Behind the Scenes: “Knight of the Burning Pestle” costume designer Julianne Hjartarson
Tiffany Liang spoke with Julianne Hjartarson, a fourth-year Production and Design student and the costume designer for the second Theatre @ York show of the season, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, about everything from her experience at York to her process as a designer.
Could you begin by telling us a bit about yourself and what you've done so far here at York?
I first came to York intent on entering the acting stream, having not had any experience in any other fields in theatre. After my first year, however, production became an area that I wanted to explore further. Having never touched anything related to costumes or set before coming here, I was open to any and all learning opportunities. It wasn’t until the very end of my second year that I decided a design position was something I wanted to pursue. I became especially interested in costume design and was fortunate enough to be given that as a crew position on Knight of the Burning Pestle.
What styles and periods are the costumes set in?
Knight of the Burning Pestle is an interesting play for multiple reasons, one being the multiple different “worlds” it is set in. There are complete costume pieces that are taken from the early 1600s but there are also characters from the present day. There's also the third element of the show, when the modern day meets the 1600s world. These costumes are all props-based and pull from the idea that the actors have found whatever objects they have backstage in order to construct new characters.
Tell us a bit about the elements of your costumes: colour palette, silhouettes, textures you plan to have, etc.
Because of the multiple time periods the play takes place in, the silhouettes, textures and colour palettes range vastly. For the period costumes I took into account the time period as well as the class status of the person. For the upper classes I chose richer colours such as light pinks and blues in ornate fabrics. For the lower-middle classes, it's darker greens, oranges and burgundies in heavier cottons and wools. Finally, the lower classes are earthy in tone and in fabric, wearing rough cottons and leathers. The contemporary characters range from middle class (the ushers) to the wealthy (the Beaune family). I did not look so much at specific fabrics; rather at any modern-day clothes that would look appropriate for people of their class.
What were some of your inspirations? What did you look at?
In terms of image inspirations I mainly looked at English art work from that period. One issue I ran into, however, was finding depictions of the poorer classes, seeing as, at that time, paintings were only made for the wealthy. As for the modern day world and the props elements, I began by discussing with the director what kind of look he might want for these characters and once that was established, it was relatively simple finding modern day inspiration. In terms of renderings, I drew heavily from commedia dell’arte.
Walk us through your personal process – from primary research to conceptualizing the designs.
My personal process was very similar to what one might do when researching a paper. Because I was not very familiar with the late 16th and early 17th centuries, I found it pertinent to begin my research with learning more about the fashion of that time in general. From that point, it was about finding costumes that would suit everyone’s personalities and status while also not clashing.
Which costume(s) was your favourite to design? Most fun?
I found the character of Humphrey to be the most entertaining to design because his character traits allowed for certain grandiosity. He is someone who takes great pride in his appearance and, because he has the wealth to do so, his costume is open to being very ornate and embellished.
What was it like collaborating with Tim Askew, the director?
Working with Tim Askew was a great opportunity to learn and grow as a designer. Tim facilitated my process as a designer and, because of the nature of the production, it allowed for continual new ideas. I appreciated how Tim was extremely open to new suggestions and was always willing to try something that might take things in a different direction. This made the process smoother in that I did not feel intense pressure to have everything perfect from the very beginning — because, as I’ve learned, things never are!
Was historical accuracy important or were you allowed creative freedom?
Even though the costumes are mostly based in the 1600s, I had a certain amount of creative freedom. Because of the context of the show, the audience is not supposed to believe that these characters are actually from the 17th century; rather, that they are actors in a production that takes place at this time. This means that I was able to stray a bit from 100% historical accuracy.
How does it feel to be the costume designer for a Theatre @ York production? Has it been what you expected?
Being chosen as one of the costume designers for the 2012-2013 season of Theatre @ York has been a wonderful opportunity. I was very passionate about getting the opportunity to design and am very grateful to have been given the chance. As a production student I was already familiar with the design process from working on past shows as well as talking to previous designers. However, there is only so much I learned from talking to designers before me; being in the position myself has been a steep learning curve but one that has taught me a lot about design and theatre production in general.
What was the single most important thing you learned in Production Design that helped you through this designing process? What has it taught you about costume and set design in general?
The most important thing that I've learned about costume design, and in fact about design in general, is that flexibility helps the process immensely. Becoming attached to one idea from the very beginning is dangerous in that it doesn’t allow for new, creative idea.
What artists/designers inspire you?
Recently I have been particularly inspired by film costume designs. I have been especially drawn to Colleen Atwood’s designs. Her work on Snow White and the Huntsman is amazing; she is always creating innovative pieces.
Lastly, if you could design the costumes for any show/play/book, what would it be?
If I could design costumes for any show, play or book, I would definitely choose The Lord of the Rings. I have a great love of epic fantasies and that would be a dream novel to design for.