ArtsAlive.ca – The Secret Life of Costumes

Featured designers
By Michael Eagan

Robert Prévost

image:Mercure, Amphitryon (1981)
Mercure, Amphitryon (1981)
Designed by Robert Prévost / © Robert Prévost

In 1970, Robert Prévost’s designs were first seen at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in an English-language version of Moliere’s Tartuffe, directed by Jean Gascon, Prévost designed many of Gascon’s shows at Le Théâtre du Nouveau-Monde (TNM), which Gascon co-founded, and the two continued to work together often at the Stratford Festival and the NAC; at different times Gascon was artistic director at both institutions.

A total man of the theatre

In the tradition of the European scenography, Prévost conceived of the entire visual universe of the production and usually designed both costumes and sets. Later in his career he became a “triple threat” when he began designing the lighting as well. In 1952 while working as a designer at Radio-Canada he met Jacques Pelletier, a Montréal designer who had studied in New York. Together, Prévost and Pelletier were the first Montréal scenographers to standardize the annotation of lighting design, which until this time could best be described as artisanal. The duo pioneered the idea of a pre-conceived hang of instruments and a controlled sequence of intensities and lighting changes (cues). In this way stage lighting took on an added professionalism that elevated lighting to a design function, equally as important as the design of costumes and sets. In the last period of his career, Prévost became a total man of the theatre when he began directing and designing all aspects of his own productions. This is the job description of the genuine auteur and should only be undertaken by artists of enormous energy and talent. Prévost was surely one of these, and he managed to complete a huge body of work before his pre-mature death on July 5, 1982 at the age of 55. He was a rare Canadian example of a Renaissance man in the truest multi-disciplinary sense.

A student of the classics

image:La Nuit (Nathalie Gascon) and Mercure (Pierre Thériault), Amphitryon (1981)
La Nuit (Nathalie Gascon) and Mercure (Pierre Thériault), Amphitryon (1981)
Designed by Robert Prévost / © Robert Prévost

Since his early education in Montréal at the Externat Classique Saint Croix (which later became CÉGEP Maisonneuve) and throughout his work with père Émile Legault at the Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, Prévost was always a great student of the classics. He acquired a great depth of knowledge of the classical repertoire, mythology, folklore, painting and architecture. This curiosity and quest for understanding was ongoing throughout Prévost’s life and ultimately resulted in a distinctly humanist and italianate sensibility. A man of great personal charm, he brought all of this generosity to the table, all the while acknowledging the commedia dell’arte references in the French repertoire.

The three-dimensional models of Prévost’s set designs are highly accomplished meditations in scale and perspective, and his original costume maquettes have a freshness and clarity about them that belies his consummate skill as an illustrator. Gouache (opaque water colours) was his preferred medium, and he controlled it expertly and with economy. Despite the ever-present classical references in his visual universe, Prévost brought a decidedly contemporary feeling to his designs, which were always unmistakably “of the moment”. Examples of this riveting classical imagery are evident in his 1981 designs for Amphitryon, designed for Jean Gascon. They, among many other designs for the plays of Molière and Feydeau, are an important part of the NAC’s Prévost costume holdings.

Prévost’s career expanded beyond theatre, to include designs for opera and ballet, as well as a series of bronze doors for the famous Montréal landmark, L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph, but this career ended abruptly in 1982, when he was at the very peak of his talent and productivity.

Human Behaviour

image:Trissotin, Les Femmes Savantes (1979)
Trissotin, Les Femmes Savantes (1979)
Designed by Robert Prévost / © Robert Prévost

Prévost’s huge output is a testament to his capacity and to his personal work ethic, but at the same time he was known as a notorious procrastinator who was sometimes cavalier with his deadlines and late in the delivery of designs. Wendell Dennis, who worked with Prévost as an assistant on several TNM projects, tells of how on one occasion of Prévost’s late delivery, Dennis was instructed by Lydia Randolph to go to Prévost’s studio to pick up the costume designs… and to “not come back without them”! At the time, Randolph was the chef d’atelier at the TNM, responsible for the execution of the costumes and working to a strict deadline. Prévost asked Dennis to come back later, but Dennis held his ground and stayed at the studio all day until the sketches were finished and he could deliver them as instructed.

This deeply human behavior is common among conceptual artists. As some points in a process the designer’s ideas and images are not yet completely ready to be expressed. In these cases, the pressure of a deadline works to force the artist into action, and it is at these times that the designer uses all of his or her accumulated knowledge and skill to respond as a professional. This perfectly describes Robert Prévost, the theatre artist. Il avait du métier. He was among the first fully professional Canadian scenographers, and throughout the 1970's his designs were seen regularly at the NAC.