Latest Interview – Linda Cho

Having first begun her professional career working on Repercussion Theatre, Montreal’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’ back in 1994, the multi-award-winning Costume Designer, Linda Cho, has since worked on a staggering number of productions in top level theatres all over the world.

Having recently picked up the Tony Award for Best Costume Design for the Broadway production of ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’, we caught up with Linda to discuss the show, her career to date and the inspirations and influences behind her work.

You recently won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design in a Musical for your work on A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. How did you first get involved with the production?

I was asked by my longtime friend and frequent collaborator Darko Tresnjak to work on the show back in 2009. This is our 45th production together. We had some initial design meetings about the play and I attended a reading.

After some delays due to a law suit over the rights, we did our first out of town production at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, which was a co-production, so we got another stab at it at The Old Globe in San Diego California before coming to New York on Broadway.

Where do you begin with a production as complex as A Gentleman’s Guide?

As with every project, I read the script, then meet with the director and listen to what his point of view is on the world of the play. But what was unusual in this particular case was that Darko wanted me to meet with Jefferson Mays – the actor who masterfully plays all of the members of the D’ysquith family- before I began sketching. I had seen him perform at the early readings and with simple props that he himself had put together (for instance, a top hat and monocle for one character, or a safari helmet for another). He embodied each character so completely and hilariously that we all wanted to be sure we were supporting his process and giving him everything he needed. For the character of Lord Bartholomew, he imagined a safari helmet, eyepatch, walrus moustache, and perhaps sock garters. This image made me thing of Steampunk  fashion and I carried this thread-line throughout the rest of the show.  Steampunk is sexy and quirky.  Particularly in women’s wear. It uses a lot of undergarments like corsets and petticoats as outerwear. Even Prada did a steampunk menswear line the season I was designing this.  The collection featured sharp tailored Victorian and Edwardian inspired clothing with rich patterned velvets and brocades, and a lot of round sunglasses.  I also took inspiration from fashion designers like La Croix, Gaultier, Dior. Our story is set in Edwardian England, but I’ve taken several liberties with the period.  I think the playful nature of the medium of the musical theatre and this peculiar story lends itself to breaking away from a more traditional historical design concept.

Did you liaise much with Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge, or are the two departments fairly separate?

I’m fortunate to say Alexander Dodge is one of my dearest friends as well as a respected colleague. I think we must have done at least 25-30 shows together with various directors all over the country. We both graduated from the Yale School of Drama a year apart. I think our similar training does work to our advantage and we seem to be hear and feel the same things coming out of a design meeting, which makes our work meld together successfully and easily. Alexander has a true generosity of spirit, boundless creativity and a healthy sense of humour, which makes him wonderful and easy to collaborate with. On this particular show we did check in with each other about specific crossover issues like for instance; the color of a divan matching a pink dress, or how the width of a hat fit within the frame of the picture

The musical is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel, ‘Israel Rank: the Autobiography of a Criminal’, which was also the basis for the 1949 film, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Did you take any inspiration from the film or are the designs completely original?

I have yet to read the book it was based on and I only saw the film recently on cable. Our approach to the play was based solely on the musical that Steve and Robert created.

Do you approach each individual project differently or is the overall design concept fairly similar?

Including Jefferson in the early steps of my process for GGLAM was very rare. Often my design deadlines come before casting is completed so I don’t know who will be playing the roles. But in general, my process is similar on each project.

I read a script, I meet with the director, I research and do pencil sketches to establish silhouette. I then show the director and get feedback, do revisions with colour, get final approval, meet with the shops and then shop fabrics and clothing, followed by 2 sets of fittings: the first to to look at mock ups (the costumes in cheap muslin fabric), then a 2nd to look at the costumes in the pricier show fabrics.  

Then dress rehearsals when I can look at the clothes, makeup and hair under the stage lights, see it in motion, see it along side the other characters in the scene and make the necessary  changes, then I watch a few previews and make any final adjustments.  Generally, my job is done after the first few previews. 

How much do your designs evolve and develop from initial plans and sketches through to costume completion? 

It depends on each project.  An actor might be cast who looks completely different from what I imagined, or he/she has discovered something new about their character in the rehearsal process that we have to redesign.  It’s important for the performer to feel confident in what they are wearing and the fitting room can be a vulnerable place for them.  Imagine a 3 way mirror and 3-6 people staring at you head to toe for an hour sticking pins at you. I find most tweaking happens in the fitting room when we see the mockup on the individual bodies and hear the input of the actors.

How did you first get started in the world of costume design?

I was studying psychology at McGill university, thinking I would like to grow up to be a plastic surgeon. I took an elective class in Costume construction and fell immediately in love. I ended up working for Shakespeare in the Park in the summer and going to Yale to do an MFA in costume design.

Which designers would you say have had the strongest or most significant influence on your own work?

I would say my teachers at Yale have had the strongest influence. Jane Greenwood and Jess Goldstein. Not only do they do intelligent, tasteful, play driven work, they also have a reputation for being wonderful people to work with. They have shown me what great design is and how to be a respected designer.

Is there any one specific production that you would credit with influencing your decision to want to enter the world of costume design? 

My parents bought seasons tickets to the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto Canada throughout my childhood. As I got older they would drop my sister and I off in front of theatre and pick us up after.  I loved the whole experience: the sense of occasion, the spectacle, the music, the heightened emotions, the little opera glasses.  I remember crying so much in Madame Butterfly I had a hard time breathing. I think I was about 12!

How has the world of costume design evolved since you first began your career?

Definitely technology has changed the game on many fronts.  So much information is readily available and more of my research comes from the computer.  If I need a hand knitted green wool sweater I can look online and find 30 options. A decade ago my only option would have been to have one made. Getting and giving feedback is cheap and instantaneous, so more can be done remotely. Meetings can be done via Skype video chatting or long distance calling, and fittings can be done simply by sending pictures and videos.

Over the years you have worked on numerous occasions with Darko Tresnjak. How did that partnership first develop and how much of an influence does he have on the final designs?

We met in the Berkshires doing Summer Stock at Williamstown Theater Festival almost 20 years ago. I was still a student at the Yale School of Drama, assisting on the main stage shows and designing on the smaller stage. Darko was there directing the children’s show. He saw some sketches up in the shop for a show I was designing and asked me to design Orfeo and Euridice at Virginia Opera. We have been working together ever since. I believe GGLAM is our 45th show together.

Your work has been almost entirely situated within the theatre. Is there a specific reason for this?

Our business is largely word of mouth and one show has lead me to another.

Do you hope to branch out into film and television?

If the right project came along, I would love to.

So what projects do you have lined up for the future?

I’m doing Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Old Globe in San Diego for their outdoor stage, and then LA Opera’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” with Patti Racette and Patti Lupone.

Do you have any advice for aspiring designers?

Grow with your peers (other designers, directors, drapers, wig makers) and support one another, these fellow theatre artists are your future.  Also remember the work is the reward, this job will not bring you fame or fortune, do it because you love the work!


Top 5 movies?

Life is Beautiful, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Cinema Paradiso, Elizabeth and Synecdoche, New York.

Currently reading?

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Favourite music?

Pink Martini

For more information on Linda’s work and to view a full design and production gallery, please Click Here.

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