume designer for FLASHDANCE THE MUSICAL. Tazewell has designed for Broadway shows Memphis, The Color Purple and In the Heights. Nationally, his work has been seen at the Metropolitan Opera and internationally for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the Kenyan productions of The Birds and Take Flight, and the story of Amelia Earhart, produced in Japan.
PEASE: You are from Akron! How did you get from there into costume design?
TAZWELL: (Laughs.) I am. BuchtelHigh School had a performing arts focus with at least two productions every year and an agreement with the University of Akron for interships. So I was exposed to a lot of theater that was above what most high schools were doing in the area. I originally wanted to be a performer, but there was another side of designing costumes and scenery that I enjoyed. I went to Pratt Insitute for a year. The idea was to audition for productions, study dance and singing, but with the culture shock of going from Akron, Ohio to New York City, after a year, I decided to transfer to North Carolina School of the Arts. I entered as a costume design major, then I went to NYU for my graduate degree.
PEASE: What’s your process for designing costumes?
TAZWELL: After reading the script, I find out the director’s concept of how they want to tell the story. Then, I research, go to my laptop and collection of books, read critical essays of the period. I put together two-dimensional images that speak to what our conversation has been saying about the production. From research, I start to draw it out, making sketches of all the different characters and thinking about qualities of fabric, what colors I want to use. Knowing how fabric is going to move in space; if they are costumes that are going to dance. Making choices if it needs to stretch or be light and fluffy or snappy, jazzy, hot and sexy. As I make the drawings, I take all these qualities into consideration. I am receptive of the period and create style lines that look 1920s or 1930s or whatever the show is. I end up with a stack of sketches that get painted. All these sketches are approved by the director and choreographer. Since the colors that I use will work in a specific way, I check in with the scene designer. But the design is just the beginning. We start working with a regional theater or shops where you bid the sketches out and get prices. I might have to redesign to make it a little less expensive or make it more theatrical because the design needs to fit within the parameters of what the budget will allow. Keep massaging the design until it all makes sense. When the cast is set, we get measurements and then shop for fabric, hats, shoes and clothing. If you’re building, there are drapers, dressmakers, tailors and mock-ups of the basic version of the design done to get the right fit on the actor’s body. There might be shifts in what the design is for that actor specifically, choices that feel right for the actor playing that role.
PEASE: So, you don’t just design the costume, you are in for the whole process from start of the design to the finished costume.
TAZWELL: Yes, I leave once the production is open. On a Broadway show or tour, if there are new people that go into a specific role, I might come in to recreate the same design. Or if it’s a celebrity, there might be a new design specific for that celebrity. Other than that, there are people that maintain the production. I might visit to make sure the design is holding up, but largely I’ve done what I’ve been contracted to do once the show has opened.
PEASE: What’s your favorite period for design?
TAZWELL: I prefer creating a full and abundant world of images, so I tend to do a lot of musicals, classics and opera. Pieces that are set in a period other than the contemporary world allows for more creative input.
PEASE: How many productions do you work on at once?
TAZWELL: I average three at a time, at different stages. I might be having coversations about one or two shows that are not happening for another year and another production happening in four months. Then there is a production that I am in tech for with previews tonight with another production starting up in a week and a half. A lot of scheduling goes on to make it all happen.
PEASE: Actors have agents. How does a costume designer find work?
TAZWELL: Directors. Sometimes the theaters know me and suggest my name, or I’ve worked with a director before and they ask for me. Keeping up contacts is the most important.
PEASE: The story of your mother putting food coloring on your high chair as your introduction to art, is that true?
TAZWELL: (Laughs.) It is true. From the age of three, I used to be fascinated with the boxes of food coloring and playing with them. It is why I was drawn to theater. I grew up being asthmatic and didn’t go out and run around with other kids. Because I spent a lot of time inside, my mother came up with activities to keep me busy. That’s how I learned to sew and draw. From a very early age, I was painting, playing and experiencing color.
PEASE: This is FLASHDANCE. Will we get to see any ripped sweatshirts?
TAZWELL: That’s still in there. There are certain things we had to hold on to. Loosely set in the ‘70s-‘80s, it’s not a wax replica of what that period is. We’ve kept it relatable, but not feeling it is a send up of the ‘70s show. We wanted parents feeling nostalgic for the film, but also to experience it new with their children. It was a film that was very close to my heart in high school, the aspiration to perform. Now to be designing it is wonderful. I hope you enjoy it.