Art Talk with Costume Designer Deb Sivigny

By Rebecca Sutton
Woman with side part looking into camera

Deb Sivigny. Photo courtesy of the artist

Deb Sivigny claims that unlike many costume designers, she didn’t come to the art form through fashion—that in fact, she was a “very bad” dresser in college.

You’d never know it from looking at her work. Whether inspired by British punk, anime, arctic landscapes, or Elizabethan England, Sivigny’s creations are imaginative, clever, and sometimes simply breathtaking. Although Sivigny described her work as “whimsical—one might call it crazy,” her costumes make brilliant sense within the context of the show she is designing. She is meticulous about creating costumes that fit the mood and setting of a play, conducting extensive historical and visual research. But equally important to Sivigny is that she reflect each character’s persona, and she frequently interviews actors in character to determine what their color preferences, personal styles, and general attitudes might be. It is yet another way to create a cohesive framework for audience members, as well as help actors fully embrace their roles.

Although most of Sivigny’s career has been dedicated to costume and scenic design, she also recently tried her hand at writing. Her first show, Hello, My Name Is…, was inspired by Sivigny’s experience growing up as a Korean adoptee in Connecticut, and her travels as an adult to explore her birth country. The play will run from October 19 through November 19 at Rhizome DC in Washington. A member of the Welders, a DC playwright collective, Sivigny recently spoke with us about her creative process, what makes a good costume, and her first foray into playwriting.

NEA: How did you become interested in designing for the theater?

DEB SIVIGNY: From my childhood, I'd been drawing, painting, making weird murals out of paper. I was obsessed with origami as a kid, constantly doing paper crafts. I worked with my hands my whole life; I'd also been sewing since I was nine. When I got to college, I got into the work study program. I started working in the costume shop and met some upperclassmen who were design majors in the theater department. I had no idea this was a thing. It combined my love of history and language and art and fashion. Ironically, I was not interested in fashion whatsoever—I was actually a very bad dresser in college.

NEA: Many of the shows you've designed are specific to either certain time or place. How do you balance the research and factual accuracy with letting your imagination run wild?

SIVIGNY: I love research—going down the rabbit hole and reading books about the plays I'm working on. Back in undergrad, I did a play on Ted Tally’s Terra Nova. It was about Robert Scott's Antarctic expedition. I was obsessed. I read all these books about the Antarctic expedition, and where [the explorers] all died. Every book written had five pictures—these same five pictures in a lot of the books. I took that as a jumping off point and started looking at Antarctic landscapes. Mind you, I'm designing the costumes—this had nothing to do with the environment. But I looked at the entire world and tried to understand what it was psychologically that these men were experiencing. So I love researching until I feel fully immersed inside of whatever that world requires.

By then, something in my mind just flips and I'm like, “Okay, I'm done.” I store it all away in my brain and then I start drawing. That's where I start discovering that maybe the Antarctic landscape is the thing informing the color and the costumes, even if that wasn't entirely historically accurate. Is it something that feeds the mood of the play in a different way? Some plays are definitely historical and they are in their place. Then it's all about being as true to life as possible. But for me, I think the flip happens in being true to the characters in the play itself. That's the jumping off point for the playwright as well. They are reinterpreting these characters, maybe using words that they actually said if it’s historical, or maybe not. That's where I feel I can take some liberty to think this particular character—even if we're in the 1880s—might wear her bodice this way, and she made these colors choices on this day. I tend to really get into the psychology of the characters I'm designing for, and try to make the choices that they would make.

A character in a play dressed in white with white wings

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman/Robert Kauzlaric, produced by Rorschach Theatre 2013, costume design by Debra Kim Sivigny. Photo courtesy of Debra Kim Sivigny

NEA: Let’s talk more about that. I know that part of your process involves working with actors to learn more about their character. Can you tell me more about how that works?

