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A Passion from Whole Cloth :: Tyler Kinney on Getting Mediaeval with 'Richard II'

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Feb 19, 2016

There might not be a theater troupe in Boston that Tyler Kinney hasn't worked with, either as a set designer or, as he's probably better known, a costume designer.

Kinney has clad actors both for stage and film, working as a costumer on TV and movie projects as diverse as the feature "Good Kids" and HBO's miniseries version of "Olive Kitteridge." More locally, Kinney has dazzled audiences with the duds he's designed and procured for a list of productions as long as the arm of good suit jacket, including "The Temperamentals" (for the Lyric take Company), "Meet Me in St. Louis" (Stoneham Theatre), and "Muckrakers" (New Repertory Theatre).

Surely, if you go to many plays in the greater Boston area, you've seen his work. The thing is -- as Kinney noted in a recent chat with EDGE -- despite the highly visible nature of a the costumer's art, his contribution must also, in a way, be invisible, complimenting the production as a while rather than stealing the spotlight.

All the same, his work has not gone without substantial appreciation. Kinney brought the last tatters of Weimar to life, and then stripped them away and replaced them with infamous concentration camp garb, in Zeitgeist Stage's award-winning production of "Bent." He clad Company One's "Astroboy" in a cheery, retro-futuristic cartoon wardrobe; the production snagged an Elliot Norton Award for excellence in design. Kinney also took home an IRNE Award when he brought the pomp to the circumstances of the Bard's canon with the Actor's Shakespeare Project's "Henry VIII," and recently he's been working with ASP once again on their upcoming production of "Richard II."

EDGE: You do both scenic design and costume design. How are the two related?

Tyler Kinney: I first started studying scenic design before I got into costumes, and I studied in London where they have a European model -- they call it "stage design," and a good number of them design both the costumes and the set. That's where I got interested in doing both.

I would love to work on some shows where I get to create that whole visual story that's being told through sets and costumes. Both of them involve working with texture and shapes, and negative space as well. Designing costumes, you're working and collaborating a lot more closely with the actors than you are with set design: [There's] a whole different set of variables. The human, fabric to skin, element is the one that stands out the most. Scenery has a similar relationship with the existing architecture.

EDGE: It seems to me you'd have to have a consistent color palette between the costumes and the set design, so you must have to work together with the set designer in any case.

Tyler Kinney: Yes, and that is something that at early production meetings the set designer and the costume designer do collaborate on, and swatches are picked out for both parties. We pass those colors around and even include the lighting designer in the conversation, as well.

On this production, [set designer] Janie Howland and I worked closely together on the color palette, She was working with dark, black elements with a few highlighted natural wood pieces. And then Daniel Jentzen, the lighting designer, and I consulted as Janie settled on a gold and royal blue palette. These coordinating design choices helped create a stronger bond between all the designs.

EDGE: You were just saying something about collaborating a lot with the actors who will be wearing the costumes, and I have an image from the movie "Wings of Desire," when Peter Falk is conferring with a costumer and trying on one hat after another -- "Nope, not this one; nope, I can't wear this hat!" Is that your experience?

Tyler Kinney: That is absolutely my experience! That is very accurate. We just had the majority of fittings for this show, and while one actor might walk into a hat and think it's perfect, or be completely content with whatever you put on their heads, there are plenty of actors who would like to see it in the mirror; they adjust it, and want to try on every single hat. They take it seriously, every piece that they have.

EDGE: For some actors, I imagine that having the right article of clothing really makes a difference. You have to connect with your costume to get to the character underneath it.

Tyler Kinney: Correct. The costume will effect, change and hopefully enhance an actor's performance. A costume is fitted to a character as well as the actor. Both parties have done their homework when we try on clothes. In front of the mirror is where we create the costume together.

EDGE: Shakespeare's plays are interpreted in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they are done in the Elizabethan fashion, but often they are re-set in different times and locales. What is this production of "Richard II" like?

Tyler Kinney: This "Richard II" is taking place in a timeless kind of... I would say there's not really a period that we are strictly cohering to. There is obviously a place: England. The design is drawing on medieval traditional dress as tools to define different characters, but it's going to have a feeling of timelessness.

We did reference a lot of medieval costume and clothing pieces for this, and then extrapolated and made it simple and streamlined to create these characters. You will get the essence of the time period when Richard II lived, but it will be distilled down and use a tight, deliberate color palette. It's heightened, and not so realistic.

