Dennis Wright shares his inspiration behind the whimsical costumes of “Into the Woods”
BYU’s production of “Into the Woods” contains familiar fairy-tale characters who are faced with surprising consequences following their traditional happy ever after ending. Designed by theatre and media arts professor, Dennis Wright, the production’s costumes add another layer of familiarity and surprise due to their inspiration drawn from the artwork of famed Utah artist, James C. Christensen.
Wright said the inspiration struck as soon as the director, Dallyn Vail Bayles, mentioned he wanted to emphasize the fantasy element of the show and that he liked the personality and quirkiness of Christensen’s art.
“I think it is a perfect fit for a play about fairy tales,” Wright said. “I had done a project based on his work before, but it was for my graduate thesis, so I didn’t have the chance to actually build it. Getting to build it as a whole show was really fun.”
Using Christensen’s art as inspiration for the stage is not new to BYU. In 2014, Christensen collaborated on the annual BYU Spectacular which was centered around his painting titled “Trying to Fly.” Christensen attended BYU before teaching at his alma mater for over 20 years, making the connection, as well as his focus on fantasy, a perfect fit for a musical at BYU.
The musical, written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, creates challenges for costume designers because audiences bring their own ideas of how the iconic characters, such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, should look. Most audience members will be especially familiar with the Disney versions, including designs from the recent Disney produced film version of the musical.
“Having a visual concept that is so strong and different counteracts those preconceived notions,” Wright said. “We have used colors that are recognizable to help with the storytelling, but the shapes and silhouettes are all really different.”
Wright uses colors for a variety of reasons throughout the show. Some of it is scripted, such as Little Red’s cloak and Cinderella’s silver and gold gown. Other choices help enhance themes in the show, like using similar colors among family members to define family groups. A more encompassing choice includes a difference in overall tone between the first and second act.
“Act 1 is all about what everyone wants and what they are willing to do to get it,” Wright said. “Act 2 is all about the consequences of how they got it. It is almost like a spring/winter type story. In the spring we are using a lot more bright colors and warm rich tones. In the winter, it is all cooler tones like blues and grays. There is going to be a real difference in feel and tone.”
Using the vibrant colors of Christensen’s art was one thing, but being able to replicate the boxy, Elizabethan silhouettes he was famous for did not lend itself to the stage. Instead, Wright researched silhouettes from historical periods and then placed Christensen elements on top, such as layers and enormous sleeves.
“What I love most about Christensen art,” Wright said, “is that it is whimsical and fun. I incorporated distinctive Christensen elements by mixing bold patterns and textures. I included checkered prints, stripes and large-scale brocades. We used a lot of fabric. I’m sure there are over 500 different fabrics and trims.”
Not only does “Into the Woods” have an unusually large cast of principal characters, but each one has at least two costumes, if not more. Cinderella alone has three separate ball gowns in addition to the servant rags and dresses she wears after becoming royalty. Wright created three different bodices that each go with one skirt in order to create the illusion of three completely different looks.
“The details of our costumes are dazzling,” said Libby Lloyd, the actress who plays Cinderella. “I was fortunate enough to wear one (of three) of my completed ball gowns for our promotional photo shoot and I cannot tell you how beautiful I feel in that dress. The costumes can really affect our performances; they add a new level of fantasy you can’t experience otherwise.”
The elements of the story based on Cinderella are drawn from the Grimm Brothers’ version of the story, which does not include a fairy godmother who magically changes Cinderella’s rags into a ball gown. However, the musical still contains two on-stage transformations. Madison Dennis, the actress who plays the Witch, described the contrast between two of her costumes.
“The first outfit is entirely founded in earthy tones,” Dennis said, “which perfectly fits my interpretation of how the Witch’s powers come from the earth. The second act Witch costume is quite contrary to the first in style, fabric and color. The outfit is much more grand and regal, bringing to light her vanity. The fabrics are bedazzled and appear wealthier, like silks and velvets. The brilliant choices Dennis Wright and his team have made perfectly point to The Witch’s belief that she is above everyone else.”
Every choice Wright has made adds to the themes, messages and relationships of the play. Even down to Jack’s cow, Milky White, who is played by an actor instead of a prop, and wears a very human-like costume in order to show a real bond and friendship between the two characters.
“Honestly,” Dennis said, “I think the price of the ticket is worth it just to sit and look at Wright’s enchanting costumes for an evening. Like every department involved with this production, it is evident that the costume department has put their entire hearts into the production of this show and I am honored to wear the fruit of their hard labor.”
Dennis Wright’s dazzling costumes can be seen in the Pardoe Theater until Dec. 9.