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Living for Design

Date: Jan 12, 2009


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As a costume designer for the Broadway stage and the opera, Carrie Robbins is used to her job not being done on opening night. Sure, the lion’s share of her work is complete, but a play is a living thing—costumes wear and tear, and understudies and replacement come and go.

But who knew that her first gig co-curating a design exhibit would be similarly high-maintenance? The fruit of Robbins’ efforts, along with performance historian Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, is the exhibit “Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance,” showing through May 2 at Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. For Robbins, as long as the exhibit is up, it’s a little bit like the run of a show.

“I try to track how much time I spend on various things,” Robbins says. “I’m now up to 1,300th hour on this.” And counting: “Maybe it’s a bad part of my personality, but I’m a little bit obsessive. I go nuts when a light blows out in one of the exhibits and has to be replaced.”

The Performing Arts Library, located at Lincoln Center, regularly hosts exhibitions. Prior to “Curtain Call,” its most recent was a retrospective of performance photographs from the 1970s by Kenn Duncan.

“They thought of that as a big exhibit, and they had maybe 200 of Kenn’s photos,” Robbins says. “I think we probably have 500 items in ‘Curtain Call.’ There are sketches done by set designers and costume designers, we have videos of designers talking and clips of actual shows. And then we have actual objects—there are at least 70 costumes and set elements.”

And, true to the subject matter, Robbins and the library made an effort to set this exhibit apart from the usual museum display.

“We’ve tried to make it a little more theatrical than the usual exhibits libraries and galleries do,” Robbins explains. “Most of them clean, even white light. But we’ve used a couple of turntables to show off a few things; there are colored lights. And Hudson Scenic, which builds a lot of Broadway sets, has made us a couple of platforms. So it’s definitely more theatrical.”

Co-presented by the League of Professional Theatre Women, “Curtain Call” highlights an often overlooked disparity. While the fields of costume design and, to a certain extent, lighting design have had respectable numbers of professional women among their ranks, there’s still plenty of gender bias afoot in the male director-dominated theatre world.

“There are very few women set designers, because there is still a prejudice against them,” Robbins says. There are notable exceptions, including Anna Louizos (Avenue Q, In the Heights) and Adrienne Lobel (several Metropolitan operas), but in general producers and directors are more comfortable hiring women to oversee such stereotypically feminine domains as costumes and makeup.

Lighting design is perhaps a less obviously female domain, but Robbins credits two pioneering designers of the 1950s, Peggy Clark (Bye-Bye Birdie, Brigadoon) and Jean Rosenthal (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), with staking out that territory for generations of women to come. If anything, Robbins notes, while women designers have made inroads into the traditionally male world of scenic design, recent decades have seen a reverse trend in lighting design, as the numbers of male lighting designers has evened out that playing field.

A few numbers fill in this outline: Robbins estimates that in the century covered by “Curtain Call,” more than 60 costume designers are represented (including the renowned Irene Sharaff); by contrast, Robbins found a little more than 20 lighting designers and “no more than 15” set designers.

What are some of the highlights of the exhibit? Robbins lists a few: In addition to set models for Louizos’ In the Heights and Avenue Q set, there are some “extraordinarily beautiful samples by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg,” including her model for the Off-Broadway run Steaming. In the costume department, there’s Jane Greenwood’s famous plaid dress from The Heiress, and there’s a whole section devoted to animal costume designs: sheep from a Candide revival, created by Judith Dolan; the cow Milky White from Into the Woods, created by Ann Hould-Ward; the lizards from Albee’s Seascape, designed by Catherine Zuber; Florence Klotz’s not-quite-human costumes for Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman; and two remarkable sets of wings designed by Toni-Leslie James: one for the angel in Angels in America, another for a dragon in a production of Faust.

A thought experiment for exhibit attendees: If the names of the designers, and the exhibit’s gender-specific subtitle, were removed from the walls, would anyone be able to guess that all the designers were women?

“The answer is that no one would know,” Robbins says. “And I think that any designer would say that’s how it should be. Why should there be a difference? I think the difference between men and women is the way we get the work accomplished, men do it differently than women. Men tend to be better at delegating, at parsing out the work, and women are maybe better at the minutiae. But ultimately, what ends up on the stage, how would you know if a man or woman designed it?”

To see more for yourself, click here. For a list of upcoming public events related to the exhibit, click here.