UofT Opera | In conversation with Costume Designer Lisa Magill
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In conversation with Costume Designer Lisa Magill

What drew you to become a costume designer?

In high school I had an interest in drama and theatre and so I went to York University. At York you have a common first year. So, you have your acting classes of course, but you also have theatre production classes. They make you do carpentry, and costumes and lighting – it’s wonderful! In my first couple of weeks at York I realized that I could combine the art thing with the drama thing and I went into production thinking that I was going to go into design. But it did take me two and a half years to find the costuming department. Initially I thought that I was going to be a lighting designer, until I realized that I didn’t really like or understand it! I struggled with it so hard and I realized that I loved creating these wonderful environments but I had no idea how to go about it – it wasn’t natural for me. So they forced me to do a costuming crew, and I was the head of wardrobe. I walked in and thought “oh!”.

And was sewing new at that point? Did you sew as a kid?

Not really – I may have made a dress at some point as a kid but my sister was more interested in cooking and sewing and the rest of it; naturally I rebounded back into things that had to do with carpentry, lighting…we thought that we couldn’t encroach on the other person’s hobbies without it being a “taking away” thing. So it took me a while to give myself permission to go into the world of sewing. Part of it was easier because she had already left that behind and was already ensconced in her cake decorating and baking.

And now you’ve come full circle and teach at York! What lead you to teaching?

After going through my time there I was away for 8 years. Then they realized they needed someone to teach the first years their basic skills, so I went back and have been teaching ever since!  It’s a fantastic thing to do because they are all at that same point I was at. They’re showing up thinking that they are going to go into acting, and I’m really interested in giving them other options! I try to be as positive and encouraging as I can and make the actual doing of the stuff – the hands on experience of it – less intimidating. I teach the sewing machine with safety first, obviously, but without any terrifying messages about sewing through your hand! I try to make it friendly and interactive for them!

I also have a huge respect for people who can stick it out on the other side of the table. Knowing that if you decide to go into performance art you’ll get rejected a lot of times for your height, or for a thousand things that you have no control over. I knew early on that I couldn’t handle that. I have a lot of respect for people who can shake off the bad stuff and move forward and know what they want – I think that’s amazing.

So right now you’re designing for UofTOpera’s production of Paul Bunyan. This is a remount of our 1998 production, but with new costumes. How does this differ from designing for a new production?

We are 18 years on from the last time that they did this. There are a number of things in costume storage that have not disintegrated in those 18 years. For instance, we have a decent amount of plaid left over!  But over the course of that time things wander – we use them in other shows, we chop them up and repurpose them into other things. A lot of the stuff that was here before isn’t around any more. Watching the 1998 video I loved a lot of it, for instance putting the cooks in orange and green. But I liked the idea of playing with the cats and dog in a different way, as well as the geese. I’m playing with how to do those things a bit differently.

It’s difficult because when you see a finished production that you’re going to be recreating later, it’s hard to know when you’re trying to do something different because it’ll be better, and when you’re trying to do something different for the sake of being different. So I have to look at things objectively and think “ok, no! that was perfectly acceptable, I don’t have any better ideas, so we’re going to do it that way”. You want to put your own stamp on things but you have to accept when there isn’t a better way to go and they did a brilliant job the first time!

Have there been any specific challenges so far?

Initially I thought the size of the show would be a challenge but when I sit down and look at some of the other shows that we do or I have done for other places, there are just as many people in those as well. After that the trick was knowing about the quick changes and making them not impossible!

What about costuming opera in general? Is there a difference between costume for opera instead of theatre or dance?

In a way costuming for opera is easier and harder at the same time. It’s all about the voice and it’s all about the breath. So before you meet someone for the first time you don’t know if they’re going to be ok with you cinching them into a corset. Maybe they want no pressure at all. Most singers I run into don’t mind – they like something to push against –  but you can’t be sure. So when you’re designing costumes sometimes you know you can shape a person, and sometimes its hands off. With regular straight theatre for the most part you can do whatever you want.  But with dance it’s similar, they need to be able to move…so those are the obstacles.

The other thing about opera in Macmillan Theatre is scale. We have an enormous amount of space and we have the distance over the orchestra pit. I can make costumes that have enormous presence to them that can be seen from a distance. At the same time you don’t want to go too small with all of your trim and detail work because it’s not going to read. Keeping that in mind you get a lot of leeway with that jump over the orchestra pit . That is the biggest difference for me in designing opera. It’s great for Paul Bunyan because we have such a large cast and can really fill up that space. I just have to make it look pretty! So plaid, plaid, plaid! We’re loading the stage up with colour because it’s such a light, fun show!

Do you have a favourite opera you’ve ever designed for?

I do prefer comedies to dramas almost every time.  I like  a bit of glitz. Don Pasquale was a lot of fun, because I hadn’t done 1950s before and working with crinolines was great.

Perhaps I’ll say that one of my favourites is The Art of the Prima Donna which is coming up shortly (Friday April 1 @ 5pm in Walter Hall). I love it from a customer’s perspective because we are working with an 1850’s line which is something I haven’t been able to play with before. It’s also opera’s greatest hits and you’re hearing this wonderful array of powerful and moving music!  Everyone looks and sounds great and it’s a wonderful show! You should come and see it!!

All of us at UofT Opera are on the verge of stepping out into the real world on our own as young artists. It really is universal, regardless of the kind of art you create! What would you tell your past self if you could about that transition?
It’s worse than puberty, that moment! It sounds a bit trite, but hang in there, because that first year is almost always really hard. I reached a moment about a year in where I started to despair in my choices. And I started to think “how am I going to make a career out of this?”. But it’s supposed to be hard at this point because you’re still making your reputation. And in the arts that is critical.  Your reputation is everything and you need to work to build it. So even though it sounds horrible, it will get better, every show you do and every person you meet! That is my bit of advice. Don’t despair! The great part about it is that you aren’t in school any more and your schedule is totally freed up!

 For the 2015 – 16 season, Lisa Magill has created he costumes for The Medium/The Telephone and the Art of the Prima Donna, and recreated Paul Bunyan.