Linda Pisano has designed some 15 productions for the IRT, including Miranda, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Little Night Music, and Romeo and Juliet. This year she is designing new costumes for the IRT's annual production of A Christmas Carol. Linda is the Chair of the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance at Indiana University in Bloomington. Read on to learn about her!
HOW DID YOU FIRST BECOME INTERESTED IN THEATRE?
I was born in northern Utah, up in the height of the Rocky Mountains. We had a children’s theatre in town, and I remember seeing a production about a doll house. And the doll house they created was designed after my parents’ 22-room Queen Anne—my parents were antique dealers and had restored this house. So I remember watching the show and thinking, that’s my house on stage, and I was so intrigued with how my house had joined this story.
But what got me actively engaged with theatre was drama therapy. I didn’t really speak as a child. My mother met the woman who ran this children’s theatre, who was a drama therapist. I took a class, and sure enough I got involved, and that became my life. Eventually I earned my B.F.A. in acting from Utah State University, and I started to earn my Equity weeks at smaller regional companies. Then I decided that I really wanted to research, so I got an M.A. in theatre theory and criticism at Utah State on my way to getting a Ph.D.
But while I was doing that master’s, one of my friends who was doing an independent project said, “Hey Linda, you dress really well. Do you want to design costumes for me?” I’ve always loved clothing. So I did the research and the renderings and I found that it was really amazingly fun. It was everything I loved about the theatre. I was doing character analysis, studying the play, the time period, doing the dramaturgical work. And yet I was also drawing and bringing things to life and working with the director to build the world. I loved being able to immerse myself in the history, the biography of clothing.
So then I changed courses and I went to the Ohio State University for an M.F.A. in costuming. And while there I was able to take some Ph.D. courses, and it was exciting to learn to think about theatre from that direction as well. So I wasn’t just a practitioner, but I was also researching. And that’s where I was introduced to ballet, and started designing for the Ballet Met, and that was amazing.
WHAT WAS YOUR ROUTE FROM THERE TO INDIANA UNIVERSITY AND THE IRT?
I started working professionally in my third year of grad school, getting professional contracts for ballet and musicals and contemporary dance. In the year after graduation I think I did 14 jobs in 12 months. I was 26 and I just dived in and started working and working and working, and at that time I had the freedom to do it. But then I also knew that I was interested in higher education. I have always loved being a teacher and I love academia. So I spent two years teaching at Kenyon College in Ohio, and three years at Iowa State, and then I came to Indiana in 2002.
Janet Allen hired me to do a Romeo and Juliet that Priscilla Lindsay was directing—and then I found out that I was pregnant. So I delivered my son by C-section, and five days later I was released from the hospital, and four days later my son and I came up to the IRT for final fittings. Priscilla stood in all of the fittings and held my son while I did my job. She said, “Nope, he’s too new, no one else can hold him, only me.” It was great!
WHAT IS IT ABOUT DESIGNING COSTUMES THAT FULFILLS YOU?
I love people. I love meeting people, I love hearing about people’s lives. I have good instincts about it, but also I just love diving into how a person thinks, how a character thinks. And so when I read a playwright’s words to describe a character, and then I listen to the director talking about the world of the play, I wonder: when they put this on, what is that person thinking? I guess it’s me living vicariously through the characters, through the analysis of both the world and the individual. And one thing that I love about opera and ballet or a show like A Christmas Carol is creating these big pictures with a lot of people on stage. It’s like you’re creating a canvas of color and texture. I think there’s a great challenge in trying to serve a character and a story and to help the artistic team and the director tell that story. I’m fascinated by how even though people may not know much about clothing, everyone takes it very personally because it’s the one thing that you put on every day. Everyone has an opinion about clothing.
WHAT’S IT LIKE DESIGNING NEW COSTUMES FOR A SHOW THAT’S BEEN RUNNING FOR 29 YEARS?
One, it’s daunting. There are so many people who know this production so well because they’ve grown up with it—they’ve seen it all their lives. To change something that’s a tradition for so many people—they’ve got expectations, and you want to meet their expectations of excitement, but at the same time you want to introduce them to a new way of looking at the story. So that is daunting. Two, I’m very humbled to be entrusted with such an important event. IRT clearly values this play because they realize that the community values it, and so I’m really humbled to be asked to participate in it. Three, it’s a challenge because it is such a big undertaking. The show is so big, it will take two or three years to phase in the entire vision completely. So it is going to be a little thrilling each year. I’ve re-designed many things—Nutcrackers and operas and ballets—but to have it phased in over three years is new for me, and kind of exciting. I’m excited to watch it, see how it works, and then go into the next phase next year.
WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING AT THE IRT?
I enjoy working with the IRT Costume Shop because there’s real skill. I love to collaborate with the makers, and if I ask them for something special, it’s always, oh that would be fun. I’ll never forget Julius Caesar when Brenda Taylor was so excited to make all these embroidered Caesar patches and logos. She was so proud of them, and it was terrific to work with her. The shop takes pride in their work, and they really embrace opportunities to do the detail work that designers ask for because they know it’ll pay off with a beautiful product. And I love that IRT puts up those costumes around the mezzanine. I think it demonstrates a real respect for that shop and those makers and what they do.
This might sound superficial, but because I’ve done so many shows here, I do feel a sense of belonging, a sense of professional family here. I love that I’m always introduced to someone new, whether it’s a new actor, a new director, another member of the design team I haven’t previously met. And it’s an opportunity to come together with some very sophisticated artisans and craftspeople. I mean, I love working with Michael Lincoln. What a treasure! And this is my first time working with Ben Hanna; he’s so energetic, and that’s exciting. Yet I also love having been in all these design meetings with Janet Allen, because she has such wisdom and experience to learn from. So every experience at IRT is very different and very exciting. I work for a lot of theatres around the country, opera and ballet especially, and one thing about IRT is that it truly lives up to the mission of a regional theatre. It is clearly here to serve, and embraces that service to the community.
The IRT produces top-quality, professional theatre that engages, surprises, challenges and entertains people throughout their lifetimes, helping to build a vital and vibrant community.
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