With every new play comes a barrage of exciting creative opportunities; most notably for designers, the chance to leave a defining mark on a fresh piece of theatre. However, myriad challenges, both collaborative and otherwise, accompany this opportunity. For example, how do the 39 ensemble members of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 not get lost in a sea of red velvet walls and gilded frames? The answer: with a little help from costume designer Paloma Young.
When you take a look back at Paloma’s distinguished career in costume design and consider all she has achieved, you might think she had an early start as a designer. But, much like the work she produces, her career path has undergone a certain amount of reinvention. “I went to Berkley for undergrad and was a history major,” Young tells me. Even then, she says, she displayed a certain amount of interest and enthusiasm for costume design, two qualities which brought about her first foray into designing a few Beckett shorts on her college campus.
After graduation and stints at various odd jobs, plus what she credits as “a bad night at the bar,” she awoke with a simple revelation: she missed the design world. Jumping on this impulse, she applied rather quickly to impending deadlines for graduate school programs in design, including her alma mater, UC San Diego.
Fast forward to the present. After accruing substantial regional, Off-Broadway, and Broadway credits (including a 2012 Tony Award, Best Costume Design in a Play for Peter and the Starcatcher), the designer set her sights on a new challenge: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. With an immersive feel at its center, Natasha’s design team went so far as to redesign the layout of the Imperial Theatre for the show’s Broadway debut, offering audiences an intimate impression of an opulent Russian salon.
“The show got a lot sparklier,” Young replies when asked how its design has evolved to meet new challenges. The sparkle is not for show, but rather placed in its design with a very specific purpose; “I needed to use it in a way to distinguish the actors from the people behind them.”
The idea of an immersive experience has always been in the show’s presentation, but the spaces in which it has been performed have gotten larger and larger, starting in a 99-seat house and ending up on Broadway. Throughout this transition, tracking the actors and the story was a primary concern. “Our peripheral vision can pick up sparkle a lot faster than just something getting brighter. So, Bradley King, the lighting designer, has this fabulous light that’s coming up on them, and there’s singing, and this great localization of the sound, but one part of that equation is that even this very small movement is going to give you a little bit of sparkle that moves your eye in that direction.”
The costumes themselves, like the show’s inimitable blend of “rock, pop, soul, folk and electronic dance music with classic Broadway,” are a bit of a mixed bag as well. Mostly inspired by this unique blend of music, “they feel a bit period, a little bit Russian, and a lot gypsy punk,” Young says. Rather than creating a sense of reality, Young intended for the costumer to capture the feeling the music presents, playing with the genres in which Natasha exists. Like the Tony Award-winning designs she made for Peter and the Starcatcher, the work she did for Natasha could be described as both collaged design work (blending together preexisting items, like actual opera garments from New York City’s Metropolitan Opera), and mixing in new materials (like flocked jeans from H&M.)
While her career is sure to become even more dynamic, with designs for Andy Blankenbuehler’s Bandstand on the horizon, her advice to designers is simple: “Come into the script as if you had no limitations and land on what is the thing I need to tell this story in the best way, the way that this script is asking to be presented.”
Photo (top to bottom): Josh Groban and Denée Benton; Groban with the cast of Great Comet; Lucas Steele and Benton; Benton and Amber Gray; Groban with the cast of Great Comet. Credit: Chad Batka.