Interview with Christina Poddubiuk
Set and Costume
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
ArtsAlive.ca: What is your
favourite part of the process of theatre design?
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