Revolutionizing a Classic - The Costumes of Dallas Theater Center's Les Mis

By Joe Kucharski - August 11, 2014

The mention of Les Misérables conjures up very specific images and emotions for most theatregoers. Dallas Theater Center’s latest production shatters every one of these pre-conceived notions. This bold, immersive, never-before-seen staging of this beloved musical thrusts the story and the actors out into the audience, and into our time. A shift from traditional 19th century costumes to a world that is a little bit futuristic and a lot modern, is easily the most jarring element of the production. Director Liesl Tommy, costume designer Jacob Climer, and the rest of the design team worked beautifully to pry us from the complacency of a period drama and drop us squarely into a story that feels raw, real, relevant, and truly revolutionary.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to ask Jacob about what this process looked like from his perspective.

 

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

Tyranny of Style: How did you become involved with the Dallas Theatre Center production of Les Misérables?

Jacob Climer: “Having grown up in Dallas, I have wanted to work for DTC for a long time. A dear friend, and wonderful designer, Clint Ramos put me up for the gig when it was offered to him and he was unable to accept.  I had assisted Clint in the past, and he has worked with our director, Liesl Tommy on many shows. He thought we could be a good match and suggested me for the show. Liesl trusted his opinion, and I couldn't be happier.”


Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

 

T/S: It is so exciting and refreshing to see Les Mis from a new, modern angle. Can you tell us about the early conceptual meetings and what the motivation was behind this shift? 

JC: “I was a late hire, so Liesl and I moved very quickly. I would share drawings and research at the same time. I wanted to be conscious of the audience’s expectations. I know how attached people are to this show and feared walkouts and terrible reviews (not that one should be motivated only by other people’s perception). I wanted to design a show that people would love. Liesl told me to make the choices that I believed in and that scared me the most – then, even if people did not like it, I could still believe in it.  I think this is a great way to approach all work.  If you believe in your choices, and they are based in the truth of the work, you can keep your head high.  Liesl gave me the ability to shed my concerns about the expectations of the audience and really commit to the story we were telling. 

Army - costume research, rendering, and production photo.

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

From the beginning, she wanted to make sure we were doing a Les Mis that spoke to our time and felt approachable and new. She reminded me that the music would be the same and that she had an incredible cast to perform it. She and I had initially discussed trying to make it semi-period (think 1830's futurism) but the earliest designs felt stilted, or worse, like a bad version of the original, or a thrifted version of the movie. Once I was able to free myself of any conception of what I should be doing, the work began to speak for itself.”

 

Javert (Edward Watts)

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

 

 

T/S: Taking these classic, beloved characters, and breathing new life into them with a wildly different visual language is no easy challenge. Can you tell us about what that design process looked like for you? 

JC: “My first step is to send the director loads and loads of research. I find words fail when trying to establish a visual dialogue, so I look for images that can serve as reference points. ‘I think this is what it looks like to be poor in this world. This is how a student looks. I love this. I hate this.’ And that's where I started. I didn't pull one character and start designing around them—it was more a process of identifying some of the larger groups in the show and starting with them. For example, with the students I began by looking at examples of modern revolutionaries. I started researching Occupy Wall Street thinking that might be a clue, but that was less helpful than anticipated.

Revolutionaries - costume research, renderings, and production photo.

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

So instead I found myself looking at images out of protests and revolutions in other parts of the world—particularly Egypt and Venezuela. I was looking more at what made them all similar. I kept noticing expressions of national pride occurring in the same kinds of ways. I was also inspired by the uses of face paint, flag imagery, graffiti-style art in signage and in clothing, and the re-appropriation of military uniforms. Then, I set to work on how this particular group would approach these styles. How did this band of largely privileged, well-educated young men take this on? My idea was that they would decide on a shorthand for what to wear to these protests. So they would each approach it in ways both the same and different—someone has a red beret, someone grabs a bandana. One person commits to fearsome face paint. Another grabs a military jacket. Once the groups started to come together, it was easier and easier to figure out how the individual characters should appear in earlier scenes. 

Jean Valjean (Nehal Joshi)

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

A character like Valjean is actually relatively easy to design for after that point—the script gives us what we need to know, and it's a matter of staying true to who we know he is in the larger design schematic. I had more trouble with Gavroche whose role is so important and moving but whom we have less background for. How to make sure he could appear worldly and wise and yet still childlike and innocent was one of the toughest lines to walk. Most unexpectedly, the inspiration for him ended up coming from The Big Lebowski—that mix of affable and slovenly and ageless.

Gavroche (Mark Hancock/Spencer Sloan) - costume research, rendering, and production photo.

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

I also like to start sketching as soon as possible. My feeling is that it helps enormously to get a vision on paper that may not be the ultimate design but captures my first impressions of a piece. I won't stick with my first designs always, but I do find that I stay true to those impulses. I sketch quickly, and I sketch a lot. And sometimes those earliest drawings help me make sure I'm not overcomplicating my designs—the audience has one chance to see these characters and understand them. I want to make sure that my designs tell the larger story we commit to as a production but also retain a simplicity of purpose and don't get overworked.”

