Backstage Insider: Meet A Broadway Costume Designer

Seeing a Broadway show is the ultimate New York experience and the premier destination for theater lovers from around the globe. But while audiences are enjoying the show, there’s a world of activity and artistry happening behind the curtain. It is not just the immense talent on stage, but also the men and women working behind the scenes, who make Broadway what it is. So who are the people backstage, and what is it that they do? Stay tuned for this new series of insights, which will provide a keyhole for our readers into the backstage life of Broadway.

One of the most glamorous backstage professions is the “costume designer”. Costume designers create the look of each Broadway show character and maybe no other show on Broadway right now is more demanding in terms of costume design than the winner of the 2014 Tony Award® for Best Musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The show wows audiences with a rapid succession of dress changes of its lead actor Jefferson Mays, as he portrays eight different members of the rapidly dwindling D’ysquith family.

The woman behind it all is Linda Cho. Last year, Cho also won a Tony Award, this one for designing the best costumes for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Conveying each D’ysquith persona takes the talent of both the actor and the costume designer to pull off eight characters in the form of one man. Several of these “characters” appear within seconds of each other—making incredibly rapid, backstage costume changes necessary. Therefore, Cho’s costumes provide countless dresser positions, for an entire team who assists Mays. This put great pressure on Cho to create pieces that look authentically Victorian, but can be quickly removed or applied by the offstage team. Considering her honors and reputation, she has not only risen to the challenge but exceeded expectations.

So what brought Cho into costume design?

“Growing up, I always had a love for fine arts and a head for science,” she said.

She spent her high school summers attending camps for engineering and nuclear research, and graduated from an accelerated science school program.

“I had an extra semester before starting college, so my intent was to go to Africa to do international development work,” she recalled.

“My concerned parents, knowing I am small and easy to kill, dangled art and fashion school in Paris in my face, and I, of course, agreed.”

After attending the Paris American Academy, she returned home to get her bachelor’s degree at McGill University. While there, Cho majored in psychology with the idea of one day becoming a plastic surgeon—“A perfect blend of sculpture, science and Asian respectability,” she quipped.

“As an elective, I took a theater construction class (loved it), which led to a summer job working at a summer Shakespeare festival (loved that), that led to applying to the Yale School of Drama and getting an MFA in costume design.”

After more than 20 years in the business, (many of which have involved collaborating with Gentleman’s Guide director Darko Tresnjak,) Cho has come to appreciate the opportunities that each production brings.

“One of the great things about my job is the plays and players are constantly changing,” she said.

“Even if I’m designing Twelfth Night for the fourth time, it’s new and interesting because it will be set in a different time and place each time, with new, passionate, interesting people all over the country.”

On the other hand, she acknowledges that every project has its unique set of challenges—not the least of which is making sure that the costumes fit in to the overall aesthetic of the production.

“Every small decision must be considered in context with the overall stage picture, and what that choice says about a character or relationship,” Cho noted.

And what is her favorite part of designing costumes for shows around the world?

“First fittings: Anything can happen, anything can change, you get lots of good information, lots of collaboration. You meet people on a deeply personal and professional plane that doesn’t exist outside the fitting room.”

And isn’t that the draw of Broadway and New York City for so many? Anything can happen; there’s a bond that’s formed amongst travelers to this city, the universal yet personal feeling of knowing what it is to hop on a subway, walk through central park, or see a Broadway show. Arms on red velvet chairs, eyes alight with wonder, curtain rising, the energy is so contagious as to keep them returning, as Cho returns to design costumes for countless shows.

New York and theater provide the chance to meet interesting people and faces from around the country and from around the world. That’s the reason the costume designer and other behind the scenes players do this, that’s why the locals of NYC take up residence and that’s why the travelers continue to come. Broadway, there’s nowhere else like it.

Tags: Broadway, costume designer