An Interview with Costume Director Nancy Brennan

Nancy Brennan has been the costume director at the Huntington since 2005. In recent years, she's done double duty, also serving as Maria Aitken's costume designer on Educating Rita in 2011 and the upcoming Betrayal. Early in the design process, she sat down with the Huntington's Charles Haugland (Artistic Programs & Dramaturgy) to discuss her process and history as a designer.

Charles Haugland: Tell me about working with Maria Aitken as a director.

Nancy Brennan: Betrayal is the fourth show I’ve done with Maria. I designed the costumes for Educating Rita, and the costume shop and I worked with her on Private Lives and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Maria is great to work with because she is smart, clever, and decisive. She knows what she wants and is very good at communicating with her designers. Because Maria has also been an actor, she always has the actors’ needs in mind, as well.

What are some of the questions you were considering when approaching Betrayal?

One of Maria’s strengths as a director is the way she keeps the action of the play moving forward. For costumes, this means that we need to start thinking about the transitions and the costume changes right from the beginning of the design process, because all of the elements are involved — scenery, lights, and sound. We also looked at how costumes would help show the passage of time; the play is a series of scenes set between 1968 and 1977. How do we see the changes in the seasons? The evolution of the characters?

From where do you draw inspiration?

Everything starts with the script. Because Maria lived in London during the period of this play, she had a lot of useful information from her own experience. In our first design meeting, Maria suggested names of people who were living in London at the time, such as Peter O’Toole and Sian Phillips, whose look would be appropriate for our characters. I’m reading books about them, which gives me some insight into what it was like to be an artist at that time and in that place. Then I started poring over magazines, photos, films, and other books from that period.

What’s next?

I’ll start with hundreds of images, which I will edit down to a collection of a few dozen for each character. In photos, I’m looking for pattern and color, a particular silhouette, a particular cut or fit that I think suits each character. 1970 may not seem like a “period piece” to many people, but it is, and you really need to go back and look at it all again. Maria will go through the research with me and respond to my choices, tell me what she likes and what she doesn’t. Then I’ll do a set of sketches for her approval.

What is it like to be both costume director and the designer on a particular show? Is your technical skill and knowledge an advantage?

I always find it helpful when designers understand something about costume construction, but I don’t think every designer needs to be able to make the dress or know how to sew. A costume designer has to be able to speak the language: to know what fabric does and how to tell the drapers what you need. I find it helpful to me that I know where the zipper should go or how the grain of the fabric should be placed.

What led you to costume design?

It was a bit of an accident. I took a Theatre Appreciation class at Purdue University, where I was a textiles major. As a course requirement, I needed to volunteer in the theatre department, so I chose the costume shop. Right away, I felt that I belonged there, and on my second day, they offered me a job! I thought, “This is great, now I can stop working in the cafeteria!” Costuming combines my love of textiles, clothing and historical dress, and I love the variety, the pace, and the collaborative nature of theatre work. It’s the perfect medium for me.

What’s the best part of working at the Huntington?

It’s very important that I acknowledge that I could not do this without our costume shop. We have an exceptional group of highly skilled and artistic craftspeople here at the Huntington. This is a great place to design because the shop can produce anything I can dream up. And it’s really a lot of fun for me to get to work with them in a different capacity.

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