Designer Spotlight: Suttirat Larlarb

JUL 21, 2015

The Costumes of Waitress

Suttirat Larlarb designed the costumes for last season’s production of Finding Neverland, as well as the costumes for the film Slumdog Millionaire and the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. Her work can also be seen in the upcoming films The Walk and Steve Jobs. Returning to A.R.T. for Waitress, she spoke with A.R.T. Costume Shop Manager Jeannette Hawley and Publications & Artistic Programs Associate Robert Duffley about her plans for the new musical.

What is the relationship between the characters in Waitress and their clothes?

Suttirat Larlarb: This musical is very character-driven. So I would prefer that it felt like there was no design. This show becomes so much richer if we can be somewhat restrained with the choices. It teeters on a very tentative line: it’s finding the right degree of the quirky in reality.

Jeannette Hawley: On contemporary shows, there also tends to be an assumption that the actors just show up in those clothes.

SL: I get that a lot in film, too. People ask, “what did you do?” And that’s sort of a backhanded compliment. There’s something about this story and Jenna’s journey that wants to feel restrained. There’s more power here in whispering rather than screaming.

JH: These are very real people who are dealing with very serious life situations.

As a costume designer, how do you help establish distinct identities for different characters?

SL: It’s like music: it’s the je ne sais quoi of what you want to accent when. And sometimes that’s done with patterns, sometimes it’s with hues, sometimes with shape. The main rule is we know what we want the ending to be. The ending is like the cherry on top. And whatever that translates into in terms of style and color, which I have ideas about right now, then I operate backwards from that. And I do that for almost every project, because if there’s a journey involved, you have to begin somewhere so that you can end up somewhere else.

When you’re working on a musical, what’s the relationship of the clothes to the music?

SL: I think that, out of all the creative arts, musicians are like magicians, because you can have an emotional response to music in a way that is not tangible. Sometimes that emotional response is hatred, but sometimes it can lift you out of the blues, or it makes you nostalgic or romantic.  And I think these characters have that same unknown magic power. You know it when you see it. We do a lot of process of elimination. I can identify exactly why it might not be one fabric or one style of dress or one collar over another collar, because it all exists on a continuum, as it does in the music.
Sometimes a costume can actually confuse things, if it’s not well thought out. So I’m very mindful of anthropological factors: location, class, emotional circumstances. A very close friend of mine who is a writer said to me that, having worked with me, he felt that costume is an extension of character behavior, rather than something style-oriented. Style comes into it, and I’ve done many projects where style is vital, but always only if it makes sense for the character and the tale that is unfolding. It’s not the default.

While designing a musical, do you listen to the music?

SL: Definitely. The music and the costumes have to be coming from the same place. We’re exploring the same things, and I’m just executing them in a different medium. Sara Bareilles was in a couple of our design meetings with Diane Paulus early on. And it was vital. She’s been working on this with Diane for several years, and they have a very clear vision. It’s still evolving, but she has a very clear connection to each song as it relates to each character. And I want the clothes to fit with the world that she and Diane are creating, so I can’t operate in a vacuum.

How does working with Diane Paulus influence or challenge your process?

SL: Diane is always striving to make things better all the time: what’s better for the production, what’s better for this character, what’s better for the story. So because of that, things appear to shift. It’s not happening randomly—it’s being rigorously examined in order to get to the best possible place in the end.  And there’s a flexibility that one has to have in order to work that way.  So many things can change between now and the time that we have an audience—things that we discover, or we come back to. It’s an organic process. And my best collaborations are with directors like that. Where we’re constantly trying to unearth connections between characters, or with the ensemble, or with the set.

It seems like so much of your design process adapts to the story at hand. Jeannette, would you say that’s there is any unique or constant factor in Suttirat’s designs?

JH: I must say that one of the qualities Suttirat has as a designer—and I can get emotional about this—is a very precise ability to communicate an absolutely intangible concept. She has a way, either through her drawing, or through a story or a description, to allow me, as the person who technically has to make it happen, to know pretty nearly exactly what she wants. I think it’s also her devotion to the process of creation and evolution. Suttirat was saying earlier how much she loves love music, and it’s something that moves you, but you can’t understand what it is about the music that’s making that happen; that’s the way I feel working with her. Her clothes, and her designs, and her process all have that musical quality.

SL: And then they both broke down in tears.

JH: No, I have mascara on. That’s not happening.

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