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March 2017

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Interview: Senior Craftsperson Hallie Dufresne

The second part of the blocked hat multiples series is coming soon, but first, on to the next installment of my interview series, with Hallie Dufresne, who runs the crafts department of the Los Angeles Opera.

I worked for Hallie when I lived in LA (back in 2005-06), when i had the good fortune to be hired as a member of her crafts team for a several-opera stint which included a spectacular new design of Der Rosenkavalier by the artist Gottfried Helnwein. Opera gives you the opportunity to do some incredible craftwork, often on a fabulous scale so it will register in the large proscenium spaces in which opera plays, on performers moving around on usually quite epic-scale sets. Opera companies also often spare little expense when producing new work, not only because the expectation of quality is high from their patronage, but because it's a smart investment in the continuation of opera itself--because of the more limited "canon, many costume-building opera companies can loan a production's costumes as a package to other opera houses who subsequently present the work. The clothes and crafts need to be made to stand up to years and years of performances.

I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to work on Hallie's team. The LA Opera shop is a wonderful facility and the crafts we did while I was there were incredible. We have stayed in touch and I'm pleased she agreed to be interviewed for this series in the blog!

Here is our interview:

Q. For a bit of background, would you describe the shop at the Los Angeles Opera--how many employees, what different positions there entail, etc?

A. When we are gearing up for the season, there can be about 40-plus full-time employees in the shop. Like most theaters, we have lay off periods or down times and then the shop runs on a skeleton crew of 6-10 people.

The larger part of the season though runs full steam ahead with about 6 different teams in a space that is 31,000 square feet. This includes workroom, offices and costume stock storage space. Each workroom team has a draper and either a junior draper or first hand and usually two stitchers(sometimes more depending on the work load). There are two women's wear teams and a men's wear team that does both tailored and more casual silhouettes. We have a separate team that is more specifically men's tailoring. Then we have a team that handles production and stock coordination.

There is a main production coordinator with two assistants. They handle load in/out to our theater which is in a separate space about a mile and a half away from the costume shop. They maintain our massive costume stock on premises and are organized to a "T." The shopper and costume supervisors and any assistants that they may have are on this team as well. The costume supervisors are what some shops refer to as costume assistants. They act as the liaison between the designer and the rest of the costume shop. They direct costume fittings and maintain the show bibles. We have a shop manager, an office assistant and even a staff maintenance assistant. The wig and wardrobe departments also fall under the heading of costume department even though their workspace is at the theater.

Finally, there is my team, the craft department. I am there as a year-round staff member and I have had as many as 6-7 assistants working on a variety of tasks as my department covers everything from dye work to millinery to crafts and I have my hand in every show of the season (not all the draping and tailoring teams work on every production). Lastly and probably most importantly, our costume director watches over us all and guides with a wise and steady hand.

Q. What are your responsibilities as head crafts artisan?

A. My actual title on paper is senior craftsperson. I carry both creative and administrative duties. I am involved with the planning of work loads for future seasons. I interview and hire my own staff and oversee all work that comes out of the craft department. I meet with designers and work closely with them and the costume supervisors to coordinate all of the accessories and dye and/or paint work for the shows.

Sometimes, I perform all tasks in the craft department on my own with no outside assistants and when I do have a staff, I delegate projects to them and get to choose the projects that I want to work on. Ultimately, I am responsible for every last item that is generated by the craft team. I attend costume fittings and dress rehearsals as the craft needs dictate.

As a staff member, I participate in donor functions (we are a non-profit organization) and talk about my department to tour groups that visit the shop throughout the year. Last season, I was asked to speak to a group of 100 high school students about what I do and how I got to that point. I also do a lot of research and development for the craft department as well as being part of the health and safety committee for the costume shop. One of my unofficial duties is costume shop party planner and organizer of the Christmas bake-off.

Q. What are some of the specific considerations you have to take into account when doing crafts for opera performers (as opposed to say, dancers or Shakespeare actors and so forth)?

A. Oh boy, opera singers generally don't like to wear masks or hats. What pops up quite a bit in opera? That's right, masks and hats.

When building masks, I always take into consideration that it not press too heavily on the nasal and sinus cavities. Many male singers can't bear to have a close-fitting band around their heads for too long. By "close-fitting band," I essentially am referring to a hat. Many a principal singer has said to me in a fitting with a chuckle that he will be removing his hat right away on stage anyway. The ladies tend to not mind hats quite as much and I always strive to give them a hat that is both light weight and a reflection of the character they are portraying. I am always mindful of a singer's ears not being covered or any potential noisy jewelry for that matter. Nothing like having to sing an aria with clinky chandelier earrings chiming away with every shake of your head.