EDGE: What I think of when it comes to the word 'medieval' is something barbarous and cruel -- a mind set as much as a design style. Is that reflected in your work?

Tyler Kinney: What I mean by "medieval" is that we've looked at wood cuts and illuminated manuscripts from the era of medieval England (such as the Book of Kells) and tried to find a range of character from the royal court to the everyday working class. We looked at what were some of the clothing pieces that we could use as tools to define the different characters. In this production of Richard II there are many people who make quick changes, such as from being an earl into a bishop, [and then] into a gardener. I wanted to see how those kinds of changes would look like if we did it with as few pieces as possible.

EDGE: So you're not just thinking about what's going to be comfortable and wearable for the actor, you really have to think about who the character is, what kind of person they are, what their trajectory is in the story -- a whole range of considerations.

Tyler Kinney: Exactly. In this pieces particularly, we want to make sure that it's easily identifiable when they walk on stage -- The audience should know what class [the characters] are from, and maybe get some hints about what their relationships are with other characters on stage. And if they switch and become someone different, then when they go back to that earlier character we want the audience to remember that that is the Earl of Northumberland, or that is a farmer who works in the King's garden.

EDGE: This production is all being done by just a few actors, right? Seven or eight? So it's important to be able to dress the same actor for a number of different roles. Is ease of quick-change a major consideration here?

Tyler Kinney: Because this production is being played completely by only seven actors (playing a total of 17 consolidated roles) the ability to quick change on the fly was baked into the design. We have some changes that happen on stage in the "Cone of Transformation" that the director Allyn Burrows developed. It is a space, partially visible to the audience, that allows some of the quickest changes to be choreographed. My main approach to this challenge of multiple roles was to have a base robe and design a language in which this world dresses with fewer pieces. Every actor was fitted with a custom robe, similar shoes, leggings, and belt. All the other pieces were applied over and could easily be switched out.

EDGE: As a costume designer, do you find that in real life you are deducing things about people -- what kind of person they are, where they come from -- based on their clothing?

Tyler Kinney: For sure! The subway's a great place to sit, watch and imagine the story of different people, based on what they're wearing. There are a lot of students in this city, so it's very easy to pick out who is an undergrad, and there is kind of a uniform for that group of people. There are subtle differences between people who live in Cambridge and people who live in Jamaica Plain. It's sometimes funny to guess -- and guess accurately -- where a person lives.

EDGE: One thing I have often wondered about is how much of the time a costume designer makes clothing from scratch as opposed to determining the general look that's called for and then going out and buying clothes to fit that look.

Tyler Kinney: It really does depend on what type of play, what period the director and the designers choose to go with, and the budget. For this show -- I think more so than other productions I've done with the Actor's Shakespeare Project -- we've made a lot of the base costumes. Everyone has a base robe that we have custom made for them, and done it in a range of colors, and constructed other elements, such as hats and medallions, from scratch. But we also have gone around to different stocks to pull accessories and pieces to help tell the story. For other shows, they could be completely pulled. What's fun about that is you have ideas of what your character wants to be and then you go out shopping/pulling, and you'll see those pieces emerge. If you're open minded, you'll see how a piece could be altered to fit your ideas for a show.

EDGE: What happens to old costumes? Do actors make off with them? Do they end up being recycled? Do they go into your own portfolio so you can show them off to prospective employers?

Tyler Kinney: I would say most of the time, if they were made for a specific production they go into a theater's stock. Depending on the policies for renting, maybe they have a manager who rents out their stock. One thing is, if it's something specific to a particular performance of play, it might be hard to fit it into another show's aesthetic. That's why you might not see it time and time again. But there are pieces that are made and get re-used for everything, because they are very versatile. I have bought/made pieces that actors want to own and they make arrangements with the theater company to buy it. It's not every day that they get a personal shopper who also tailors clothes to fit.

EDGE: You mentioned budgetary considerations -- which of the two options, making the costumes from scratch versus renting or buying what you need, tends to be more cost effective?

Tyler Kinney: Making costumes is a very expensive endeavor, especially since even if the materials don't cost a lot, the amount of time and labor is always more than you think it's going to be. It can definitely add up when you're constructing an original dress from scratch, where maybe you'd be able to find a very beautiful costume in stock that has had all of those hours put into it and all you have to do is pay a rental fee.