SIVIGNY: I love working with actors. I love designing, knowing who the actor is. I don't have that luxury all the time—some things I'm working on are years in advance and casting hasn't been finished yet. But I love knowing at least the type we're going for in [terms of] conception of character. But the biggest luxury is actually being able to sit down with the actor and talk to them about their interpretation of the character. Often, I end up redesigning. If I designed one thing and I go into rehearsals or design run and the actor's doing something completely different, I have been known to turn a 180 and redesign a costume or a series of costumes to really complement what the actor's doing. Because if I create something that fights them tooth and nail, it's just not going to work. It will never work. They are stuck with whatever choices I've made for weeks and weeks, where they have to do the hard work of embodying that character. So if they're not fully believable, I have not done my job. It's critical to me that my work in making psychological choices through the clothing goes hand-in-hand with the choices the actor's making.

NEA: So it sounds like you’re inspired by actors, by research, by photographs. Is there anywhere else that you find yourself turning for inspiration?

SIVIGNY: Everywhere. It sounds really generic, but I really am just inspired by getting outside and seeing things that are not my everyday familiar. I'm very familiar with my home, very familiar with my work space. But if I can get outside and take a walk on trails that are not familiar, or even if they are, the trees will look different on a given day. I'm kind of always looking up. I'm constantly looking up at the sky as inspiration, like clouds. I’m a big cloud-watcher. Never in times that it's convenient—it's not like I have time to lie out in a field and look at the clouds. But if I'm walking, I tend to gaze up. Or if I'm in a car being driven by someone else, I'm constantly looking up. I'm constantly thinking, I'm constantly crunching information. I have a very hard time turning off my mind. I also love museum-hopping and I love travel. Every time I travel, I don't spend my time relaxing. I spend it pounding the pavement, seeing everything I possibly can. I've had the luxury of being able to travel through Asia a bunch—my husband grew up there, and I've been exploring my roots there as well. Just going out and hearing the cityscape—different timbres of honking cars and hearing a different language—I'm just trying to take it all in all the time.

NEA: How does your creative process differ between your writing your costume design and your scenic design?

SIVIGNY: Writing is a relatively new medium for me. The way that I think about scenery and the way that I'm thinking about writing actually go hand-in-hand. The project that I'm putting together is in some ways scenery first. I've been writing essentially really detailed stage directions, really detailed descriptions of rooms and how they feel.

I have more experience as a costume designer. I tend to think about psychology a lot. In some ways for me, costume design is 85 percent psychology and 15 percent aesthetics. I think far too much. So it starts with the body and how the body views the world.

When I think about scenery, I tend to go world first. After I’ve figured out what is happening in the environment of said play and what the needs of that world are, then I go back to the small and I put myself in the brain of the characters that are inhabiting the world. I try to create touchstones for the actors to be able to relate to that world. This happens even in the most abstract of scenery that I've created. I think design is an enhancer, and it can really help the performer believe in their world. So I try to find the way that the performer has something in the world that is theirs that they can claim, even if it's a delineation of a tiny space and it's their space, or if it's prop that they connect to. I tend to think of it pretty holistically, and I tend to go back and forth from the macro to the micro.

A burlap crown with purple hair glued to it like bangs

Puck's crown from A Midsummer Night's Dream, produced by WSC Avant Bard 2016, and conceived and created by Debra Kim Sivigny. Photo courtesy of Debra Kim Sivigny

NEA: Your upcoming play Hello My Name Is… is partly autobiographical. What has it been like to create a piece of theater that is in many ways much more personal than your usual work?

SIVIGNY: My running joke with the Welders is when I can talk about this piece without crying, I'll have won. I am getting better, because I'm having to talk about it a lot now. But I know on that first day of rehearsal I'm going to get in front of the cast and start weeping again.

It’s not completely autobiographical. The story is loosely based in experiences that I've had, but none of the characters is me directly, and none of the characters are people that I know directly. It's the combined stories of many, many adoptees that I've met over the past two-and-a-half years. It's a whole world that I've just started to scratch the surface of. I find myself going back and forth between reading very fact-based dissertations and books on the subject and then reading very personal accounts of peoples' experiences of being born in hospitals and abandoned by birth parents and they're harrowing and awful. I write all that down. Then I get back into my own file, and I think about my own experience and I'm like, “Oh my God I can't take it!” So I've had to go back and forth of being objective and taking myself out of it in order to get through it and understand it.

But again, it's been that outside/inside relationship. I'm researching what the outsides of these rooms and spaces are like, and then I'm imagining what it's like for the actor to experience it. But then I'm also thinking about how the audience will experience it, because it's going to be a really small audience with every performance. I think we're going to put about 15 people in per show. So it will be a very intimate—the actors will look you in the eyes, they'll give you food, they might talk to you. I'm trying to figure out the level of interaction.

