Sue LePage is the set, props, and costume designer for Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™. Sue has designed costumes and/or sets for over 100 Canadian productions, including theatre productions about Lucy Maud Montgomery and her works. In this interview, Sue talks about her design process, the relationship between design and storytelling, and the challenges of designing for a touring company. She even offers some details about the designs she has in store, including Anne’s iconic dress with puffed sleeves!
What are your main design inspirations?
My main inspiration comes from the Anne books themselves. I had the chance to design other plays about Anne, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Emily of New Moon. I’ve even read some of the L.M. Montgomery journals. As nice as it is to have all of that background, it’s also good to start fresh. This is a very new form for Anne.
What is special about designing for the first full-length ballet of Anne of Green Gables?
Ballet offers a new opportunity to express Anne’s imagination in a way that cannot be done in other forms. Anne constantly talks emphatically about nature. She gives cherry trees names and absolutely delights in the world around her. She can’t speak those things in the ballet, but she can dance them. When Anne imagines things around her, nature comes to life. We’ll have wonderful flowers and cherry trees, and parts of nature, including animals, that come to life through Anne’s imagination. We’ll find a way of expressing it so that the audience understands that it’s really only Anne who can see these things. A lot of the people around Anne sort of shake their heads at Anne’s wild imagination, and they don’t see what she sees. Dance gives us a wonderful opportunity to express this.
Take us through the process of designing for a new production.
To do a new work means you need to stay light on your feet. You make some commitments and some important decisions about the tone, but you also want to be able to adjust as you discover things along the way. Of course, a lot of those things will be discovered in rehearsal with the dancers and Bengt. I’ve already given them a sheaf of drawings, but it will be a two-way street. I’ll try to respond to what happens in rehearsal. That’s always the way with new works. It’s going to be something that is evolving constantly, and that’s one of the things that’s really exciting about it.
“Ballet offers a new opportunity to express Anne’s imagination in a way that cannot be done in other forms.”
Where are you in the design process now?
The process with Anne is actually unique for me. I was brought into the group that was creating the synopsis. We worked from other forms and created the story in a fresh way. Because I was part of that group, I gained a real feeling for what we wanted the piece to be in the early stages. That’s been a real help to the design process. After those meetings, I started to draw and model-make. There is a little 1/4 inch=1-foot model of what the set will look like and some drawings which haven’t yet gone to the builders. The most recent batch of drawings I’ve done is of the costumes. That’s quite an undertaking. I haven’t counted how many drawings I have, but it’s a lot. Just last week I shared a set of drawings with the team of people who will be doing the costume construction. We had a wonderful meeting about our priorities and how things will actually be built. They’ll go and do costings, and that may cause us to make some adjustments. My next step will be to shop for fabric and actually source some of these things, whether we are building them or finding them. So, we’re right between the two very distinct phases. I’m really looking forward to getting out there and starting to make little decisions, but at the same time that’s always hard. The next phase begins very soon.
Who builds the costumes and sets?
There are well over 100 costumes. Right now, we have a team of two cutters, a tailor, and a milliner who will build hats and masks. There will also be a costume coordinator, because I couldn’t possibly keep everybody organized and supplied, and I will want a partner to help find things and keep us all on track. That’s our core group of five or six. I’m sure that by the time we’re finished, there will be additional people who have sewed and dyed and helped in various areas. I think people would be amazed to realize that by the time you get the set builders, painters, prop makers, shoppers, cutters, and stitchers, there are far more people behind the scenes than there are on stage. It’s true that it’s like an iceberg. There’s so much more happening than what you actually see on stage.
What can you share about your design for Anne’s iconic dress with puffed sleeves?
This is one of the wonderful places where the culture and period of the story, set in Prince Edward Island before the turn of the twentieth century, have to meet ballet culture, too. It’s not very far from the pretty dress that Matthew might have bought or had made, but it’s also not very far from a romantic tutu because Anne of course will dance in it.
What challenges do you face designing sets for a touring dance company?
Dance has a different set of requirements. You need to allow the choreography to fully express itself, so at times you need a free floor, an open space in which the dancing can be maximized. There are certainly moving elements of the set, but the most important thing is to have flexibility to both change the space and keep it open. Canada’s Ballet Jörgen tours towns and cities that don’t often get live professional performances. We must be ready to adapt our sets to venues that are all different sizes and shapes. Sometimes that means that a set has to be edited down. A venue might literally not have room to fit in every piece. The extra challenge is creating something that has small, medium, and large versions, or that could be reconstituted without losing its character and function. Moving things quickly is another concern. When you’re doing any kind of production, you want one scene to transition quickly and beautifully into the next. One of the things that’s great about this company in particular is that they incorporate those scene changes into the dance, and they help make it all part of the storytelling. It’s a real advantage to work with these folks because the whole dance company is tuned into the physical production.
“When you’re doing any kind of production, you want one scene to transition quickly and beautifully into the next.”
What do you hope to communicate to audiences through your costume and set designs?
I hope that the costumes and set become one with the dancing. I hope that all we do comes to life organically. I’ll spend some energy trying to bring those things together. Of course, the whole point is to share them and bring the joy of the story to the audience. I also hope that the dancers will have a burst of energy and excitement once they’re in the world of the set and wearing the costumes, and that it gives them a kind of understanding and feeling for the story as a whole. That’s an ideal you keep working toward with all kinds of detail, but it’s certainly something I love.
Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™ premieres September 28, 2019 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For more information visit our Anne page and look for updates in our monthly Anne Newsletter.
Written by Victoria Campbell Windle, CBJ Communications Contributor.
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