EDGE: Costume designers provide a crucial part of a play's needs, but my impression is they often get overlooked. I know I sometimes overlook mentioning the costume design in a review, or for space considerations that gets squeezed out. Do you find that costumers get routinely overlooked?

Tyler Kinney: I do notice that, yes, the director and the set designer will always be mentioned, and it is 50/50, I would say, as to whether the costume designer is mentioned. I never know if that's a good thing; I take it most of the time as a good thing, because my main job as a costume designer is to make the appropriate choices and not to distract from the language or the story telling, but to enhance it. Sometimes, if my work slips under the radar, I will take that as a job well done.

EDGE: I wonder if America's fascination with clothing design -- fed by reality shows like "Project Runway" and the like -- means that our society is becoming more clothing literate? Or is fashion divorced from the practical concerns that clothiers have to think about -- durability, practicality, ease of use, and the like?

Tyler Kinney: I would say that, overall, it has a positive impact I think it's making people think about not only the design component of making clothes, but also the actual work it takes to construct something and to make it successful for the runway or even the stage.

I play this Michael Kors compilation often when I need a pick me up:

Tyler Kinney: Do I think people are becoming more fashion literate? I think that it piques a lot of people's interest about making their own clothes, I've had countless friends tell me that they want to buy a sewing machine and make their own shirts, and my response is that they'd be much better off buying a shirt and I'll help them alter it to fit their body.

But making my own clothes from scratch is not something that I would ever want to do. I do have friends and colleagues who have made specialized items -- a coat or a bicycle bag that they have a unique need for. I have pulled material that I would like to make a bag with, an old A.R.T. weatherproof banner. I have altered pieces for myself; I'll find something when shopping for a show at the thrift store and see its potential. There is something very exciting about finding a textile that is beautiful and you can envision different purposes for it, but then you just end up hoarding a bunch of beautiful fabrics, and the pile of to-be projects sometimes gets pretty big.


EDGE: I see on your website you've done costume design for quite a number of theater companies around Boston. Do you find that different companies have different philosophies you need to service?

Tyler Kinney: I think that each theater has its own stories and their own [particular needs and wants]. I find that when you work with a theater and they ask for certain things, it's based on an infamous story of a past production, and they want to avoid those pitfalls, or they want to replicate something that was successful. But I think most theaters let you do your thing -- they know they are hiring you to come in with a style or an approach, and they are supportive of all different practices.

EDGE: So it's okay for you to have a style or a stamp that people in the audience who are knowledgeable can look at what's on stage and say, "That's Tyler Kinney's work?"

Tyler Kinney: I think that different designers have different strengths, and that's what you see when you pull our the program and see who [the costume designer is], and you can say, "That makes sense; I can see [why they used that person], I've seen this designer before and I like their use of color, or their technical period knowledge," and that's reflected in the work. But I wouldn't want my work to stand out in a stylistic way, especially if it was inappropriate for the production.

EDGE: When it comes to the different productions you've worked on, do you have a preference between comedy and drama, or different genres?

Tyler Kinney: I think that one of my favorite parts of being a costume designer, or a theater designer in general, is the opportunity to work on every kind of story, and you don't get bored when you are going forma '50s musical to a modern-day parlor drama to a traditional Shakespeare piece. I think that's what's exciting! There are definitely different things I get out of doing period shows. I love learning about period costumes, and the way clothes were worn in a certain era, but then I also like a fantasy piece, where you kind of get to make up your own rules.

EDGE: Are there any unrealized ambitions you're itching to realize with either costume design or set design? Things you haven't done before, but you'd like to?

Tyler Kinney: I'm aiming for the stars, I think that I am on a trajectory where I'm getting exciting opportunities year after year, and my hope is to book bigger shows at bigger theaters and make more connections with exciting directors. I'd really just love to end up traveling the world, working with people and continuing to design.

EDGE: So, basically the slogan that's at your website: 'A designer devoted to exciting collaborations with passionate artists.'

Tyler Kinney: Yeah. Stay on message!

To see Tyler Kinney's design work, please visit his website at http://www.tylerkinney.com

"Richard II" continues at the Cambridge YMCA through March 13. For tickets and more information, please visit http://actorsshakespeareproject.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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