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A Q&A with costume designer Peter O’Brien
Festival favorite Dublin’s Gate Theatre returns with an effervescent production of Noël Coward’s brilliant comedy of manners, Present Laughter. The story of aging matinee idol Garry Essendine and his dalliances, this delightful play is chock-full of witticisms, ironic comedy, and farcical situations, the very kind of script that marked Coward as one of the most significant writers of the last century. This production will undoubtedly be elegantly staged and luxuriously costumed, so whether you’re into high comedy or high fashion, this is a “can’t-miss” play by a “can’t-miss” company.
Charleston style editor Ayoka Lucas chats with costume designer and couturier Peter O’Brien, who has worked for fashion houses Dior, Givenchy, and Chloe:
Q: Was it a stretch to go from couturier to costume designer, or was this a natural fit?
A: When director Michael Colgan asks me to do costumes, it’s usually for upper-class English characters between the two wars (laughs), so it’s not a huge stretch. The big difference is size and scale. When you do a collection, you make your samples in model sizes—very long and thin. For the theater, you are designing for real people, actors who have normal bodies like normal human beings. You also have to bear in mind what works from a distance as opposed to up close.
Q: How do you approach design when working for the theater?
A: I read the play four to six times. I usually don’t design the costume until I know which actors have been cast simply because of coloring and body shapes. Once I’ve got the actor or actress in my head and I feel like I know the character, I consult with the director regarding the set, what he wants stylized, and what he wants very realistic.
Q: What can we expect to see from you in Present Laughter?
A: I got to do a couple of seriously drop-dead evening dresses. The play is set in 1939, so it’s just the beginning of what most people perceive as being the ’40s. But it hasn’t got those really clunky Joan Crawford shoulders. It’s more of a London version of 1939, so the costumes are quite tailored but not as exaggerated. There’s still a softness from the ’30s, so there are floaty chiffon dresses—really pretty.
Q: Tell me about your personal style. What does your wardrobe entail?
A: Diana Vreeland once said that after 40 everybody should have a uniform. She is so right. My uniform hasn’t changed. I have a wardrobe full of black and navy suits. I wear Levis 501s, white V-neck or polo shirts, Church’s lace-up brogues, and nothing else. That’s it. I like to be invisible!
May 26-June 13, days & times vary.
Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St.
Photograph Courtesy of the Gate Theatre; Sketches (2) by Peter O'brien