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Interview with Christina Poddubiuk
Set and Costume Designer

National Arts Centre
October 16, 2002

This interview was conducted with Christina Poddubiuk when she was at the National Arts Centre working on set and costume designs for Mary's Wedding

Christina: My name is Christina Poddubiuk and I am a set and costume designer based, at the moment, in Stratford, Ontario.

ArtsAlive.ca: What kind of training do you have in theatre design?

Christina: I have a B.A. in literature from McGill University in Montreal and I continued after that programme in theatre design at the National Theatre School of Canada.

ArtsAlive.ca: When did you become interested in set and costume design?

Christina: Probably very early. I had an early interest in reading and I was read to very early - particularly King Arthur stories, Greek myths and legends. I loved fairy tales and I loved all the Classic children's stories. Along with reading I loved to draw and had a great time interpreting stories as character pictures and costume pictures and settings. Eventually this all led into an interest in set and costume design.

I also learned to sew and knit very early. I used to love to make and dress dolls. I was great at make-believe and dressing up and staging little pieces with friends in the backyard. I remember configuring little stages and figuring out how to make curtains open and close. Later, in elementary school, I would write and direct and design, all on a very small scale of course. It wasn't an interest that I took very seriously until much later on. It was just what I did for fun.

ArtsAlive.ca: Did you become a designer right after finishing theatre school?

Christina: No, I started out doing much more hands-on work. My first jobs in theatre while I was at theatre school and immediately afterwards were wardrobe work: sewing, building, dressing actors. I did a tour with a Canadian opera company as a sort of maintenance person doing everything from loading costumes into the theatre and taking care of them after the performance was over. I even worked as a stagehand for a short period of time. Within two years or so I had my first job at the Stratford Festival as a dyer and that was probably my first real creative experience in which learned how beautiful clothes can be when you actually have the time and budget to go through every process carefully. I loved that work and soon afterward I started to design at Stratford.

ArtsAlive.ca: How are you normally hired to design for a show?

Christina: I'm normally hired during the period during in which an artistic director is planning a season. As the pieces get decided upon, artistic directors and directors decide who they would like to design their shows. Immediately after the budgets are set directors start looking at who is available to design. Ideally, the director that has been selected to create the show in turn chooses you to design for the production. First, the director is put in place by the company's artistic director and ideally you are the next person on the list. It can be a much more rewarding experience when you are the exact person that the director has asked for rather than someone the administration put together with the director.

ArtsAlive.ca: How do you prepare to design the costumes for a play once you have been hired?

Christina: If you do a certain amount of work on your own before consulting with the director then the process starts with the script. I tend to do a certain amount of my own work before I go into a first meeting. It is important to be open minded in your first meeting with a director but I like to be well-prepared for that meeting because sometimes that time with your director can be limited. At the time of that first meeting, I will have read the play several times and from different points of view. I might read the play once to just check how many costume changes there are. I will read it again to make a prop list. I will read it again to analyse where the entrances and exits are and also to imagine where the furniture will be. It's difficult to concentrate on all of these things in one reading so I go through these processes in separate readings.

Once you have that under your belt, depending on the period of the production, I guess I start to do visual research based on my response to the text. Depending on where and when I might choose to look at photography of the period or I might choose to look at painting or I might just look at history books and look for thematic influences.

That's the start and having done that you team up with your director and see what their response is to those ideas you have and then you start to form a stronger direction.

ArtsAlive.ca: Who are the people that you collaborate with when you are hired as the designer?

Christina: Other than first collaborating with the director, as I just described, I need to be in touch with the set designer as soon as possible since we will not want to go off in two entirely different directions with our designs. About half of the time I design both the set and costumes for a show and that is great. It can also be very rewarding though and helpful to work with another talent and brain on a show. If another designer has another strong idea in mind it really needs to influence what I do so we need to stay in close touch. Whereas a lighting designer might normally come into the process a little later on, with the NAC production of Mary's, designer Jock Munro's ideas were integral to the production so his collaboration came in very early in the concept for Mary's Wedding.

ArtsAlive.ca: What are the stages involved in designing set and costumes?

Christina: Designing can entail a lot of doodling. I tend to get into three dimensions rather quickly and I like to have a scale model of the theatre in front of me to look at. I'm not terrific at rendering. There are people who are very strong at doing perspective drawing on paper and who are able to establish their ideas in two-dimensions. But me, I like to work in three dimensions as soon as possible. For me that might just mean using white paper and scotch tape to work out shape and proportions. I find that very helpful and it helps me visualize the entrances and exits and establishing a good use of space.

With costume design work I ideally start with resume shots of the actors. Hopefully the actors have been cast in good enough time for me to start costumes. I find it very helpful to know who the actors are, what their shapes and sizes are, why they were cast and what qualities we are trying to bring out or not to bring out. In knowing these things I work closely with that person: not in real life but as an image. I always keep that image in mind.

It often happens that casting comes later but it's not ideal. It's really much more fun if a director has chosen someone for a role that you might not consider and then you start looking at them and thinking, That's interesting. They have this really great knack of doing this, Or, Their movement is interesting in some way. It's really helpful to have those things in mind.

ArtsAlive.ca: What are the challenges you would face if you had to design a set for a traveling production?

Christina: I have to say that I haven't had that experience too often. Most of the shows I happen to have designed sets for are usually for one space. I know it's a big challenge for designers that have to do that and I guess that means compromising what you set out to do because you are designing not for one space but for perhaps half a dozen. I suppose you have to find the common denominator that makes the set work for every space.

