A Conversation with Paloma Young
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Written by Corey Ruzicano
Photography by Emma Pratte
June 6, 2017
In this first few moments of speaking with Paloma Young it is clear she is as eloquent and intentional as her work is eye-catching and boundary-defying. Our conversation reminded me of a deep and often left unsaid truth in the theater, about how immediately and sometimes ubiquitously designers hold the keys to our understanding of a story. The world she has created through the costumes of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is staggering in all its brightness and her talent as a storyteller is every bit as brilliant.
Corey Ruzicano: What was so fun about watching Great Comet was getting to see all of these different source materials and mediums put together. I wonder if you could talk about what you’ve learned from the dialogue of all those different things, and what you’ve learned from the dialogue of working with your collaborators.
Paloma Young: What’s really unique about Great Comet is that I’ve gotten to work on it over a long period of time. Especially when we transferred to Broadway and we really expanded both the size of the ensemble but also what they were doing and how they were helping to tell this sort of crazy mash-up that Dave [Malloy] had created – I was able to take the things I had used before but really layer on a lot more texture and incorporate things about the performers’ personalities. Something that Sam [Pinkleton] the choreographer does, is he really embraces the individual weirdness in the way that we’re creating a world of individuals, so even though our ensemble’s not exactly human – sometimes they fill a space like they’re a band of gypsies or they’re people at the opera, but they’re also sort of a Greek Chorus that tells the characters what they’re going through. I look for ways that they could live in a half-human, half-magical world, and then also really capture the spirit of the really eclectic music of the score. What I do is I a lot of thrifting and in addition we have a lot of folk pieces, but not just Russian folk and Ukrainian folk or things that are one step removed from Russian peasant wear, but also maybe a second step removed. We sort of spread the world all the way out, I would say, we hit Europe, we hit South Asia…if something were sort of Mexican I would nix it, anything that really felt like it was the other side of the world. But it really is a way that I think the spirit of the show itself is telling the story about 19th-century Russia. Tolstoy wasn’t even telling the story contemporaneously, he was telling it many decades after the war and so it’s definitely a 21st-century telling and so it’s like, how do our audiences think about Russian peasants? How do they think about opulent people at an opera or at a ball? And the way that those ideas get translated, if you think of the opera for instance, as this kind of Lower East Side “we’re gonna go to this crazy Russian opera party,” and so conceptually you take that artistic idea and throw together these couple of disparate elements that feel like A) a little fancy, B) maybe a little Russian, color-wise, you know, a lot of embroidery and maybe some kind of jewels – but the spirit of it is really is youth and fun and free and a little bit trashy.
CR: What more could you want.
PY: Exactly, so there’s all of that, and a lot of that’s collaged – the ensemble, I’m not building from scratch as I would for a character like Natasha, where I do the drawing, I research for certain things that I want the draper to look at when they make the dress, and then pick the fabric. It’s a couture garment; it’s handmade from scratch. That’s one form of storytelling. And I’m definitely influenced by the performer and that particular actor’s look, but when you move into the ensemble, I’ve got a closet of things that I’ve gotten and then I just spend some time in a room with them, we have a fitting, we try things on, and sometimes we won’t use anything from a first fitting but I get this great sense of who they are as a character. I mean the personality of the character, how they move – I ask them to move around the room in the clothes – and then we do further shopping and treasure hunting and really get to put together larger themes: what are the shapes that this person wears on their body? What pants do they wear – do they wear skinny pants that are really stretchy, are we accentuating their legs? Are we accentuating their arms? Do we want a really columnular shape to accentuate what Leah Loukas, the hair designer, is doing with their hair? And we also throw in a lot of easter eggs. With Great Comet, you’re so close to the actors, and most of the time you want to be focused on the core part of the story and the key players, but we also want the audience to feel like they’re living in this world, and a lot of this world is about Natasha and Pierre, in different ways, being overwhelmed by the saturation of stimuli that Moscow throws at them and so I just packed in a lot of stimuli, so if the audience, for one second are like, Natasha’s run off to get her hair piece put on for the ball, they look over and there’s all sorts of crazy textures and colors, and so hopefully they feel a little bit part of the world in that way.
CR: Absolutely, and I think that speaks a little bit to that idea that you and Mimi had said in a previous interview, about creating an environment rather than a representation of something. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what that means to you. Is there an image that you started with for this piece or if there’s something that’s stuck with you that this piece has taught you that you’ll carry with you into the next project?
PY: In a lot of ways, I was really inspired by Mimi’s set. When I came onto the project, she had already been working for several months; she had been involved with the workshop before we did it at Ars Nova, so I was lucky in that I got a sense of what the atmosphere was going to be before I really had to have any sort of visual thoughts about what the people would be wearing in the space. I usually start from pure research – place, dresses from 1812, portraits, things in museums, paintings of the time for color pallette – and then I expand from there, this information plus the tenor of the way the story’s being told, that much more energetic, youthful speed to things, and I just start bringing my own personal experience. You have research, plus the story and the score coming together and it’s going to be in this beautiful red velvet box and you have these archetypal characters like the Innocent Girl and her Best Friend who is also her cousin, which in a way really matches up with that space because a lot of women in 1812 were wearing that white empire waisted dresses. She’s going to be like an albino moth, and everyone is going to come at her, you can’t take your eyes off her, she’s so full of light, so to set her in a white dress in the center of this overwhelming opulent gold and red space, so in that sense it was really the environment plus that information and then as we expanded it was the playfulness of the score and that I know that the colors of the Russian military are green but I don’t like that green. Not so much that I don’t like it, there’s a place for it, but the green of the Imperial Army is what we now would think of as Christmas green, Nutcracker green, with red accents. If I use that green – because of where we are culturally, where our audience is culturally – it’s going to look like Christmas. There was a much sexier and sinister story to tell, so I took that green and pushed it into a more acidic, beetle-y place, so even though the war is going on outside of our space, the way that the war and the violence and the potential danger creeps into the space is through color.
CR: Oh that’s so interesting, it’s such an act of translation of what the research says and knowing what will read with an audience today–
PY: Yes, and I jumped around a lot but that’s a really good example of creating an environment and not just trying to recreate research because you have to think about who your audience is and the context of where their brains are in 2016, 2017. It’s changed even over time, I started working on the show in 2012 and so there were certain things that if they still wanted to have sort of an edgy feel, the sense of what was edgy in 2012 is different than what’s edgy in 2017, so every time we have a new costume track put in the show, it changes a little bit. It’ll be interesting to watch the show evolve over time.
CR: Totally, and I keep thinking about something else you said in another previous interview, the idea that seeing a character through the lens of when they actually lived gives us the permission to forgive them and that was such a good articulation for me of how much power you have as a designer. We’re such an image-based culture, how do you harness that power and focus it toward storytelling?
PY: The biggest thing I do is listen to my collaborators. I’m one brain and I come to the table with my own cultural biases and my own visual biases and I like to think that I am very self critical that I am always on the lookout for how people are interacting around me and how people dress, and that I am doing my best to understand as much of the cultural context as possible at all times, but really knowing that the more input I can have, the better. And learning to be open to that and not defensive is how I sort of hopefully get to the best place of storytelling. There will always be two people in the audience that read the same dress two radically different ways because we’re all different human beings, but my goal is to get at least most of the people engaged in the story and engaged in a way that is not distancing. Even if they’re reading it differently, they’re reading it with interest and so they might take away a different story, but they’re still engaging. One of the things I try to get away from is the idea of, let’s make a costume that’s simple and beautiful and pleasing to everybody, or is absolutely an archetype or a play off of archetypes. I like to have a variation in there because even though it’s a costume, it should still feel like clothing that the character is wearing, unless it’s a big Busby Berkeley number and there are sunflower headdresses, there’s not really a human behind that, that’s just fun and magic and color.
CR: Well, that sounds good too. When you get stuck, how do you keep going? Where do you go for inspiration? It sounds like talk to you collaborators a lot, but is there also a creative process that you’re able to stick to?