For our Ring Cycle that we did the season before last, there were many many many oversized varaform head masks that utilized construction helmet liners as a head support. There can be quite a few complications that come with putting principal singers as well a a chorus of 80 in such masks.

Firstly, when a singer is wearing a full head mask, his or her voice will resonate and bounce around on the interior of the mask. This happens even with the open weave structure of varaform. They also need to be able to hear the orchestra. Again, even with varaforms open mesh this can be a problem. Especially if you are listening for a cue amidst a large chorus. Singers also need to be able to see the conductor and if not the conductor, then the live feed of the conductor on a few select(and hidden) video screens. For the varaform masks, this means painting the insides of the masks black and for our principal singers, it meant cutting out open areas in the mask in the eyes and ears and for some, the mouths in order to enhance their field of vision.

All of the performers for the Ring Cycle had their masks throughout the rehearsal period prior to dress rehearsals. I took time with any singer who had a problem to address his or her individual needs. Overall, the singers were happy that even though they had to wear masks as part of their character, that every consideration had been taken as to their safety and comfort once the final product was presented to them.

I developed and created a walk-around Fosshape "costume case" that the singer playing Freia is standing in. She needed to be able to pick it up and run down an extremely raked stage with it, so flexibility and lightness while still being rigid were key.

An example of one of the principal singers' varaform masks from Das Rheingold (the Ring Cycle).
Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times


Giants Fasolt, left, and Fafner build Valhalla behind goddess Freia in Das Rheingold. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho /Los Angeles Times


a process shot of the Fosshape "Freia" case and her foil-covered bead foam mold

Q. You previously were employed as a dyer for NYC-based costume production work. Could you talk a bit about the similarities and differences between that and your current work?

A. My first jobs right of college were divided between working part time as a dyer at a dye works in New York City called Dyenamix and part time as the in house dyer at the iconic Broadway costume shop Barbara Matera Limited.

It was nonstop colour matching all day every day. I lived and breathed colour for the couple months that I worked at both places. I would walk down the streets of the village and choose a random brick or leaf or section of graffiti and mentally mix colours in my head based on various brands of dye and dye classes. My true happiness was found at Matera's though because I felt as though I was really part of something that I actually had a degree in. My work at Dyenamix was colour matching to an exact shade or tint for fashion houses like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, etc. Often times they would pin a piece of dried grass or a few threads to paper and say match it.

I didn't care for the isolation of being strictly a dyer. What I learned at Matera's was the language of the dyer and how to relate that back to designers and drapers or whomever. We all see colour slightly differently, and I made it my business to understand other peoples sometimes funny colour descriptions. When a designer says, make it look bruised (and this has actually been a descriptive word used by two different designers at different times), I get it completely.

I use this same sort of language in my position at the opera. It relates not just to dye work but to millinery and crafts as well. So I guess it becomes not just the language of colour but also that of shape and silhouette. I have worked with a broad range of designers who come from very different places in their experience. Some of them can articulate exactly what it is they want to see created and some of them can't define it quite so well. In those cases, I do my best to understand their needs. It can be challenging. Through working at Matera's and in my years at LA Opera, I have had the honour of working with so many amazing world-class designers.

Ultimately though, to get back to the question at hand, there are a lot of similarities between running a craft shop and running a dye/paint works. There is always a close attention to detail and subtle nuances that can change the look of a piece completely, be it a tweak of a feather on a hat or a light wash of fuchsia over an orange length of silk. Having good time management skills also applies to both; as does maintaining safe and clean working conditions.

For me, I like having the freedom to have my hands in all aspects of my department. When I was working solely as a dyer/painter I longed to build hats. It takes a very special kind of person to be able to stand over steamy vats and pots all day long and I am appreciative and grateful to those who do because it can be very focused, intense and wet labour.

Q. How long have you been working in the costume field, and how did you get your start? What is your training and educational background in costume production?

A. I have been working in costumes for about 11 years. My twenties were more about life experience first and then college, so I fell into it a bit later than many of my colleagues. I started off as a dual fashion merchandising/design major at Florida State University. After a year I was bored to tears with the program and a friend suggested that I take a course or two in the costume department of the School of Theatre. My first classes were fabric modification and intro to design. I was in love, complete with hearts and stars and butterflies. I felt at home in the costume department. After that semester I made the decision to interview for their Bachelor of Fine Arts program. I was accepted into the fold and gave barely a nod bye-bye to my old professors in the other program. Once in the BFA program which was Design/Technologies, I more finely honed my studies into a costume crafts emphasis.

