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    Paul Tazewell: you are what you wear Essay

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    From Halo Wines’s first entrance as psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in the recent production Mrs. Klein at Washington’s Arena Stage, her costume said worlds about the character’s background and personality. With its somber palette, careful detailing and fine fabric, the beautiful clothing established this woman’s place as a renowned professional living in 1930s London.

    Paul Tazewell welcomed the challenge of designing the traditionally decorative period costumes Nicholas Wright’s drama called for. But he gets even more excited when he’s called on to turn his imagination loose on productions like Arena’s recent Caucasian Chalk Circle. This large-cast Pan-Asian spectacle was peopled with peasants whose costumes, while made to look dirty and ragged, also were full of folk color, bold geometric patterns and varied textures. One of the most stunning aspects of the show were African-inspired masks that appeared to be carved of wood and decorated with gold.

    That 27-year-old Tazewell was able to design these two markedly different plays with such success helps explain his track record. In the three years he has been out of school–he studied at Pratt Institute and the North Carolina School of the Arts before receiving a graduate degree from NYU in scenic design–he has costumed 13 shows at major regional theatres and five others in New York. His tall, lean frame, his relaxed demeanor and his ready smile camouflage the drive that makes each costume Tazewell designs a fully realized creation.

    Tazewell’s work method sounds a lot like an actor’s preparation for a role–and, in fact, he began working in the theatre as an actor as well as a designer. “I come to decisions by psychologically delving into the characters,” he says. “You need to know for the scene, for the day, for the minute, what each of the characters have decided to wear in relation to the people they’re in the scene with,” he explains.

    Tazewell has special praise for Arena Stage, where he is an associate artist. “Arena has a very high standard in terms of the work that the shop puts out, and that can make or break you. I can draw something on a piece of paper, but it depends on the people who are executing the work to actually make it a beautiful thing.”

    Tazewell counts among his central influences NYU teacher John Conklin (“a cerebral designer” who makes powerful use of archetypes, the younger man says), and he admires Desmond Heeley for the three-dimensionality of his sketches, Willa Kim for her vivid sense of color. What sets these artists apart, according to Tazewell, is that they don’t research styles and cultures merely to recreate an effect, but rather take research as a point of departure for their own vision.

    Aesthetic soulmates may not be too strong a term for Tazewell and director Tazewell Thompson, who share a lot more than a name. The two met when working on Yerma during Tazewell’s last year at NYU, and almost half of his regional productions have been done in collaboration with Thompson. Tazewell believes the electricity in their working relationships comes from similar taste, sensibility and backgrounds.

    The pair has often worked together on what the designer calls “black shows,” and Tazewell is concerned that his work not be limited as a result. For their collaboration on The Caucasian Chalk Circle, for which Tazewell was nominated for a 1991 Helen Hayes Award, the design research included poring over books of folk costumes and turn-of-the-century Japanese photographs, and visiting the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum. Tazewell then usedd antique coverlets from Pakistan, India and Africa for some of the costumes, while others were made to look old by repeatedly dying new fabric and tearing it. The few well-off characters in the play rated highly embroidered fabric decorated with tiny mirrors. Tazewell says of the production, “It was a chance to absorb cultural research and make my vision of it for the piece.

    Tazewell readily credits actors for their contribution toward making his costumes successful, and believes that a designer should be willing to alter his work if it doesn’t suit an actor during rehearsal. His efforts required an even more radical shift during Mrs. Klein, when two actresses of differing stature and presentation made impassioned and successful pleas to director Zelda Fichandler to switch roles. Then it was literally back to the drawing board for Tazewell to alter styles, colors and fabrics.

    “I think a good designer needs to be flexible and adjust, because if an actor doesn’t feel right in the clothes, they will never work,” he points out. “I want actors to love what they’re wearing so that it becomes a part of them. That’s what I’m striving for.”

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