NEA: Has it been fun?

SIVIGNY: It goes back and forth between being totally exhilarating and awesome and then being reduced to a puddle of anxiety. I think one of the most exciting things is this experimentation of what happens when a designer takes the helm. Randy, my husband [who is directing the show]—we have worked on multiple projects together, usually as director and designer. While we're still working as director and designer, I will have much more aesthetic clout—the piece in my hands in terms of collaborating with him. So it's a slightly different relationship between director and designer.

NEA: What do you think makes a good costume both aesthetically and also technically?

SIVIGNY: For me, it begins with silhouettes. It starts from the body and how the costume creates a distinctive silhouette that’s immediately recognizable, or at least draws you in in some way because it’s familiar or it’s so intriguing that you can't not look at it. But after that, it's about the combination of pieces and parts looking like they're effortlessly put together. A costume should never look like you tried too hard to put it together. The pieces feel natural. Even though it does make that first impact, you realize that it fits the character and everything is flowing together. Eventually you see the actors' performance and you forget about the costumes—for me that's a measure of success. I never like to design a costume that says, "Look at me! You cannot look at anything else and I will be the star!" The costume should never be wearing the actor. It wants to remain accessible no matter how weird. I've designed some pretty weird stuff over the years, but the weird has to seem normal on the actor and in the context of the play.

Woman at stall filled with plastic dolls

Trojan Barbie by Christine Evans, Georgetown University 2015. Set design by Debra Kim Sivigny. Photo courtesy of Debra Kim Sivigny

NEA: Are there any myths about theater design that you would like to dispel, or something you'd like to tell readers that they might not know about designing for the theater?

SIVIGNY: It's not glamorous, certainly. It's really hard work. It's impossible to be an expert on anything going in—that's what research is for. Here's a good example: if someone hires me to do an Asian-subjected play—which happens a lot, being an Asian designer—that would be in conflict with being adopted and growing up with a Taiwanese parent and a white parent in rural Connecticut. So if I’m hired to do an Asian play, I have to immerse myself in research. In some ways I feel like I have to immerse myself in more research because people expect me to be the expert simply because of how I look. And I am not. I can tell you a lot about many Asian cultures, because I have read numerous books and autobiographies and have done my homework. But I have to do that with everything that I do.

So I think sometimes what's on the outside is not what's on the inside. In that way, designers have to love digging deep. There's no such thing as surface-level design—I mean there is, but it's bad. It can be very lonely work. Lots of hours spent reading scripts and being at the studio drawing table and hashing out ideas in your own head before you get into a room. By that point, I'm ready to explode because I'm like, “Oh my gosh, people! I need to talk about all the things I've learned! It's amazing!” Those are the moments that I enjoy the most. But if I don't do my homework, then it's really quite embarrassing. It just takes an enormous amount of prep to be a viable person in the room.

NEA: What would be your dream play or world to design?

SIVIGNY: I would love to create a play or an experience where it was so immersive you weren't even sure what was your life and what was this sort of fantasy world. Even though you as an audience member, maybe of one, you might be aware of, “I am experiencing something as I walk out my apartment door and suddenly my car is pink and covered in blue dots, but it's still my car.” And you get in your car, and music plays. You go throughout your day, but it's this enhanced theatrical experience. It would be sort of awesome to create an experience that gave you an alternate universe of your own life. It would have to be meticulously researched—to the point of stalker-level—which is why this is impossible.

I was reading a bunch of grant proposals this morning for a committee I'm serving on, and almost every single application used the word "immersive." It's hard for me, because what I'm doing this fall is immersive, but now the word is being bandied about too much. It's defined in so many ways by so many different people. It's become a buzz word, and it makes me jittery. How far is immersive? Is it our production is so compelling it sucked you in? Or is it we took over your life and got inside your brain and this is immersive? I know that there is theater that is doing that now—you add virtual reality and all the new technologies. I don't know where we're headed, I can feel the zeitgeist of people wanting immersion, of wanting to have agency inside a world. I guess that's where I'm headed as well. I'm just not quite sure what the end product is.