I had my jobs at Dyenamix and Matera's lined up in New York before I even graduated. I spent only a year in New York and from there worked at the Santa Fe Opera for two seasons as their head dyer. It is an incredible place to work for three months in the summer. The work timelines can be intense, but the space and atmosphere are very inspiring and I can't recommend it enough as the work is of a high caliber. From there, I stepped into the position at the Los Angeles Opera. The position was very different then from what it is now. Essentially, as my skills have grown, so has my position to encompass them. The skills are still growing though, that never stops.

Q. What advice would you give to readers who aspire to a career in this field?

A. Never underestimate the power of good training. It becomes a solid foundation to stand on. From there, think outside of the box; it can be the defining point between being a technician and a true artisan.

Q. What do you look for in candidates who apply to work as crafts assistants on your team?

A. I look at a lot of different things. There is basic training and prior work experience to consider of course. It is helpful having an online portfolio to look at during the initial screening process and if you are coming in for an interview, I want to hold an actual portfolio in my hands. When I interview, be it on the phone for people outside of L.A. or in person, I ask them to talk about techniques that relate to portfolio projects. No detail is too small to talk about.

I've interviewed people with very unorganized portfolios and it can be a little frustrating. You are trying to sell yourself as a crafts person, so I'm not very interested in looking at pictures of pulled costumes for a short film. I AM interested in the stencil you created to add a pattern to a sleeve cuff and the medium that you used to stencil it with for that same short film.

Sometimes I prefer to bring people on to my team that don't have years of experience because I want them to be able to learn and grow as part of my team. I look for people that can listen and take direction and handle constructive criticism. I also want my crafts assistants to bring ideas and opinions to the table. I often ask,"what do you think?" when someone brings a project to me for inspection. I might see a problem, but it's important for them to be able to identify it as well. I really need for my crafts assistants to be team players as well as independent workers.

Q. Can you talk about some of the projects you have worked on recently?

A. Our first show this season is a massive rental from The Royal Opera in Eng'and. It's Eugene Onegin and designed by the delightful Antony McDonald. There is a pretty big chorus--approx. 30 men and 30 women--and they all have various sorts of headwear for each act.

We ended up needing to build about 19 new hats total for the show. This was because when a rental comes in, all of the pieces are measured up and assigned to fit to follow certain costume tracks based on the look of the costume. Often times the hat that comes with the show won't fit; be it too big or too small.

The third act of Onegin is set during the winter in St. Petersberg, Russia. The chorus are all in really wonderful stylized late 18th century fur hats. A lot of the hats that came with the show did not fit our chorus. So, some of the builds were exact copies of the original that came with the show and some were of my own invention based on McDonald's design notes taken during fittings and the overall aesthetic of the act. We just had our first dress rehearsal last night and everyone looks fantastic!

This past year I have had the opportunity to build some accessories for Prince Poppycock of America's Got Talent fame. Our head tailor at the opera is a wonderful freelance designer in her own right and designs and builds his frock coat looks. Because of this connection I have created some very stylized and glitz-tastic epaulettes, a Venetian style leather mask and a stylized mini gold lame' bicorne complete with frothy ostrich plume tail. I was lucky enough to have found a picture of him online not too long ago that featured the trifecta of those three accessories all in one look. They were all originally made for different costume looks and it was fun to see them pulled all together in one splendid look.

Prince Poppycock hosting the "Il Ballo Del Doge" at
Palazzo Pisani Moretta, Venice, Italy, mask in hand.

A close-up of the Poppycock mask.

Last spring I was also commissioned to build a sort of medieval fantasy helmet for a top secret film test for a movie based on a children's book series about wizards, magic, and stuff that is not Harry Potter. The helmet was to be a smoke and mirrors version for the film test as opposed to the very expensive likely vacuum-formed version for the real thing. I did a paper mock-up for the first fitting that happened during work hours so I was not able to attend. When the pictures came back to me that night, they were of the actor Hank Azaria wearing my scotch tape and black craft paper mock up. I had to laugh.

The real piece was created out of industrial felt, layers of wood glue, some interesting metallic trim and a fancy paint job and ended up being pretty fantastic. My helmet is now living in the art department at Industrial Light and Magic to be used for inspiration. That was an especially fun project, but working with film people can be a little tiring. Their deadlines tend to be created out of some sort of fantasy fiction with no sense of how long it actually takes to make things. I could only work on film if it was my only job.

* * *

And, that concludes the interview. Thanks so much to Hallie for participating in this series, and if you want to see more, check out the Opera's youtube channel for some video shorts.