An Interview with Orlando’s Costume Designer Anita Yavich

You are charged with the age old challenge of putting an actress in male attire, a venerable tradition that goes back to the Restoration. Is it as simple as just putting the actor in masculine clothes?

It is really about the actor or actress, somebody who has that androgyny within them. I think most of us have that. It just depends on how boys and girls are raised and how you deal with the world. When you think about Shakespeare’s time there were many female impersonators because there was no such thing as an actress. This is true in a lot of theatrical traditions. Sometimes female impersonators are much more feminine than women, because it’s really about how you project the essence of the character and that is the actual challenge of the piece.

How much do clothes impact on issues of maleness or on what constitutes “the fairer sex”? Do clothes make the man, or does the actor have to bring something to inhabiting it? And just what is that “it”?

It’s much more about the behavior I would say, and then you augment the behavior. In this particular case, obviously, when Orlando becomes a woman she starts to realize that there are certain things she cannot do in the gowns she is wearing. A sailor almost fell off the mast when she accidentally exposes two inches of her ankle. Also, she can’t run after people. I think it’s less about what is truly feminine and what is truly masculine. It is much more about how society expects you to behave if you are a male or female. Philosophically, for me, what’s so amazing about this novel is the fact that the human spirit can never be domesticated by any system of thought. Even the idea of male and female, it’s too small and too confining to define the human spirit. We want to do that by country or by race. The novel covers time and centuries, but these things are all too small to contain such a spirit as Orlando. And that’s all of us.

How much do you think should be telegraphed through the actual clothes, especially when a play demands that actors play so many roles? Does one have to just make bold choices?

It’s really about looking at existing, historical pieces and then finding the symbolism that is already contained in these real pieces. For example, the idea of the wedding ring and hoops grew out of an alchemical connection with the 19th century research we did. In a way they were just a sense of what that century was all about. It’s more exciting to do this in theatre rather than film because it’s less about illustration, it’s much more. You have to be extremely precise with the object or the piece of clothing you’re using. How you shrink down the proportions becomes extremely pertinent to what you’re trying to say. Instead of thinking of clothing as something we wear to protect ourselves it’s just another layer of symbolic meaning, and basically we have to think about clothing like language. How does the sentence flow into the next sentence? In a way this is very much like what Sarah Ruhl is doing with this adaptation.

Finally, we’re sometimes told by costume designers that CSC is particularly challenging because the proximity of the audience to the actor forces that everything be incredibly detailed and realistic. Do you find this to be true?

It depends on the play. This is my fourth time working at CSC. Venus in Fur and New Jerusalem were historically accurate, but it really depends on the aesthetic of the specific show. The audience is indeed close. I knew Orlando was going to be a big challenge but I also knew that as a team, there were certain risks that we could take. The fundamental bottom line is that I believe anything you put on stage has to have artistic integrity of its own, whatever that is. And integrity does not mean getting real Viennese crystal from the 1880’s. Remember, realism is just a genre. It is not reality, and the beautiful thing about theatre is that it can be about suggestion. You can believe in suggestion. It is that simple; you can believe, you can invest and you can fall in love with the suggestion. It is just like cooking; if you can’t cook with love then the food is going to taste bad. It doesn’t matter what recipe you follow.