show search header
nyc theatre 101; Info for novice theatregoers
TDF member login; Buy discount tickets online
ticket services
audience info
education and training
for your production
about TDF
support TDF
Home
Back to search Results Read More Featured Stories

Subscribe to TDF Stages
Subscribe to TDF Stages


Clothes Make the Man-Boy Designing costumes for Broadway's The Pee-wee Herman Show

By Rob Weinert-Kendt
 
One night back in 1977, Paul Reubens, a wiry sketch comic at the Los Angeles improv company the Groundlings, came up with the character of a hapless, unfunny standup comic called Pee-wee Herman. To complete Pee-wee’s awkward look, he borrowed an ill-fitting glen plaid suit from Groundlings founder Gary Austin.
 
Thirty-three years later, a row of identical glen plaid suits hangs backstage at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, where Reubens’ now-iconic creation is having a triumphant Broadway moment in The Pee-wee Herman Show. These retro two-piecers—not to mention the bright, color-coded costumes for Pee-wee's friends like Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne—come courtesy of designer Ann Closs-Farley, who built and sewed most of them herself for the show’s initial bow last January in L.A.

Director Alex Timbers told Closs-Farley he wanted “everything glittered and gemmed—I want it to sparkle,” she says. “So I pretty much put glitter and sparkle on everything, and it looks really homemade-y, crafty.” Touring the backstage, she holds up a gem-encrusted, “bedazzled” version of Pee-wee’s jacket that he wears in a moment of onstage bliss. “This is what I spent the month of August doing—I basically had a glue party for two weeks.” She points to a swirling figure emblazoned on the jacket’s back: “The phoenix is my interpretation of Pee-wee rising again, Elvis-style.”

Closs-Farley is an apt choice to handle the candy-colored, thrift-store aesthetic of the show, which unfolds in a grown-up playhouse full of talking furniture. After all, she cut her teeth as a performer and designer with another of L.A.’s indigenous ensembles, the Actors’ Gang (where she starred in and costumed the original Bat Boy: The Musical), and her design style has always been a cocktail of good vibes and Goodwill.

“All of my costumes have a sense of humor about them,” Closs-Farley says, and she acknowledges that some of her peers look askance at her work. “Some costume designers don’t like me, because I’m not worried about creases and pleats, and I never brag that my stitching it straight. But no one’s checking my seams, they’re checking what I’m presenting.”

Indeed, she got the Pee-wee gig in part because of her skill with a glue gun. For a number of years now, she’s done the costumes for Ken Roht’s annual “99 Cent” holiday show in L.A., in which the all the sets and clothes come from 99-cent stores. (After she opened Pee-wee on Broadway, she was off to build 150 costumes for this year’s edition.)

The 99-cent shows got her noticed by a theatre colleague who works for Disney’s theme park division, and soon she was designing a Toy Story stage musical on Disney’s cruise lines—an experience that helped prepare her for the unique challenges of Pee-wee.

“I’d never done a show where the images are so iconic,” Closs-Farley says of Toy Story. “How do you recreate something that’s already pretty perfect? At the Actors’ Gang, the work was all about making the actor a huge part of the personality of the character, but with Toy Story and now Pee-wee, it’s already provided for me. So how do I stay true to the aesthetic of something that already exists?”

It helps that her aesthetic was partly formed by Pee-wee.

“I remember seeing [the television show] Pee-wee’s Playhouse at a friend’s house [in the 80s], and it blew my mind,” Closs-Farley recalls. “Everything was semi-tacky and real, in a sloppy, cool, theatrical way. The TV show was about the boy who doesn’t have to grow up, and I feel like that infused who I am today. That’s what I identify most with Pee-wee—I’m lucky enough to have a job where I don’t have to grow up. I get to play for a living; I chose theatre because it has the word ‘play’ in it.”

---

Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre. He served as founding editor in chief of Back Stage West from 1993 to 2003