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If you are producing a large cast musical which requires a wide range of fantastical costumes, look no further than Elisabetta Polito to handle your design. Although she enjoys any challenge, from a small contemporary comedy to a detailed period piece, Lisa, a Montreal native, truly excels at creating bold elaborate designs for big-scale musicals, as shown by her past work on SpeakEasy’s productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Color Purple, and In the Heights. But her current project, SpeakEasy’s New England premiere production of BIG FISH, comes with its own unique set of challenges, as we learned in this recent interview.
How did you get started as a costume designer?
In 2006, I made a dress out of metal mesh and can tabs for my graduation art exhibit in Montreal. After seeing that dress, many people encouraged me to consider theatre; so, after graduating with a BFA in Design Art, I decided to pursue another degree in Theatre Design. Everything snowballed from there. I never thought that transitioning from accounting to graphic design would one day lead me to a career as a costume designer.
And how did you make your way from Montreal to Boston?
On February 28, 2008, I received an acceptance letter and a scholarship offer from Brandeis University. I moved here that August to start my masters degree and graduated in 2011. I started working immediately after graduation, fell in love with Boston and its theatre community, and decided to stay.
What do you like most about your chosen profession?
I love researching developing, and creating the designs, and exploring the characters. I absolutely thrive on figuring out how to execute my sketches, taking them from 2D to 3D, and seeing how my work plays out on stage in relationship to everything else.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Having my actors trust me. It is so important that the actors feel comfortable with me and understand that we are working together to establish their characters.
Tell us a little bit about BIG FISH and what interested you in this project.
How can one go wrong with wanting to design a witch, a giant, and a circus?! I love designing musicals; and to be honest, I love working with Paul Daigneault. It seemed like a win-win.
Is this the most demanding show you have every worked on?
No, not at all. Fantastical and period shows are much easier for me to design. Ironically, contemporary plays have proven the most difficult. This show almost feels like second nature.
How many costumes are required for BIG FISH?
I would estimate there are 60+ costumes/looks in this production.
What is the largest number of costumes you have ever done for any one show?
The Color Purple had about 200 costumes and 10 wig changes. I also did a production of Hairspray that had over 220 costumes and 20 wig changes.
Click thumbnails below to see sketches and photos of Elisabetta’s costumes in progress.
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What are some of the unique challenges BIG FISH presents?
I’m embracing the challenges of this show. I’ve already learned so much from the way I am approaching the construction of certain garments. I can safely say I have never made 7 foot pants before.
Let’s focus on three characters and what you have in mind for their costumes. First, the circus ballerina. Tell us about the character, your concept, and your inspiration.
I’ve always preferred cryptic and intriguing to cute and dainty. I wanted our ballerina to look light but weighted; delicate yet damaged. I’m hoping we can make it work.
Next, let’s talk about the witch. Is it hard to come up with something original for such an archetypal character? What was your inspiration?
It IS extremely hard because everyone has their own idea or opinion of what a witch should look like. When I was researching the character, I fell in love with an image that has completely inspired the look: horns covered in hair. In addition, the witch’s cape represents the real forest and the fantastical forest. Leaves. Leaves. Leaves.
And finally, let’s talk about Karl the Giant, an 8 foot tall character being played by 6′ 9″ actor Lee David Skunes. Tell us a little bit about your work on this character.
The giant is a brilliant character. He reminds me of the lion from The Wizard of Oz. Because of his size, we assume he is mean, an ogre; but we soon realize he is gentle, smart, and a great friend to Edward. We see his character progression through his looks. Giants, however, require a lot of fabric!!!
Finally, how do you personally measure success on any given project?
I’m always very hard on myself. When I’m in tech mode, I have an extremely hard time tearing away from the tasks at hand because notes need to be done and opening night is around the corner. Thus, I like to wait about two weeks and go see the show again, after I have completely let it go from my system. I want to see the show as a spectator and not as a designer. If I get butterflies, I feel good knowing I was a part of something great. But success is not based on how well I did my job, but how well we the team designed the show as a whole. We are only successful if we all told the story well.
You can see all of Elisabetta Polito’s magnificent designs in action when you come see BIG FISH, running March 13 – April 11 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in the South End. Click here for tickets or call 617-933-8600.