PY: I like to go to museums, because I’m very bad about going on a regular basis, which, living in New York, makes me feel like the worst person in the world, but when I am feeling stuck I’ve surrounded myself with the story, the music, the research, the collaborators, I’ve brought them into my headspace, so it doesn’t really help to keep pinging things off of them, so I need to go to a place that’s visually a completely different space, that did not ask to be in conversation with the work that I’m in. I just come in, not necessarily looking for inspiration but just to give myself some distance, and then a lot of times I will find something either in the museum or someone sitting reading a book at that museum…there’s just something about stepping out of that headspace and not answering emails or thinking about budget, being able to step out and jump into a completely different visual world whether it’s sculpture or an atmospheric piece or an installation or just painting…I think that that’s very helpful.
CR: And I think particularly with this piece, but probably in all pieces, the audience is sort of the last scene partner, but in this one particularly you all have to capitalize on the audience – how do you prepare for that and how do you create the space between the performers and the spectators?
PY: In Great Comet, the audience is part of the show. In live theater, every audience is part of the show – they’re laughing, they’re crying, they’re bored – they’re filling the space with an energy, with sound, they make the space warmer, they can make the space noisier…they’re always part of a performance, but in this case they are always seen. There’s something in our brains visually where we’ve gotten so used to viewing movies and theater in a proscenium that we can actually make most of the audience disappear when we’re in that format, even when we first sat down we could see the people in front of us, we had peripheral vision, we’re conditioned to do that. In Great Comet, every time we are looking at a character we are also looking at a new section of the audience because as that character moves through the space we are also seeing new people in the audience, so you cannot ignore them as part of the visual space. For the most part, you don’t want people to focus on the audience but you do want them feel like they’re part of the party; we don’t want to completely isolate them because that’s part of the energy of the space and this particular story and that this is happening in the context of this fancy club. It should feel intimate and I think it enhances our experience as an audience when the audience interacts with the performers and the performers with the audience. That can sometimes feel a little bit jarring but if you see someone across the way having a similar experience, it normalizes it. So one of the things that I wanted to do was to make the ensemble both pop from the audience and the crowd so if you’re looking at them all you can distinguish them but not distance them so much that there wasn’t a link between the two, which was one of the big reasons for using real clothes. Our eyes, as an audience, are very savvy about things that feel false in any way, especially about clothes because we wear them. It’s always my biggest challenge as a designer–everyone has opinions about clothes because we all put them on in the morning. With grandiose architecture or lighting design or sound design, there’s this little bit of magic to it, where I’m dealing with something that’s much more intimate and visceral – not just to the actor that has to wear it – but to the people that are watching them wear it and thinking about how it feels to the actor on their body and how it makes them feel and how they would feel wearing it… I just saw La La Land and there were actually a lot of things I really liked about the design of the movie but a lot of Emma Stone’s dresses, you could tell that they had been made for her and that they’d been made out of silk which was the right kind of fabric for the movement that they wanted but the wrong kind of fabric for the character. You know, where did she buy that dress? I have a lot of context and experience articulating why that felt false to me but I’ve met a lot of people who said, it just felt weird. We don’t always know why, the audience doesn’t always know why, but they can tell when something is just a costume and what we wanted to do with Great Comet was really break down that. Is this a costume? Is this not a costume? And some people hate the costumes and think they look like they cost us five dollars, but that’s what’s so wonderful about it, to have all these different perceptions. But it’s very intentional for them to feel like a bridge between us and our sort of couture costumes in the center of the story where everything is made from scratch and feels period even though we tweaked all sorts of elements about it, but they are built from scratch just like a dress in 1812 would have been – it would not have been made in a factory, it would have been made by hand, pattern out on a table. So in that sense it’s just as true as the crazy punk rock gypsy girl that’s in H&M mixed with something from Beacon’s Closet, something that I got from some antique sale in Romania, they’re all just thrown together and they feel like, not like a person you would necessarily see every day, but a character that exists in our world.
CR: Definitely, and it feels related to that theme of ”There’s a war going on. Out there somewhere,” and we pass through the bunker and we get to get lost in the red drape of the art, but there is a war going on in our world today. What stories are you looking to see in the world? What are you hoping to say with your work?
