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Video transcript
Tales from the Wild Bush – 09. Costume design interview

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SUZANNE LOUK: Hi, I'm Suzanne, and I'm a costume designer. My training is actually in couture, and millinery, and classical ballet tutus and all that. But there's not a huge call for all of that all the time. And so I've diversified and done a lot more other costumes, and I'm usually on call for quite unusual pieces.

You always put your hand up for a device show and think it's a lucky dip, don't know what's coming. But you just have to roll with the punches of it. And I wasn't given so many picture images or anything, because they said they wanted bushland creatures, and we all know what a kangaroo looks like or an echidna and things. And my mind is going, oh my god, budget, how do we do all this on a restricted budget and time? If you want to do really fabulous pieces, you need money and time.

However, I went, well, how do we do this? I have some animals in archive, and there's some things that aren't really animal animal but we can adapt. And I think that's a big part of costume design, particularly, in Australian theatre with budgets the way they are. We can't just get everything new every time, so you have to adapt, and repurpose, and recreate and all that sort of thing. So I did a bit of that.

And then there's also that whole-- this storytelling. And if you tell an audience that this is a lyrebird and the lyrebird is doing their job and acting fabulously, it becomes a lyrebird, yeah. And that was my lyrebird. Literally, that's all of it. It was basically some scrunched-up tool on our budget and a corset. He did a great job in his movement and his characterisation, and he became a lyrebird. So nobody leaves the theatre thinking that wasn't a lyrebird, because we told them it was, and there was elements of the bird there

Some of the costumes were more complex. When they said they wanted a frill neck lizard, I'm like, really? And I do a lot of costumes, say, mascots for the football and stuff and they have heaps of money. And you do mechanicals where you've got bike handles that make things operate and all this sort of thing. We couldn't do that. We got kids short rehearsal time and that sort of thing.

So with the frill neck lizard, really, it was-- and she had to have a quick change as well. So some of the animals like her, and the owl, and the echidna, it's about body shape. And so you talk to the kids and go, go and watch David Attenborough because an owl is round. You have to be come round, and I can help you become round with the costume, but your posturing has to change.

And so obviously, she gets the tail in all that. But with her neck, you know mechanicals, we had to make it huge and stiff and have that quiver. Basically, she's flipping it up with her hands, which is the easiest thing we could do for this sort of production. But then it's like you've got to get that organic movement and she becomes a lizard just like that.

Well, you have to have the right fabric. And you might see a great print somewhere, but if it's too stiff, it won't quiver. It won't do things. So you're always looking and keeping an eye out for the right kind of fabric. This is just a jersey knit but inside is what we call crinoline. It's a really fine, very coarse, harsh fabric. And then the superstructure is binding and all that. You've got to have other things to help it create silhouette and shape.

And that comes, for me, from my couture training as much as anything else and millinery and all. There's so many techniques. You go, how will I do this? Oh, wait a minute. Our echidna, I didn't know how to do on an echidna. I really, really didn't. And then I thought, well, they're round and they're cute. So we basically padded her back up with a big pillow, nothing fancy there and then the spikes. When she's rounded, cable ties, just hundreds of cable ties and watching television.

So it's not all highfalutin and fancy. It's just I find my mental process is OK. I'll think about it for a couple of weeks and I'm like, what's my plan of action? And then suddenly, you're washing up or something, you go, I know how to do that animal and it's like, OK, cable ties. Go to Bunnings, get some cable ties, practise with a bit of rubbish fabric to see if they'll do what you want them to do, because it needs to be supported by the roundness to get them to stick out.

But some of it you just know, OK, I'll do a tailored this and blah, blah, blah, blah, same as the frog mouth owl. He's pompous and again, he had to be round. I had a very slender boy, so we gave him a fat belly. And these animals weren't required to be completely realistic.

So we just gave him that short cape and we just hand-painted the feathers out of felt because budget. If you go and buy feathers, they're quite expensive, and then the application is quite tricky. So we pretended and just painted felt feathers and things like that.

You've got to create illusions, and sometimes the weirdest things can give the right illusion. Again, it's about that storytelling. And the emu is just-- I think it's an evening fabric. And from a distance, as an emu, it's all feathery and looks fabulous. And I've used the wrong side as well, because if you see the right side, that's the right side of the fabric. Really shiny fabrics under light will not look anything like what you think they would in the shop perhaps.

So you've got to look-- there's a lot of looking at things sideways or not just oh, if it's a tartan thing, I have to use tartan fabric or things like that. You can create illusions and just by looking at things from a different point of view and being a bit abstract, yeah. And the fabrics too for different animals or any character have to fall differently. Some things have a very soft flowy drape. You've got lovely lyrical movement or you've got really rigid stiff things. And to create that, you need to use the right textures and weaves and wait.

This is a really hot show for the kids. Animals are furry. We've got fur everywhere. And again, with budgets and stuff, fur fabrics are very expensive. And again, it's that creative thing and how to meet the challenge in the best way possible. So instead of buying a whole lot of very expensive fur fabric, I want a whole lot of minkies from Kmart, because they're a metre 50 by a metre 50. And you can cut a pair of pants out or whatever from a minky, and there are only $10 to $15 instead of $60 or $70.

It's a mark of a designer to be able to meet the challenge and come into the budget and make something successful. So you have to meet those challenges. This is what I want to do, but how am I going to do it? And then you pull it together somehow or other.

Creatively, like we said, we painted the owl's feathers who look very different to the kookaburra and the corella. I think this is a corella. And really, again, this is time and things like that. That's just shredded fabric. It's on a wing base, and we give her a shrug so it attaches to her arms, but it's just a wing base with shredded fabric. And to get the little bit of fluffiness, again, it's sitting in front of television roughing up the edges.

I do cut them on the bias, though. And for those people who want to do costume design, you will eventually understand bias as opposed to straight grain. The bias will give you a completely different fall to a straight grain, and you learn that. You learn how it falls against the body or moves when they're flapping about.

I loved my owl, but he's upstairs. This is a shag on a rock. I didn't make this. This was in Naida's costume. And this girl is very briefly on stage, but it's brilliant. It really is scraps, just scraps compiled and beautifully composed scraps, because whoever did make it, they've overdyed, they've coloured. It's not just making it look rough for rough's sake. It's organising that rugged roughness and getting the colour, and the texture, and the movement and particularly for her, because she looked so regal when she's in it.

The structure, the colour is wired. Like this colour, the lizard, there's boning and crinoline this has actually got wire and to sit and be quite rigid. But when you think, it's a mess of scraps, but it took hours and hours and hours to do, and it's beautifully done. So I love that piece from Naida, and I was lucky enough to be able to borrow it from them.

Each piece you just have to think, how am I going to do this? You have to follow the director's vision. And I might think, oh, well I'd love to do a play like this in all beautiful regency dresses. And they go, no, no, no, no, no, my regency people are going to be punk, and you go, OK.

And you can't impose your own preferences because it's their vision. But you also have to let your mind run free, and don't be too literal. That's what I mean. I used to be very literal, and you think, oh, it has to look exactly like this and be this because that's what I'm trying to achieve. But it doesn't-- like I said, this storytelling and you're not being too literal I think is really, really important.

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