How do you make the old new again? In the world of theater, reinvention and revival are commonplace but how do productions rephrase history while staying current? Enter: Izumi Inaba. With a repertoire of costume designs under her belt, Inaba is an expert at reducing, reusing and recycling without compromising innovation or originality. Her designs for Steppenwolf’s “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” showcase her attention to detail and abstraction of well-known themes.
How did you get started in costume design?
My first interest was performing arts. I was going to dance when I grew up. I wanted to be a dancer. But in the schools in Japan you can’t really learn dance as an academic subject. I liked the English language and the culture of this country, so I wanted to come here to live and also study dance. But when I went to college, they offered me other electives and I got into designing.
For a show like “Miz Martha” how does your creative process begin?
The first thing is always reading the script. With this script especially, I was very scared to express my feelings because it’s about history and African-American slavery, but it’s also very funny. In order to execute the design process, I went through both the historical and more contemporary research. The script made me imagine that this show wants to be very current about the outfits. So I looked at couture images, superhero costumes and a lot of cartoons. But you know their base, their slave clothing, is wholly opposite. People used to have only one or two garments. They didn’t have anything else and I got to learn how they made their own clothing. If you look at a historical picture of slaves in the cotton fields, you see the same patterns on different parts of their garments. They probably used the same fabric to make different things but they also had very limited fabric choices and brought together what they could afford or recycle. And then there are these imaginary, historical figures that have a very cartoonish, fast-fashion feeling. A little bit trashy sometimes, reflecting American consumerism right now. You know: the bigger the better, colorful, attractive, but it means nothing.
How do you maintain the accuracy and familiarity of historical characters while still adding something new?
I’ve done a handful of shows based in history but which also have a contemporary feeling. It’s a spectrum, there’s either straight period costume or totally new. I like merging somewhere in between. It can be perfectly married in the middle. Or in some productions, the silhouette and the fabric choices might be more toward period but the small pieces are modern. And then on the other end of the spectrum, the goal is to use totally contemporary pieces that try to create the silhouette. The easiest example is the women’s dress: people wore long dresses and as long as they look like remnants from the past, there are many opportunities to create something new. So even though I’m doing my fourth straight period piece, I always enjoy them because they’re presented to a contemporary audience. So I want to find something that we can relate to in a costume.
You have to make a fair number of costumes for each character. How do you keep the visual consistency without disregarding the character’s individuality?
Characters’ individuality comes first. If that character is in different scenes with other people on stage, I make a little plot with the character on the vertical side and the scenes on the horizontal. Then I put when they’re in the same scene and I put my colored sketches in those cells and see if the colors are not overlapping or they’re not wearing similar items. Sometimes I go back and forth with my sketching in the coloring process and making sure colors are not distracting.
How do costumes contribute to storytelling?
Sometimes it’s required in a script. But other times, I inspire the team. Costume design is not just myself but also working with scenic, lighting and sound designers. So I want to make sure that my costume makes sense to them as well as the director. When I present my design I also want to inspire the actors. Actors usually get very excited to see what they wear and some of them bring a different take on the character. Sometimes the design changes and goes in a totally different direction. But I like that it’s a personal relationship, so I can make sure that each actor feels right in their costumes. I think it has an influence on actors, too. I always want to think about the arc of the play and of each character, so the journey of each character is seamless.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
It starts with finding a piece of research image or picture or painting that feels right for the play. In the design process, I’ll talk to the director and we’ll share our feelings. Most directors will ask me “Do you know this movie?” or “Have you seen this TV show?” I look them up and I’m like, “Oh okay, so this is the feeling that the director has spoken about.” So I’ll go deeper in that direction, do more research and try to find the pieces. If the director shows me this picture, I will take small details and then bring other elements to create a similar feeling to what they’re asking for, in terms of shape and colors. This is the most fun for me. The design process is like breaking down elements like lines, values and textures. What’s exciting in theater is you get to do it on real people and see it in real time.
Where did you find inspiration for your upcoming show?
It started with our director, Whitney [White]. We had a coffee chat and talked about what each scene feels like. I also had initial images for each character: this character kind of feels like this and she responds to each image like, “Yes. this is the one” or “This is a little different.” We exchanged information and then I went back and did more research based on what she liked and what she suggested. Then I started sketching my ideas. I showed those sketches to her and then eventually the color. Within that process, I got to see set designers’ model pictures and those were very different than what I was imagining. It’s very cut to the core, it doesn’t have any unnecessary elements to it. It’s very simple, but it creates an environment that works for the whole play even though they have different scenes and it goes to weird places. So I thought my costume design also has to live in that. This set design allows you to make the character live in many different ways. So I tried to give a base. I looked at historical pictures of George Washington’s time and at the dresses in the south and southern belles. But to give some twists, we combined new contemporary elements: adding different hair colors and platform boots. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s very fun.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Steppenwolf’s production of “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” has been postponed to the 2021/22 season.