What They'd Wear Today: An Interview with Ilona Somogyi

Award-winning costume designer Ilona Somogyi’s work spans the globe from New York to Oslo to Chicago and now back to Boston. As rehearsals began on this production of Romeo and Juliet, she sat down with Literary Associate J. Sebastián Alberdi to talk about the work that went into modernizing classic character costumes and designing emotionally and theatrically rich story moments informed by the outfits.

What initially attracted you to this telling of Romeo and Juliet?
I was very interested in doing a modern telling of Romeo and Juliet where the people are actually mirroring our own present-day world and the seemingly irrational ways we are divided from one another — making bitter foes of our neighbors.

How has designing for this show been different (or similar) from other shows you’ve worked on?
When designing a modern dress production, you know you will be shopping for and purchasing most of it, therefore you need to approach the design with a lot of flexibility. You may not find what you were imagining, or perhaps the looks you’ve chosen won’t suit the actor. You need to be able to be resilient and quick-thinking so that you can find alternate looks that work just as well in place of your original intentions. Very frequently costume designers don’t create sketches for modern dress productions. I choose to sketch because I feel it lends clarity to the costume staff and the actors and allows a smoother process as any differences in approach — for example, if an actor really feels differently about their character — can be addressed early in the process. The sketches I do for a project like this are quick and gestural just indicating a direction and character without the clean lines and details you would need if you were designing something that is being built from scratch. Most importantly, I started with the actors when I designed this production. I received Peter’s casting, then did some visual research on them, moving past their headshots — how do they stand, how do they dress themselves. When I understand who they are, I can design looks for them that will serve both the character and the actor.

What is your approach to designing costumes?
I consider myself a storyteller — I aim for clarity; creating designs that help round out the world of the production and help the audience follow the story and the path of the characters. I start each design job by reading the script, sometimes multiple times then begin talking with the director and designers and collaborators to discuss underlying concepts, the type of world we’re creating, the levels of society within it. Then as the costume designer I go about ‘finding’ the people who will inhabit the play through research and begin to sketch when I feel I have a strong enough grasp of it. The biggest part of the job begins after the ‘design phase’ is complete — the sketches are done, but then every single item of clothing needs to made or selected, and then fit on the actor. It’s not enough to have ideas and draw pictures, a costume designer must be all-in during the build. I really love the process of working with the costume makers and staff. They are vital collaborators.

What are the costumes like? How are they informed by the world of the play?
These costumes are the clothes of wealthy, successful people. There is a prominent ruling family, the House of Escalus — with the Prince, Paris, and Mercutio as family members — they wear current, well-cut suits. The Capulets and Montagues are on the same social strata, but they have different styles. Within each family are individual levels of status, which is reflected in what those folks wear.

Where did you draw inspiration for the costumes?
This involved looking a lot atthe current social scene in different part of the ‘first world.’ The Kardashians, the Kushners both provided directions.The famous ball scene in Romeo and Juliet is rife with opportunity to play with costume; how didyou approach the design for this scene and how does it informthe scene?Peter DuBois had suggested that the party have guests dress up as animals — and I felt I could work with that. It’s a high society party so people wouldn’t come in cheap costumes, but instead would wear party clothes and incorporate clever elements that would suggest animals. By using animals, we could send subtle messages about the characters; Paris and the Prince are both birds of prey. The Capulets are cats, Tybalt is a wolf… there’s room for humor as well. The big idea that came from the animal masquerade is that Romeo and Juliet both decided to come as doves — which is of course a metaphor for peace. Romeo’s dove is more tongue-in-cheek than Juliet’s, but their sudden falling in love at first sight is supported by this idea — they are untarnished and pure in a sea of colors and sequins.

Is there a costume you’re particularly excited to see on stage?
I am excited to see the dove costumes come together. There are puppetry elements involved, so it’s super complicated and tricky to get right — but has the potential to be a lovely, poetic moment.




All costume sketches by Ilona Somogyi

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