The Physics of Movement: An Interview with Santo Richard Loquasto
February 24, 2014 | by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Santo Richard Loquasto has a big, easy smile, and an infectious enthusiasm for his work. Since his first production—Sticks and Bones, in 1972—he’s worked on some sixty-one Broadway productions, either as a scenic or costume designer, and often as both. His cunning sets and fanciful costumes have garnered him fifteen Tony Award nominations (he’s won three times), and he’s also won numerous Drama Desk Set Awards for Outstanding Set Design and Outstanding Costume Design. Loquasto is also known for his work in film—most notably with Woody Allen, with whom he’s worked for decades, most recently on Blue Jasmine. One afternoon last summer we met at the Margot Patisserie on the Upper West Side, where Loquasto talked about how he got his start, the demands of designing for dancers, and the downsides of his job.
What got you into costume design?
Well, it just always interested me as a kid. I grew up in Pennsylvania. Mine is the classic story of a teenager in the Poconos, painting summer-stock scenery because that’s what you do there. What I was really interested in was scenery and visuals. I was always creating the mise-en-scène in my backyard. The costumes were always part of it. I was interested in the scenery because in many ways it’s … well, I can’t say it’s more manageable, but it is, of course, because you don’t have to deal with people quite in the same way. People think of me as a costume designer, but in New York, the first things I did were scenery. I did a Sam Shepard one-act play off Broadway in 1970, and then worked for Joe Papp for many years. By that time, I was in grad school at Yale, concentrating on both scenery and costumes. I was designing costumes at Williamstown. When you don’t sew, you’re somewhat intimidated by that aspect of it. You’re lucky if you get to work with amazing people who make the costumes for you and with you.
I just raced from this little shop, Euroco Costumes, where I have the costumes designed for most of my dance projects. It’s two people, Janet Bloor and Werner Kulovitz. She’s brilliant at the stretch issues, and he is an amazing costume-maker of the grand school. Beautiful period cutting. I’ve only known him for about thirty years. You rely on the shorthand that develops between you and also what they bring to it, which is not only their expertise but also their passion. It’s very interesting—normally people who make costumes, who deal with the horrible deadlines and the issues of comfort and the egos of the performers, get sick of it. But I see them get excited by new projects and it’s exhilarating for all of us.
Can you talk to me about designing for Alexei Ratmansky’s The Tempest?
The Tempest you can approach in any number of ways, like most Shakespeare. I did a lot of Shakespeare in the Park in the seventies, both scenery and costumes, and for ten years, I worked in Stratford, Ontario, at the Shakespeare festival. I didn’t do The Tempest there, but I’ve dealt with the play. It was interesting to work with Ratmansky. For him, working on The Tempest is not like, say, Romeo and Juliet, which is so much more of a ballet vocabulary, both because of the great score, which so guides you, and because of his ballet background. Also, everyone knows the story so well. Whereas with our production of The Tempest, there is this much looser Sibelius score.
I follow the play, and I think you have to start there. As an interpreter, you have to follow the progression as Shakespeare laid it out, with your own understanding of where the words aren’t applicable to movement. You understand when Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. You know what to do. There’s anger and rage and comedy. There was a debate at one point about losing the clowns, Trinculo and Stephano. I quietly fought to keep them. I said, their relationship to Caliban makes for a wonderful scene, and those things are in the structure to give us a breather, so it’s not just this man railing against everything.
Now I want to switch directions for a moment and talk about Woody Allen. You’ve had a very long affiliation with him.
Stardust Memories was our first project. I started out doing costumes for him. I was asked to do a film called Simon that Marshall Brickman, Woody’s collaborator on Annie Hall and Sleepers, wrote and directed. He must have liked working with me, because he recommended me to Woody.
Twenty-seven movies. It’s incomprehensible to me how that all happened and that it has endured. And now I’m doing the musical adaptation of Bullets Over Broadway. I am comfortable calling him on things, and I try to steer. Even though there is such a distinct look to his movies, I don’t let them become hopelessly predictable. Working on Blue Jasmine in San Francisco was certainly fun. I steered him into a rougher neighborhood—there were parts that were cut, unfortunately—where we saw more of some amazing streets, which gave the movie a little more flavor. And, I thought, made the character feel as uncomfortable as Woody did.
A different world than the ballet, which I imagine has very specific kinds of demands.
There are technical demands, certainly, and it’s often a matter of saying, No, actually we can’t let the costumes have so much weight, because even though weight propels … well, the physics of movement is such that you have to make sure a dancer isn’t fighting the weight of a dress.
What do you like best about your job?
My good friends, whom I complain to about things, always say that you like the beginning. You like the search for how you’re going to do it. The fun of Shakespeare and dance is that it’s abstract and yet you have to really reinforce the line of the story. Narrative in dance is difficult, I don’t care what they say, because it can be so cloying in how it’s expressed. Ideally, you don’t just emulate the nineteenth-century devices—I fell in love, my heart’s racing—you want to expand on it and make it more sophisticated. And yet there has to be a frame of visual reference in how you tell the story. Who’s rich, who’s poor, who’s in mourning, who’s evil, who’s good. I was doing Richard III years ago in the Delacorte and I said, Oh, I just want everyone to wear black! And they said, We would never know who was talking! That is the problem.
I love finding the vocabulary, the search for important elements. As I’ve learned from the best of them, you have to stay out of their way. Take Alexei, for instance. We have what I refer to as “the rock” in The Tempest—this black cluster of rocks that kind of emerges into the wreck of the ship and a little cave. Alexei is quite literal in that way. Even though he speaks English perfectly well, it’s nonetheless his second language, and so he wants to convey very specifically what you’re looking at, even though he does quite abstract pieces. I had to get him to trust me about taking things away from him. When you design Shakespeare in a regular ongoing way, you learn how little you need onstage. It’s all there in the language, even if we don’t have the language. We have to rely on a certain familiarity that the public will have.
We talked about what to do with the storm sequence a lot, and I said, We don’t want to use silk. We reviewed how to portray what I call the flaming water—black, shiny, threatening water that sort of envelopes the space. Cutting through it, as I envisioned it, are not only the people who are drowning, but the spirits of the island, who are under the control of Prospero. They are the color of surf, the color of sea glass. Not quite human and yet human. The movement of what they’re wearing will kind of extend the sense of water. In an ideal world, I would’ve designed it using garbage bags, but we couldn’t get them past the fire code.
But you have a different language—the dance language, right?
Yes. It has great emotions—movement. In the seventies, with Baryshnikov and Makarova, you saw the power possible with the classical pieces. Two thousand people can actually be moved to tears when this swan dies? It’s amazing. You know that certain things will just take care of themselves.
And what would you say you like least about your job?
That it is a business. As they say, it’s not called show fun. It’s endless pricing and negotiating. I don’t mean to make money. I mean how much things cost to be made, how many you need. Whether it’s costumes or scenery—how much do those cost? How it breaks apart and goes together. The technical part of it is fascinating, but the haggling does wear you out. And producers will say, Oh, we don’t want you to cut things, we just want you to do it for less. Sometimes you can. Sometimes that’s almost fun. But it wears you out ultimately, and it’s everywhere. It’s not just in institutions, it’s on Broadway. It can be brutal on Broadway, because you often feel as though you’re dealing with people who could care less. I have had management over the years say, I don’t want the birch trees, you want the birch trees. I don’t care if they’re there. It’s nice when they at least say, Oh, it’s beautiful and we really hope we can have as much of that as possible, but we don’t have much money. At least you feel that they looked at it. There are certain general managers who I’m certain would deliberately not come to any of the presentations because they don’t what the production can really look like.