Each year, Triad Stage hosts a designer through the Southeastern Theater Conference’s Ready to Work Awards, a competitive program that places them at professional theaters early in their careers. This year’s award winner is Olivia Trees, a costume designer and MFA Graduate Candidate in her final year at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. We stole a few minutes of her time to ask her about the Ready for Work Award and her design process just before rehearsals for Arthur Miller’s The Price (January 29 – February 19) began earlier this week.
Triad Stage: What was the SETC Ready to Work Award competition process like, and how did you feel when you were awarded the designer position at Triad Stage?
Olivia Trees: The award sponsors looked through all the design competition entries, and SETC then posted a list of who the theatres wanted to interview. Everyone signed up for a time to meet with their theatre representatives. I met with Preston Lane and Bryan Conger. I showed them my resume and website and had a very pleasant conversation. I felt sad when our 10 minutes were up. They strongly hinted about giving me the award, but were unsure at first because I was still going to be a graduate student this year. They have only previously given it to graduating students. So, when the award was announced later that evening, I was incredibly excited for the opportunity. I had heard so much about Triad from the previous award winner, Josafath Reynoso, who also happened to attend the University of Tennessee with me, that I couldn’t wait to work with Preston and the rest of the team.
‘A Shayna Maidel’ photo by Brynn Yeager
TS: When was the moment you realized you wanted to be a costume designer?
OT: I think it was senior year of high school. I had been competing in the Thespian Society design competitions since 8th grade, and I loved working on the annual school musical, but makeshift high school theatre left me feeling very disillusioned about the whole thing. Then, I was given a ticket to see the touring production of Camelot. It was a beautiful, professional production that seemed so incredibly magical. I realized the potential theatre had to be an experience that could deeply affect audiences in any number of ways. It certainly moved me into a great career that I love.
TS: What has been your favorite costume you’ve designed so far?
OT: I think that would have to be Elizabeth Proctor from my recent thesis production of The Crucible. It was a fairly simple costume, but she looked great and the actress was fantastic. We were going for a rougher, more “real” look than many other productions, so I was using a lot of textured fabrics and natural fibers. I gave her a blue wool skirt and a blue gray linen peplum bodice which combined with her apron, cap, and fichu supported this demure yet strong character.
‘The Crucible’ photo by Brynn Yeager
TS: What are your favorite materials to work with?
OT: I would say natural fibers in general: silk, wool, linen, cotton. They drape well, they look amazing on stage, and in my opinion, they feel much better to wear than synthetic fibers. I try to use them whenever possible.
TS: Can you walk us through the process of working on a new project?
OT: When beginning a new project, you always begin and end with the script. If your designs don’t support the play, then it won’t be a very successful production. After a read, you’ll meet with the director and hopefully the design team to discuss what he or she wants the audience to get from the play and what the general vision is. After some more reading and a lot of research, the designers come back to the table with preliminary sketches and ideas. The refinement process continues between the designers and director until he or she approves the final designs. This might take two meetings, it might take twenty; it depends on the production and the people involved. Then, the designs move to the shops. As the designer, clear communication and trying to be on top of purchasing fabrics or pulling stock garments is vital to a smooth process.
‘A Lesson Before Dying’ photo by Olivia Trees
TS: What are the rewards and challenges of collaborating with a team who is responsible for bringing your vision to life?
OT: In a shop, it can be a challenge to work with so many different minds and personalities. Sometimes you meet someone that you don’t get along with very well, or there are clashing ideas about how to solve a problem, but the work has to get done, so you find a way to work through it. Theatre is a collaborative art, and everyone is there to create something hopefully moving and memorable. So, that opening night is always rewarding because whether or not everyone is best friends, the group is what makes theatre happen.
TS: What are you most looking forward to during your time here at Triad Stage?
OT: Apart from getting to meet a wide group of great new people, I am curious about the experience of being an out-of-town designer. Until now, I have always resided in the place where I am working on a show. It’s easy to go into stock for 10 minutes here and there to find a new piece to the puzzle, but this time I have to rely on a shop that is several hours away instead of in the next room. This experience has emphasized to me just how important clear communication is.
Costume sketches for ‘The Price’
TS: What play or movie would be your dream design project?
OT: I really don’t have a specific project in mind. I love history and reading about how people of the past lived, so for me, any kind of period movie or play would be interesting to work on.
We’re so excited to see Olivia’s work come to life in our production of Arthur Miller’s The Price (January 29 – February 19). Be sure you get your tickets early!