Robert Falls and Ana Kuzmanic’s Shakespearean Collaboration
Wardrobe certainly helps a performer get into character, and the costume an actor wears is equally important to the audience. This is especially true in contemporary productions of Shakespeare, where doublets and ermine-trimmed robes may not make an appearance, but power and status are almost always in play. Since 2006, when they first teamed up for a rendition of King Lear starring Stacy Keach, Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls and Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic have collaborated on a number of productions—from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Seagull, to Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and a stage adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s epic novel, 2666. In 2013, they returned to Shakespeare with Measure for Measure and now take on one of the Bard’s more peculiar pieces—the romantic-tragic mash-up, The Winter’s Tale.
The two met in 2000. Kuzmanic, who had received a bachelor’s degree in costume and fashion design in Belgrade, Serbia, was enrolled in the masters of stage design program at Northwestern University, where Falls was teaching. Impressed with her work in class, Falls followed her career after graduation and tapped her to design costumes for King Lear.
After nearly a decade thinking about staging Lear—“living with and trying to understand the play”—Falls ultimately arrived at the idea of setting it in 1990s Eastern Europe. Later, he and his creative team set Measure for Measure in 1970s New York. “Those plays, as Shakespeare wrote them, wanted to be rooted, to have a real world,” explains Falls. “To me, The Winter’s Tale is more like a fairy tale. It’s a little bit like ‘once upon a time there was a king who loved his wife and son and his best friend, and then things happened.’ ‘Once upon a time there was a king who went slowly mad with jealousy.’ We are not in a specific world.”
“Living with the play” continues once Falls and Kuzmanic meet and begin to ponder costuming for a show. The two talk. A lot. “I just unload everything I’ve been thinking,” says Falls. “And we talk about the characters, not about their clothing, but about who these people are. Ana goes away and comes back with research that is beyond research. Pictures, art, poetry—a world. And from that world we start creating, challenging each other.”
“With The Winter’s Tale, I brought some images an artist had made of people in jars,” relates Kuzmanic. “I had an impulse that there is something to Leontes that feels as if he has hermetically sealed himself in a jar. In combination with an image of somebody standing naked in water, I came to the realization that the look for that particular moment is somebody who has been closed away from the world for 16 years, like a monk, someone suffering in silence. That might mean a shaved head, or oversized clothes that make him look as if he is wasting away. I arrive at very concrete clothing ideas that are rooted in this careful analysis of the character and how what they go through affects the way they look.”
The only idea Falls had when it came to costuming the play was that it should be in modern dress. “When Bob says ‘modern dress,’ that doesn’t mean what you see on the streets of Chicago, it means familiarity,” says Kuzmanic. In the play’s first scene, Kuzmanic garbed fellow royals Leontes and Polixenes in formal wear. “They are dressed essentially the same,” she notes. “Black wool, satin lapels. We were thinking, ‘does it matter that these are kings of different countries, or is it more important to think about the great similarities between these two characters?’”
In the second act, which includes shepherds, shepherdesses and men disguised as satyrs, Falls and Kuzmanic strove to present the characters not as the usual rustics, but as everyday people living outside the city. “I wasn’t as interested in making a completely new world as I was a world that was joined to the one of the first part,” says Falls. “Because we are also going into a world of people with a lower standard of living,” observes Kuzmanic, “I thought, what would people who cannot afford custom tailoring wear? So the clothes are more layered. There is more color. These are not people who go into an office every day.”
“There are plays that I do that require less of this kind of work,” states Falls. “It’s different when Stacy Keach needs to look like Ernest Hemingway in a hotel room in 1962. The work that I really enjoy are these very complicated plays. They are hard and they want to be explored. Ana goes on that journey and teaches me.”
Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.
Learn more and get tickets for The Winter’s Tale at GoodmanTheatre.org/WintersTale