For Constanza Romero, art is everywhere. The two time-Tony award-nominated costume designer, known for her work on August Wilson’s plays, including 2009’s revival of Fences on Broadway, draws inspiration from everything from African-American history to figurative painting. She considers herself a portrait artist, using fabric as her brush and actors’ bodies as her canvases.
Ms. Romero is also the playwright’s widow, and since his passing in 2005, has taken care of his estate and helped produce his plays around the country, like the historic American Century Cycle readings at the Kennedy Center in 2008. I recently spoke to Ms. Romero about her art and her continuing relationship with August Wilson’s plays.
Constanza Romero: In general, as in any play, the costumes tell the story about who the characters are, where and when they are living, their economic status, the way they see themselves as opposed to how they are seen by others, and so on. For historic information I research the time period of the play through photographs, or paintings. But in order to really enter the psyche of the characters you have to study the play in depth.
For instance, on Seven Guitars, I read every draft, and observed the various stages of the play’s development. Some of the characters’ backstories may no longer exist in the finished play, but since I had these personal histories in my mind, I was able to have a much richer sense about who these people were. This was the unique advantage I had when I designed costumes for August’s plays, not to mention the fact that he spoke about his characters all the time. To live with August was almost like living with a family of many interesting, complex characters.
ML: You’re a painter, as well as a costume designer.
CR: I try to be. [Laughs]. I don’t have as much time for it as I used to. I’m so busy these days that I haven’t painted in a long time, but yes, I call myself a painter.
ML: What skills carry over from painting to costume design?
CR: That’s an interesting question. They share a lot of skills, especially if you think about portrait painting. If you see a good portrait of someone, you not only see what the subject looks like, but you also see how the artist sees the subject. In my opinion, if the artist has done a good job he/she has captured the inner soul of the person portrayed in the painting. I’m not saying that I’m always successful, but this is what I aspire to do with my costumes on stage.
Instead of brushes and paint, my tool is mostly fabric, and its movement, color and texture, on actor’s bodies. Beyond each individual costume looking appropriate, the whole play should also look like a complete painting, all the design elements coming together, costumes, sets and lights. I tend to use color a lot in my work. It’s a great way to express the inner life of a person, and the atmosphere of a certain place or time. It’s not as obvious as bright colors depicting happiness. Colors have different personalities, they hold much symbolism and emotion.
ML: You mentioned how bodies were like canvases before, and I think that’s an interesting comparison. An artist can choose what canvas they use, but as a costume designer, you have to work with the shape of a person’s body, the body language and the baggage that comes with it. How important are bodies to costume design?
All bodies are interesting. If all actors for the stage had a Hollywood-perfect body, my job would be so boring! I would be lying if I told you that at times, I haven’t been frustrated that a certain body was hard to fit, but one way or another it all comes together in the end. I also like working with actors I’ve worked with before, knowing what looks good on them, and knowing the physical way they express themselves.
Instead of brushes and paint, my tool is mostly fabric, and its movement, color and texture, on actor’s bodies.
ML: That makes me think of Stephen Henderson, who you worked with in Fences, and who I spoke to last week. What was your experience working with him?
CR: I love Stephen, and I loved working with him on Fences. I remember fitting him in his costumes in New York, exchanging ideas with him while the tailor was marking his suit. He has so much inner life and knowledge about his characters. And he’s a wonderful Wilsonian actor.
ML: What makes a Wilsonian actor?
CR: You know, I was just asked that question recently.
ML: Sorry about that.
CR: No, [laughs] I’ve had a lot of time to work on my answer.
A Wilsonian actor is someone who has a good ear and appreciation for the musicality and rhythm inherent in the plays. Even though August spent a lot of time in the black community hearing conversations in places such as the barbershop and the corner store, he created a heightened style that is not exactly what you hear every day. There is a unique repetition, music, and cadence that is unlike any other writer. An actor cannot drop a line while working on his plays, because it will throw everything off. That is the technical side of being a Wilsonian actor.
Further, I believe there is a certain fire in the heart of a Wilsonian actor. It’s a bit dramatic, I know, but it’s an uncompromising commitment and responsibility to shed light on the struggles and injustices that August wrote about. He used to say that all theater is political, certainly this is the challenge in the legacy he left us.
ML: You collaborated closely with August for Seven Guitars.
CR: Very closely. By making his characters come to life visually, as we worked side by side, we collaborated, and traded many different ideas. However, this is one of the topics I’ll be talking about in my presentation, so I don’t want to give too much away! [Laughs.]
ML: What do you want to leave Oregon audiences of Seven Guitars with in anticipation of your presentation?
CR: Seven Guitars was conceived here, in the Northwest. It was really the first play August wrote after we moved here together. I remember where and when he decided to name the play—on a beautiful trip to the San Juan Islands. Because most of his plays are set in Pittsburgh, Oregon audiences might not know that August lived the last twelve years of his life in Seattle.
ML: Constanza Romero, thanks for taking time out of your day to talk to us.
CR: Thank you.
Constanza Romero will be in Portland on October 27th to host a presentation of her costume designs at Artists Repertory Theatre before that night’s production of Seven Guitars. For more information, visit our events page.
Watch an excerpt of American Theatre Wing’s interview with Constanza: