Shows / The Mountaintop

Defining an Era: An Interview with Costume Designer Chad Phillips

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall is a powerful production that re-imagines the night before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Play, Hall takes the audience back in time to the year 1968 at The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. Costume Designer Chad Phillips spoke with us about designing costumes for this production and his career as a designer.

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Chad Phillips does a costume fitting for the production Gem of the Ocean (2008)

Q: How did your career get started in costume design? 

A: I started sketching clothes at an early age. I didn’t start college until I was almost 25 years old. I was originally seeking a career in the fashion design industry, however, always loving the fantastical, a friend recommended the costume design industry to me.

Q: What are some of the challenges you face while designing costumes?

A: I always want to stay true to the characters, the time, and the feeling of what the show is conveying. It’s so easy to just do something that’s simple, but it may not be the best option for design. Sometimes, unfortunately, we do have to sacrifice our designs for one reason or another. I do also appreciate a director’s or an actor’s opinion and input when I’m designing.

Q: Describe your process of designing costumes for a show like The Mountaintop.

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Chad Phillips fits a costume for the production Gem of the Ocean (2008)

A: One of the first steps that I learned in college for any design job was to become familiar with what you are working on (i.e. reading the script).  I always read the script for the first time for enjoyment only. Then, once you begin the second reading, this is where the more important aspects take place. You want to know the following items: time frame, setting, season, and of course familiarize yourself with the characters: what’s their economic or social status? The character’s race or cultural background may or may not be important, depending on the script content or focus. Does the character live in a major metropolis that’s bustling, or a small town? Are they shy, flamboyant, or conservative? All of these aspects we may take for granted when defining a character; as people we’ve intrinsically constructed our own identity around many of these small choices over years and years. But for theatre, you only have a few months or just weeks to help construct the outward appearance of a character’s identity. How can the costumes help to further the story for audiences without being distracting? Once you have thought of all of these items, meet with the director. What are they thinking? Ask questions! Begin your research. Sketch or collage your ideas. Have a meeting with the actors. Some designers shy away from getting opinions from actors, but not me! I want to know how they perceive their character. Be very conscientious of an actor’s feelings. Of course, sometimes, I still adhere to what I believe is the best costume for them.

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1964 (source: Library of Congress)

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1964 (source: Library of Congress)

Q: Do you find that designing a costume for such an iconic figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. makes the design process easier or more difficult?

A: I don’t find it difficult or easy. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, and still is such an iconic figure in history and my own personal life. He was a man known for not what he wore, but the words that he spoke. If I were designing a show about an iconic figure that was known for their fashion only, then that would be the main area of concentration. So many resources only show Dr. King in suits. This is where, as a designer, you have to broaden your horizon of a basic black suit. This is one of the reasons why I chose a steel bluish grey suit for him.

Q: The costumes for The Mountaintop must define a certain era.  What do you find most challenging about staying true to that?

A: As a designer, one must be either familiar with, or willing to be familiar with what was current for an era. This can be colors, fabrics, styles, hairstyles. I have seen too many bad “non-era” productions, whether in theater or on television. It’s not a challenge for me, though. I like to really dissect what was current for the era. For this production, I did quiz my mother quite a bit. She lived through this era. She and my dad were married in 1967, so asking her about colors and fabrics was part of my design process.

More about Chad:

Chad returns to ETC for the fourth time to design costumes for The Mountaintop.  His other productions for ETC include Radio Golf, Gem of the Ocean, and The Whipping Man. He is employed at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park as the Costume Design Assistant. He resides in Covington, Kentucky. 

The Mountaintop runs through April 6, 2014 at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. For more information or to purchase tickets click here.

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