ArtsAlive.ca – The Secret Life of Costumes

Featured designers
By Michael Eagan

John Pennoyer

image:Parolles, All’s Well That Ends Well (2001)
Parolles, All’s Well That Ends Well (2001)
Designed by John Pennoyer / © John Pennoyer

John Pennoyer is a designer with a unique style, typified by his carefully observed and economical drawings. The NAC costume archive has a large selection of his designs and the association between the two goes back three decades.

Pennoyer grew up and attended schools in Montréal’s West Island and later in Prescott and Sarnia, Ontario. His post-secondary education was at McMaster University in Hamilton, where he completed his undergraduate degree in 1971. During this time Pennoyer admits to having been greatly influenced and impressed by Professor George Wallace, his drawing master who had come to McMaster from Trinity College in Dublin. Pennoyer credits Professor Wallace with having taught him to draw and remembers how he admonished his students to first “establish your darks” upon beginning a drawing, sounding wonderfully old school. Lessons well taken, it seems, for drawing is fundamental in Pennoyer’s designing, and his drawings are notable for their great sense of light and shade and their feel of barely-controlled abandon.

Pennoyer has employed a variety of media, but his later drawings are mostly executed in Prisma coloured pencils, often on a kind of tinted ingres paper, slightly ribbed so that it gives the drawings a particular texture, or “bite”. In some places he applies the medium to a dense, nearly enameled finish, and in others it is used sparingly so that the “tooth” of the paper comes through. This method is unusual, but it suits his desire for an ideal combination of drawing and painting and makes his drawings unique and instantly recognizable.

image:Mrs. Medlock, The Secret Garden (1998)
Mrs. Medlock, The Secret Garden (1998)
Designed by John Pennoyer / © John Pennoyer

From McMaster University, John Pennoyer’s first theatre experience was in the prop shop at the Stratford Festival. He remained there for the next decade in various capacities, serving a valuable apprenticeship with Daphne Dare, the British designer who had come to Canada to work with Robin Phillips, the artistic director at that time. After a period of assisting, Pennoyer began his first important work as a designer, and his career was launched. In 1975 he designed for a season at the McArthur Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, and did his first designs for the NAC, for Phillips’ production of Hamlet in the 1975/1976 season. There followed a large body of work at the National Arts Centre, including Wild Oats (1981) and Noises Off (1986) with Derek Goldby, Agnes of God (1986), Hay Fever (1987), Beautiful Deeds/De beaux gestes (1987), Sinners (1988), Master Class (1997), and The Taming of the Shrew (1997) with Denise Coffey.

Pennoyer lived and worked in Lennox, Massachusetts from 1991 until 1997 designing for Kristen Linklater and Tina Packer, the celebrated American directors of Shakespeare who together ran Shakespeare & Company producing a summer season of Shakespearean plays. Valued for his experience and facility with that particular repertoire, Pennoyer spent a significant period as resident costume designer for their productions, which were presented in the beautiful and idyllic setting of The Mount: the grounds and gardens of the Edith Wharton estate.

image:Mrs. Medlock, The Secret Garden (1998)
Mrs. Medlock, The Secret Garden (1998)
Designed by John Pennoyer / © John Pennoyer

More recently John Pennoyer has designed a series of productions for Marti Maraden, artistic director of NAC English Theatre from 1997 until 2006, and a veteran actor and director at the Stratford Festival. Their output was large and varied: everything from A Man for All Seasons (1998) to Travels With my Aunt (1999), and An Enemy of the People (2000). But, it is their successful collaborations on Shakespearean plays that distinguish this period in Pennoyer’s career. Both director and designer had a great deal of experience with these plays and together focused the depth of their knowledge in a number of productions that were memorable for their clarity and style. With Maraden as director, Pennoyer designed All’s Well That Ends Well (2001), Twelfth Night (2001), Hamlet (2004) – his second design for this play – and Love’s Labours Lost (2005).

John Pennoyer is best known as a costume designer but he often designs sets as well. Among his most significant scenoraphic works is the version of the original Tanya Moiseiwitsch design or the thrust stage at the Stratford Festival that he reinterpreted for the stage of the NAC Theatre, with its semi-circular apron. An idea that had originated in the 1960s was finally realized, with the help of Simon Marsden, the theatre technician. Both Maraden and Pennoyer had acquired their Shakespearean chops at Stratford, and this “unit set” allowed them to stage the plays at the NAC Theatre in a format that has become familiar to Canadian audiences – not unlike the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres of the English sixteenth century for which they had been written.

With a total of nineteen design credits for the NAC, the costume archive has a tangible record of his evolution as a theatre artist: evidence of John Pennoyer’s position in the front rank of Canadian theatre designers.