ArtsAlive.ca: How involved are you in the construction of your designs?

Christina: As the set and costume designer I'm at the theatre every day. Most theatres like the designer to be there right from the first day of rehearsal. That is usually when costume construction begins. Sometimes set construction starts a week or two before that so I really am there every day. When I am not watching what is going on in the rehearsal hall I will either be in the scene shop or with the wardrobe department. As far as being hands-on and actually constructing sets and costumes I'm not really involved at all. It's funny that as time goes on you get separated from those actual skills. I personally find it hard to do the hands-on things when I don't paint sets everyday or sew everyday. There are certainly designers who are very hands-on all the time but I guess I've sort of left that behind to a certain extent. However, I often like to have a little project on the show that I do.

ArtsAlive.ca: Please describe a typical day during the production and rehearsal phase of a show.

Christina: On the first day of rehearsals I am in the rehearsal hall listening to the actors read the play for the first time. Then at specific points in the rehearsal period days are established for when the actors put together the little scenes they have worked on. They do what we call a run-through or a work-through of these scenes and I am there for that. I am also there if the director is having difficulty with a scene or if something I have designed is causing a difficulty: perhaps a chair is placed awkwardly or something that we have set up is not working. In those cases I might be asked to come to the rehearsal so that we can figure out the challenge and fix it.

When not in rehearsals I am in the wardrobe answering questions, doing fittings and frequently shopping. We have to do a lot of shopping to find the materials for wardrobe. When in the scene shop talking to the painter - as soon as scenery starts to materialize the set painter is called in - we work on colour samples and try to visualize the eventual effect of lighting on our materials. Stage lighting is added when everything is done so it's a challenge to figure out how the set being painted under fluorescent lights is going to transfer to a stage-lit space. It's a trick and something that takes a lot of experience. With the help of the great painters here I think we do a nice job at making the scenery look kind of strange in the scene shop but great under the stage lights.

I have learned the difference between what work-light does as compared to what stage lights do and of course the painters have a lot of experience with that.

ArtsAlive.ca: Would the painters ever come to you and say, "I don't know if that idea is going to work for these conditions?"

Christina: Absolutely. I rely on the experience of the people, the carpenters the stagehands, the technical directors who do this work everyday. In every production I am creating a new set of challenges that I have never encountered before but oddly enough your technical director might have encountered them dozens of times because he has seen designers come in before and do similar things. He knows what will and will not work.

ArtsAlive.ca: What is the most challenging design you ever came up with?

Christina: I think all designs are all challenging. I think that if it's not challenging then you must be bored with your job. Not that you have to turn every job into something complicated but if you're not challenged by your work then I think that maybe it's not the right job.

ArtsAlive.ca: Have you ever designed something that couldn't be created?

Christina: There's nothing that can't be created. My job, with the help of the technical people, is to create something that can be created. There's a budget and a certain amount of time and I have to take all of that into account. There is nothing that cannot be done with the help of time and money but they are limited and therefore are two important things that we have to be very aware of.

ArtsAlive.ca: Do you collect anything?

Christina: I collect old photographs and I love going into into antique stores to find them. Paper ephemera interests me but I love old photography, early photography, tin-types and family pictures from the turn of the century. I love finding a box full of them for a quarter each. I have a cupboard full of them. Also I collect books. I have a huge library.

ArtsAlive.ca: Do you use those photos as sources of inspiration?

Christina: I do. Costume textbooks tend to emphasize paintings. But, paintings will almost necessarily be of wealthy people. Some photographers specialized in middle and lower-class ways of life. Some photography tends to represent a higher-classes way of life but the kind of photography I collect really helps me out with just family life and middle-class people who are often not represented very well in costume textbooks.

ArtsAlive.ca: Are there places you go or things that you do for design inspiration?

Christina: I think a nice thing about design work is that there's nothing that doesn't really inspire you. Any kind of experience really broadens your understanding and knowledge. I think observation is everything in design. I think you have to be a person who notices things and observes things and always wants to look at new things.

ArtsAlive.ca: Do you have a favourite show that you designed for?

Christina: I think the best shows are always the ones where the elements come together very well and where the intention is realized. These are the shows in which what you set out do is what you end up with. Through very fortunate circumstances, like the combination of a good director, a good cast, and other people designing, you all manage to end up at the point that you intended when you started out. Nothing is ever perfect and there are always things that you'd perhaps do differently but I think that as long as you get a sense of fulfillment from a show then it is going to be a good experience.

ArtsAlive.ca: Is there a design tool that you couldn't do without?

Christina: I do most of my costume rendering in watercolour. I'm pretty dependent on having the right paper and the right shades of paint for the watercolour. I am pretty habitual in my space and I find it hard to work on my lap for example in a hotel room.

ArtsAlive.ca: Were you interested in watercolours before you started designing?

Christina: I've always drawn and painted. I took an oil painting course this summer in order to try a new medium but I find that watercolours work well for me for costume designs.

ArtsAlive.ca: What is your favourite part of the process of theatre design?

Christina: There are two aspects that I find the most satisfying. I love the research and I love the "eureka" moment when you've absorbed the text and you think you understand what the playwright wants. You've done your research and you know exactly where you want to go with it. That's great when that happens and hopefully it happens to some extent on every production.

I also really like working with the staff of theatre. I think theatre is something that cannot exist with out collaboration and most of what I do gets better when other people get their hands on it. It really does. Collaboration gives my work another layer that I couldn't add by myself. Both of those sides of the process are very rewarding for me.

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