To fashion a costume, consider actor, set, and lights, and that’s just the beginning
Costume design is like psychiatry, says PAUL TAZEWELL, who outfitted the cast of Hamilton. There’s a lot of listening—to actors and audiences.
Theater design is particularly collaborative. My work’s always informed by what the director wants, what the piece is saying. It has to jibe with what the set and lighting designers are doing. And it has to make sense for the actor who’s going to realize who this person is. I’m trying to make decisions that will keep it all together and make the most sense for an audience. It’s
an odd mash-up of working with my hands and fabrics, researching and telling stories, working with people and movement and acting, and being a psychologist. I sit in the fitting room with an actor who’s in a very vulnerable place. Maybe they have no clothes on, and I’m trying to get them to wear something that feels really foreign. We’re
redefining how they see themselves day-to-day and as this character. If they’re squirming around, I can read it on their face.
You’re also thinking about the audience’s emotions. For Hamilton, we made the decision to have the period represented from the shoulders down, and then everything from the neck up was contemporary: A representation of the actor and what they brought to the character, unadorned. We didn’t want to get trodden down by all the period stuff, where you start to not listen to the story. Oak Onaodowan [who plays Hercules Mulligan and James Madison] used to wear a ski cap in rehearsal. So as an experiment, I put it on him. I said, “Can you go out in that? Do the scene in that ?” He was up for it.
So much of it is getting out of the way—stripping down the idea so it can breathe more. I can only rely on how I feel about it. That’s what I trust: if I feel a heartbeat coming off of it.
● Tazewell in the fitting room at the Richard Rodgers Theatre
● The cast of Hamilton onstage