Thenardiers (Steve Michael Walters and Christia Mantzke)

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond) 

T/S: Working with actors to find their character in a "modern" dress show can be exciting, but a little trickier. Can you tell us about the process of exploring and fleshing out these iconic characters in a new way with this cast?

“I LOVE actors and love interacting with them and sharing ideas--I like to have a very laid back fitting room. I am not the one who has to wear these clothes and embody these characters on stage 8 times a week; if they have a better idea than mine, we should use it.  Good collaboration is about using everyone's best ideas.

This came into play a lot working with our chorus members.  We would have discussions about what they did in certain places. I'd get to ask questions like, ‘What does your character do in the factory?’ or ‘What's your role in Thenardier's gang?’ It helps not only to sharpen my designs, but also to show the actor where you're coming from. 

Eponine (Elizabeth Judd)

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

I like to bring options to the fitting room—not only to be able to work on the character sharpening details, but to be able to find out how to help the actors be on comfortable ground- to give their best performance. Allison Blackwell, our Fantine, has one of the hardest scenes in the show—she has to go to a place of such naked vulnerability in one moment and then continue on immediately with more (and different) heartbreaking work. Designing that moment and finding a way for Fantine, the character, to be exposed without crossing a line where Allison, the actress, had to feel the same, was something that worked itself out in the room and came out of what felt like great, honest discussions of comfortably, practicality, and design aesthetic, and we both left the fitting room happy.”

Fantine (Allison Blackwell)

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond) 

 

T/S: Can you describe the technical rehearsal process for you on this project?

JC: “Tech for this show was a dream. DTC is wonderfully supportive and the entire design team got along swimmingly.  We were each given the time and space we needed to work. And I can't say enough about how great Liesl is during the tech process. She hires people she trusts, and she allows them all the time and space they need throughout the process.

There were not many cuts (a watch here, a wig there), but we did add one new scene's worth of looks during previews. After getting almost 200 costumes onstage, what’s another 7?  The first scene in Paris (“Look Down”) wasn't quite working—the entire production team was discussing it through tech and the very first previews, and we knew there would be changes. Liesl had the idea to see a foreclosure onstage. As we honed the idea, we redesigned (a word I hate...I think there is no such thing as redesign--just continued stages of design), re-fit, and incorporated new staging in our first few days of previews.

Marius (Justin Keyes)

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

We also came down to the wire with Cosette. The original design was very much about her being the first woman we see who isn't poor and trying to establish how this young woman with an incredibly protective father and a terribly cloistered life would dress. The ideas were there, but it wasn't coming together; somehow she ended up looking like she was selling perfume in a department store in the 1930s. Leading right up to the first preview, we knew we weren't all the way there, and I was able to step back and really think about why what we were seeing her in on stage wasn't quite right. Her clothes were feeling more like they represented an idea of her than a specific character. As we circled in on who she was, really looking not only at the text but at Dorcas' (Leung) performance—bookish, flirty, awkward, and young—a clearer picture came together, and I think we were all very satisfied with the results.”

Cosette (Dorcas Leung) original rendering, revised sketch (drawn in haste, at a cutter's table), fitting and production photo.

Les Misérables, Dallas Theatre Center. Costume Designer Jacob Climer. (photo credit: Karen Almond)

 

T/S: With such a groundbreaking production, I'm sure the response has been huge- what has been the response from audiences to you or about your work? 

JC: “The response has been so wonderful. So many people love Les Mis and have been completely won over by this production.  Good reviews are lovely, but hearing and seeing an audience get swept away is what is most satisfying. The best surprise has been the outpouring of love on Tumblr. It's amazing to see fan art of these characters in my costumes or to watch people put together side by side comparisons of the original London production next to ours. It seems as though people are really engaging not only with the production, but with the piece itself. That is extraordinarily rewarding, because the idea was never to do a version that was simply different, but to really find our own way into this incredibly rich musical. People seem to have really embraced what we did and taken the journey with us. And it only makes it all the more fulfilling that it came together with a team I couldn't have been prouder to be a part of. Not only Liesl Tommy and Christopher Windom (choreographer) and the fantastic cast and crew, but my design colleagues—from Jared Janas and Rob Greene whose brilliant hair and wig and make-up designs brought cohesion to everything I did, to the genius work of John Coyne, Colin K. Bills, and Ray Nardelli. I was inspired by everyone's work and so happy to be part of such a warm, intelligent, wonderful group.

 

 

 

Les Misérables at Dallas Theater Center runs through August 17th. There are very few tickets left- so act fast, and don’t miss this phenomenal production! Visit Dallas Theater Center's website for more details.

 

Special thanks to Jacob Climer for sharing his process and beautiful designs.