Designing woman

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

Designing costumes does not happen overnight. Really.

The process takes months to prepare and is stress-activating once rehearsals come into play.

I only know this because costume designer Catherine Zuber told me so when I chatted with her on the phone the other day.

As sirens blared in the background from her New York City office, bringing vivid city memories to my mind, Catherine discussed her upcoming show, "The Light in the Piazza," which garnered her a 2005 Tony Award for best costume design of a musical. The show, by the way, comes to San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre from Aug. 1-27.

This two-time Tony Award-winner is a gem in her own right. Given that she's already a success story, having costumed at least 18 Broadway shows in the past 13 years with 11 nominations under her belt, Catherine is down-to-earth and doesn't mind sharing time during her busy schedule to discuss the romantic musical. I love that.

The show, featuring Christine Andreas, Elena Shaddow and David Burnham, opened on Broadway in 2005 and is now beginning its national tour. It is set in the summer of 1953 and tells the story of a mother and daughter traveling through Italy.

How difficult was it to design these costumes? And what does designing entail? Catherine lets us know:

How did you get involved in costume designing?

I was a photographer first, which was a great introduction into making pictures and composition. I started to see a lot of plays then thought of who does the costumes. I applied to drama school at Yale with my photography portfolio after that and just never looked back. I was hooked from my first show.

So did photography help you?

It was great training. You learn how to look at the frame of a picture, similar to theater where you look at the frame of the set and how it's populated.

Do you design your own clothes?

No, but I do get asked. I have done a few brides.

Can you tell me about the costumes in "Piazza?"

It's set in the '50s but it's heightened because of the music. It's not realism, although they are realistic clothing, but they're heightened in terms of colors and they way they fit. The idea was to create an idealized world, the visuals are really controlled.

Where did you get the ideas for the costumes?

I looked at fashion magazines and the difference between mothers and daughters from America and Italy. It had a very different feeling. Throughout the play, as they get more absorbed in the Italian spirit, their clothes take on an Italian feeling, more body revealing and more sensual.

Are we talking Sophia Loren?

(Laughs) It's a subtle shift.

What fabrics are used?

Cotton, taffeta, lightweight wool, organza, linens, it's quite a mix.

And your budget?

I'm not quite sure about the New York production because we had three companies that started in Seattle, went to Chicago and then to New York. We kept building on the show as we went from place to place. We'll see what we take to San Francisco. There might be things that don't work or are worn out.

Based on that, is there a certain life span for costumes?

Yes. It depends on how it was taken care of and the wardrobe staff. If costumes are not looked after, they can fall apart in a few months. It's amazing what the wardrobe staff can destroy just from ignorance. It's quite shocking.

Did you work closely with the director of the show?

Yes, with Craig Lucas who was the original director, then Barlett Sher in Seattle.

How do you begin the design process?

Of course, I read the play and do a character breakdown to see how much they need, their changes, the situation. Then I meet with the director, make sketches, add color, decide on fabrics, swatches, then go to various shops, see how much clothes are and what we'll purchase.

If there is someone of unusual size, we have to make things for them and build accessories, such as wigs, shoes, makeup, jewelry, gloves, purses, etc.

How long does it take?

Usually it's four weeks to design the show, but that's solid time. Maybe two weeks of pre-production, getting the fabrics together. Then another four to five weeks of rehearsals and fittings, another two to three weeks of technical rehearsals and then previews. But there are a lot of steps along the way.

Was there a character that was difficult to design?

Maybe the young boy Frizio. He needed to be disheveled and appealing at

the same time. It was hard striking that balance. Ultimately, we gave him a white shirt with no tie. It's very free and simple.

Do you get feedback from the actors?

Oh yes. I always like to see what they say. And experienced actors know what looks good on them and what colors. I try to work closely with the actors.

How important is costume design to a show?

It's very important. It's the first thing we see. We look at the character and see the whole gestalt of them. Even if people don't know the whole character, they are making a decision of who that person is.

Are you always looking for ideas?

Yes! I work a lot. That's the thing about this, you can change your mind. Something crosses your path and you're inspired to go in a new direction. Sometimes you see this fabric and think it's fantastic.

Do you shop on Delancy Street? My mom used to take me there all the time and I couldn't stand it!

A lot of the fabric places closed down there. Now most of them are on the 39th Street area, north of Macy's.

What happens to costumes after the show?

They'll go into storage, maybe they're used again. Shoes are used again, but leading lady roles are not.

Thank you so much for your time.

It was my pleasure.

Tickets for "The Light in the Piazza" go on sale July 9, ranging in price from $35 to $90. The are available through Ticketmaster at (415) 512-7770, at and through Beginning July 10, tickets will also be available at the Orpheum Theatre Box Office.

Reach Andrea E. Garcia at 427-6935 or