People Talk: A conversation with costumer designer Ann Emo - The Buffalo News
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People Talk: A conversation with costumer designer Ann Emo

Ann Emo made a career in stage costuming. The associate professor in the Theater Department of SUNY Buffalo State grew up in Queens, where she learned at a young age from her mother and grandmother how to sew Halloween costumes.

After earning an MFA at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Emo worked in New York City for 10 years as a design assistant at the legendary Barbara Matera Ltd.

Emo moved to Buffalo in the early ’90s and started working at Studio Arena Theater, where she ran its costume job for years.

This will be a busy season for the costume designer. Her works will be seen in many productions including “School for Husbands” at Irish Classical Theater and “A Life in the Theater” at Jewish Repertory Theater. In October, she will costume “Doubt” at Buffalo State followed in November by “Night of the Iguana.”

Emo, who is 52, and her three children – ages 17, 19 and 21 – live in the Buffalo area.

People Talk: Why do you do what you do?

Ann Emo: I think theater and arts are extremely important to society. Without humanities, we’ve lost humanity. Theater is an excellent way for people to express their thoughts, and to respond to what is happening in the world. It’s also sheer entertainment. Costume design is a huge part of making that happen. Having the ability to influence an environment is very important.

PT: Why aren’t you on stage?

AE: I’ve had 12 years of vocal training so I’ve been on stage in musicals, chorus, singing art songs.

PT: What is involved in developing a costume concept?

AE: I read the play once, and then I sort through the technical things to see what is absolutely needed. Is it raining out? Are there any lines about the clothes? What period is it set in? And then I’ll talk to the director. Ideally, this occurs six months in advance. I did a show that way at Geva (in Rochester) last year, “Freud’s Last Session.” Most of the plays I’ve done, I do only once. I’ve done “Julius Caesar” twice. I’m not fond of it. Almost never do you do it the same.

PT: What skill set does costume design require?

AE: Character analysis, period research, color theory. You must determine what people will feel comfortable wearing. Does it support the play? Can actors do what they need to do? Actors have so much to think about. They have to remember their lines with motivation. You don’t want them to be thinking about what they’re wearing.

PT: Is there any element that revolutionized costume design?

AE: The zipper was enormous because previous to that you were using hooks and eyes or lacing. Also, the plays we are doing now require quick changes. Shakespeare didn’t require quick changes. But because of the influence of movies, play structure has changed so we use magnets now for quick changes. And we’ve got Velcro because of NASA.

PT: What makes you a good costume designer?

AE: I have empathy for the actors and get a sense of what they need. The great thing for me is when an actor puts a costume on and says, “I know who I am.” Sometimes it’s just the shoes. So my ability to get into their heads as actors is one thing. I’m a great collaborator so I listen to stories other people are trying to portray and the atmosphere. And just experience. I’ve been doing this for a really long time, well over 30 years.

PT: How does Ann Emo leave her mark on a production?

AE: I don’t think I do and here is why: The job of costume designer is to support the play and to make people look the way they are supposed to look. So if you’re noticed for something, you may not be doing your job. Certainly there are people more famous than I who have a signature.

PT: Where do old costumes go?

AE: We have costume storage. We rent and borrow so costumes get recycled within the community. I can change the actual silhouette of a costume from one period to the next. For example, in the 1930s men’s jackets had wide lapels and very wide legs. So you could substitute a 1970s suit if it’s not super polyester. I’ll nip the waist on the jackets and taper the legs so they’re not flared.

PT: When was the golden age of costumes?

AE: Different styles peaked at different times so you would have the Busby Berkeley extravaganza with all these bells and whistles and feathers. And then you have “Lion King,” a whole different genre of costuming. So I don’t think there is a golden age. It’s just different.

PT: Describe your personal style.

AE: Comfort, mostly. I don’t pay a lot of attention to myself in that way. In my day I do so many different things. I almost never sew clothing for myself. I usually grab something at Target or Marshall’s when I’m out shopping for something else.

PT: Your service is always in demand. Why?

AE: Because I deliver a product that is reliable and I consider the needs of the actors. Not all designers do that. I mean we are paid very, very little and everybody is very busy. Sometimes it’s just get what you can get, and that’s not good enough for me. If at all possible, I go to New York and shop.

PT: Where else does creativity manifest in your life?

AE: I like to cook and bake. I have a garden I love. My kids, I talk to them. My other big thing is that I’ve been training in tae kwon do for 12 years. I’m a third-degree black belt. That takes a lot of passion, discipline, attention to detail. Body awareness.

PT: Do dance costumes pose a special challenge?

AE: I do a lot of modern dance, and because there is a not a script, costuming is very important. Last year, a theme was “Responding to Art Work,” and one of the choreographers used Erté as his inspiration. That was fabulous. Another was the Chinese activist Ai Weiwei, so it was really about the breaking down of society and norms. How do you do that in clothing? The costumes sort of came apart. It was fun.


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