PY: I think the most important thing I can do as a designer is to not attempt to tell all the story or all the feeling with the costumes because I’m there to support a much larger, collaborative creation. I feel that way about Great Comet and I can certainly put my own personal commentary that comes from an emotional place in a way, of what I feel it’s like to be a modern teenage girl and the heartbreaking impact of bullying…but I’m making those design choices based on what makes me the saddest. I was like, this makes me sad, and I want the audience to feel as sad as I do and I want them to feel it as not a distant emotion but that the characters that they’ve been watching and following actually remind them of things that they feel sad or happy about in a much more contemporary way. There’s a lot of steps. I picked this cotton and I picked this shape because it makes me think of sexting scandals. None of that – there’s no direct line. It’s that part of your brain where it starts this plus this, and then it just sort of jumps over and expands in a way that you can share your emotions with somebody without using words or something that is fully articulated. It’s important to bring my emotion to the table when there are things that resonate with me in the story. I definitely connect with the sense of anarchy and that sort of morphed into this form of resistance, there’s a lot of punk-rock imagery and there are some pussy riot references that are hidden in there. I really wanted someone to dance in a full balaclava but she just couldn’t breathe.
CR: Wow, weak.
PY: I know! She’s got it rolled up into a beanie, so I know and she knows. We know together. So yeah, staying out of the way but also being emotionally present in my design is the best I can hope for in terms of resisting or being politically or emotionally woke in my sense of art.
CR: My final question is if you have any questions that you’re grappling with right now in your life or work right now?
PY: I feel like your last question kind of bleeds into that. For me, it’s not been the greatest year civically, politically, culturally. And I struggle sometimes with, how is my work relevant? If my work isn’t actively a form of resistance or a form of progress… The most progressive, the craziest thing I could do right now would be to move to Detroit and vote or maybe run for school board, but not do theater, not do design. That’s the gnawing emotion but it’s also that this is the way that I have a voice. I think if you give up and you don’t make art of all kinds, you let the terrorists win. Then you really have contributed to creating a world that is without joy, without nuance, without refuge for different ways of thinking. With Great Comet what has been so special is the way that the choreography works and the way that the directing works, the energy and the emotions that are written into the book as it were, it’s all very gender-fluid. Even though we have this very heteronormative love triangle in the center of our story, when you’re watching it, there’s a lot more nuance in the way that these characters relate to each other and the way that Anatole has a lot of feminine characteristics, in the way that Bowie is rock and roll and the way that Adam Ant is sexy but also not hyper-masculine and that that’s an acceptable form of sexiness. And when you get into the ensemble that just explodes, even when I was doing the racks for the show, my intern had come in and made a great closet of here’s the men’s shirts, here’s the women’s shirts, here’s the men’s pants, here’s the women’s pants, and I just said, there’s no binary. All the pants together by waist size, all the shirts together. There’s a lot of women wearing men’s clothes, a lot of men in women’s clothes. One of our male swings has a sarong-loincloth that he wears – there are male-male couples in the ball, female-female…as a world, it’s very progressive and representative of the world I live in now and the world that I want a larger demographic to accept as normal. I get to be part of that and I get to be a part of making that seem enticing but also normal. It’s not just, oh look at those crazy S&M people over there, there’s something beautiful and sweet and real about them when they’re crying together at the end of the show. If a Josh Groban fan from Iowa comes out to see this show a lot of that is gonna be like, whoa New York is crazy, but through the design if I can be a part of something that expands their world even just a couple of inches, then I do feel like I have a little bit of purpose.
Paloma H. Young. NY: Brooklyn Babylon (BAM Next Wave), Peter and the Starcatcher (NYTW, Drama Desk nom.), Wildflower (Second Stage). Regional: You, Nero (Berkeley Rep); Current Nobody, Hoover Comes Alive! (La Jolla Playhouse); Titus Andronicus (California Shakespeare Theatre); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Old Globe); Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte’s Web (South Coast Rep); 1001 (Mixed Blood); Dos Pueblos (Miracle Theatre). Graduate of UCSD.