Thursday, April 18, 2013

Meet Our OUR EARTH Artists: Pete Rush, Set & Costume Designer

At our free Earth Day Celebration on Saturday, audiences will have a chance to see and hear the first two operas of our new Our Earth trilogy, performed by Seattle Opera’s singers and Youth Chorus and the Seattle Youth Symphony. Eric Banks composed the lush scores for Irene Keliher’s engaging libretti. Today we check in with the set and costume designer for Our Earth, Pete Rush, who has transformed familiar Northwest landscapes and animals into vivid theatrical visuals that our team can use in a wide variety of spaces. Join us for this weekend’s show at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion.

Pete, thanks for your distinct and personal work on Our Earth. Now, how did you get involved with this production?
Kelly Kitchens, the director of Our Earth, called and said, “I’m doing this project with Seattle Opera, and I think you’re the best person to work on this.” Particularly because the challenge was to do both costumes and scenery. There aren’t necessarily a lot of designers who do both.

Seattle audiences first saw Pete Rush's sets and costumes for OUR EARTH when Heron and the Salmon Girl premiered at Town Hall in February
Alan Alabastro, photo

Why is that so rare?
It’s like two different brains. Even in the same production, with sets you’re dealing with spatial awareness and the physical world, and with costumes you’re dealing with character and storytelling. And it’s two very different processes—as a scenic designer you do a lot of work up front, developing sketches and models, and you send it away and it gets built and boom! there it is. Whereas a costume designer is more in the trenches throughout the whole rehearsal and tech process: acquiring clothes, building costumes, fitting them, making adjustments up to the last minute based on quick changes, things that flop around that shouldn’t, things like that.

Have you done more of one or the other, sets or costumes?
Prior to moving to Seattle—I moved here about seven years ago—I did a lot of scenic design, I would say more scenic design than costume design. But when I came to Seattle, the first job I got was as a costumer, and since then people have predominately considered me a costume designer.

It’s all about how you get introduced! Do you yourself have a preference?
I’m happy to do one or the other. It’s actually really challenging to do both for the same production: it’s double the work! And double the focus; you have to be looking at two different things, giving both the same amount of attention.

Yet I’d think that there would be fewer opportunities for friction, than with a collaboration...
Yes, it’s a dream to be able to create a completely comprehensive world, where the clothes really do match the scenery. Conceptually, that’s a joy. But it’s also great to collaborate with other designers. We do all tend to get on the same page.

"Daydreams" by Pete Rush, an installation for Eight Square Schoolhouse in Dryden, NY
Pete Rush, photo

Now on your website I was impressed by an installation you had done, in Dryden, NY, inspired by the creative imagination of a child in school. As a designer do you approach a show aimed at young audiences differently than you would a show aimed at adults?
Yes, it is different. Younger audiences love being challenged to use their imaginations; they love when things are used in surprising or unexpected ways. And of course they love lots of color and movement and texture, things you’d imagine kids would appreciate. And, with theater or opera for young audiences, often you have fewer resources in terms of time and money, which forces a designers to be more creative.

Our Earth is your first opera, but you’ve designed a lot of Shakespeare. How are they different, in your experience?
That’s interesting, sometimes people lump these types of theater together sometimes because you may be dealing with big period costumes, or aiming for opulence, over-the-top pageantry. I’ve done a lot of contemporary Shakespeare, though, where that’s often not the priority. One big difference, I would say, is that in Shakespeare, the physicality of the performers is intense. In opera the performers may be dealing more with their voice and less with running all over the place climbing things. You have to take that into account.

Sets for Heron and the Salmon Girl by Pete Rush

Now for Our Earth, in talking with Irene Keliher, our librettist, we learned that there were some elements of local native lore that went into the story—people who can transform into salmon, a trickster raven, things like that. Did such elements influence your thinking in terms of sets and costumes, too?
Local indigenous art, yes. We looked at a lot of the woodcut art that comes out of this area, and it influenced the scenic design. We wanted to render these locations—mountains, lakes, ocean water—in a way that was very stylized, with this line art that almost looks 3-dimensional, like it could have been cut out of wood. Bold, thick lines with primary colors; taking something that’s natural and organic and reducing it to its basic shape. In terms of the costumes, though, I looked less at Native American representations of these animals and more at the actual animals themselves.

Oh, I didn’t go after the way a local artist would represent a raven on a totem pole or a mask, for instance.
No, but we paid attention to the actual species who inhabit this area: their colors, for instance, bringing those colors into the costumes. The Great Blue Heron, for instance.

Heron (Sonia Perez) and Salmon Girl Alitsa (Rachel DeShon) in Heron and the Salmon Girl
Alan Alabastro, photo

Do you have a favorite animal costume you created for Our Earth?
We have the challenge here of transforming human characters into salmon. And it has to happen onstage, instantaneously—in about one second!

That’s right, you mentioned quick-changes just a second ago!
I think we came up with a pretty good solution for that—there are layers, they have their salmon costumes on under their human costume, they pull it off and there’s the shimmery, sequin-ey salmon layer...

Parr (John Coons) and Alitsa (Alexa Jarvis) transform into salmon to leap up the rapids in Rushing Upriver

I loved that moment, in Heron and the Salmon Girl, when Alitsa drops her coat and becomes a salmon.
There’s only that one change, in the first opera, and we have two such moments in the second opera and more coming up for the third. That’s been a fun creative challenge.

Another practical consideration for you: we’ll be presenting these operas this weekend in Fisher Pavilion, on a nice stage and with an orchestra, but these operas are getting around! They’ve already been to lots of schools all over the area...
Yes, the entire production has to pack up and fit in the back of two cars. So it’s been designed to store compactly, not to be heavy, to be set up easily and quickly and taken down again.

The set for Our Earth transforms rapidly from open sea to cityscape to forest.
Alan Alabastro, photo

You’ve found a good solution for the set with these banners...
Yes, this is the first project I’ve done with those. We went to a company that creates mainly displays for tradeshows, and it’s like a big windowshade, and you can print whatever you want on the banner. It’s wonderfully versatile; this way we have four units which we can use for three different operas and not have to deal with a lot of complicated, bulky scenery.

One last question: would you tell us a little about your work with TeenTix?
Right! I’m a co-manager of an arts access program, TeenTix, I’ve been doing it for four years now. We offer teenagers (13 to 19 years old) opportunities to attend arts events all around the city, with day-of-show tickets, for $5. The program is run through Seattle Center, and I’m really passionate about it. The future of arts and arts participation resides in introducing young people to the arts, getting them to try it out, getting them hooked. That way they’re willing to take risks as they grow up and look at all kinds of arts with a critical eye and a sense of openness. The program is doing very well. We currently have about 17,000 members, and we’re growing more popular with each season.

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