A revolutionary design

Costume designer Teresa Negroponte tells Neos Kosmos about recreating history and reinventing the epic story Dr Zhivago for the stage

The driving force behind the new musical Dr Zhivago, currently playing in Melbourne, was that it would be a new, original concept, costume designer Teresa Negroponte says.

“There was, from the beginning, a very strong idea from the director and producers to do something new with the story,” Negroponte tells. “They wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. Dr Zhivago comes with all the expectation of the film, but our aim was not to replicate the film but to do something new with those ideas”.

In designing the costumes for the show, Negroponte’s first inspiration was Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel Dr Zhivago. “Pasternak has a very poetic and descriptive way of writing, so you actually get a lot out of that, visually, in how people looked and what they wore and the sense of the seasons, what they wore in winter, in the very brief spring scene there is,” Negroponte says.

“From there, it was just going into historical research, imagery and photos from the time in Russia at the time just before the revolution. That was the starting point”. While the film was taken into consideration, it was never part of the formula to begin with, Negroponte says. “I didn’t watch it until quite a way through and then it was good just as a point of comparison. It’s got a ’60s flavour to it, which was a product of the time when the film was made. The film was just kind of an after thought.”

The costumes of Dr Zhivago were created on a tighter timeframe than usual, Negroponte says. “It was actually produced a little bit quicker than what was ideal. I recall we opened the costume production workshop at the beginning of November, that was when the first pattern makers, sewers, and milliner came in so I would have designed a month or so before that,” she says. “That’s an unusual situation, ideally you’d have a couple of months to design. Not having that much experience since graduating, I was thrown in the deep end a bit, which was a great opportunity. It was a pretty tight turnaround for that scale of show.” Dr Zhivago marks Greek Australian Negroponte’s debut as a main-stage designer.

The Sydneysider graduated from NIDA with a Bachelor of Dramatic Art (Design) in 2009, and has designed costumes for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Producers and GO! for Sydney Dance Company. She was also the recipient of the 2010 NIDA/Sydney Grammar School Fellowship. Since graduating, Negroponte has designed sets and costumes for Downstairs Belvoir and Darlinghurst Theatre Company. She designed costumes for the Opening Ceremony of the Kuwait World Men’s Squash Championships, and assisted in design for Griffin Stablemates, Splinter Theatre Company/Sydney Opera House/Det Apne Teater, and Legs on The Wall.

“I’m still quite new to the industry and this is a big undertaking for me and I was very lucky to get the job at such an early stage in coming out of my course into the industry,” she says. “Theatre is the medium we’re resourced in at NIDA, so that’s what you get most of your practical experience in”. During the NIDA course, half the time is spent on conceptual design and then the other half is spent putting things on stage, Negroponte says.

“You get to realise the designs, it’s about sourcing the product and actually making it happen. It’s great to be able to have access to that, where you can actually work as a team as it would be in the industry”. Negroponte has a flair for period pieces, having designed costumes for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Importance of Being Earnest during her time at NIDA. “I was quite lucky in that they have a good repertoire of shows going. You’re able to put in a bid for what you want to do and I was one of the few in my year that wanted to do period costumes, so I kind of was ready to put my hand up for Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and have a go at doing that,” she says. “This early out, you do whatever you can do but I do have a particular passion for period costuming and that’s something I wanted to pursue.”

During production of Dr Zhivago Negroponte was also working in Perth on a show for the Black Swan State theatre company as part of the Perth International Arts Festival. Speaking to Neos Kosmos from New York, where she was holidaying, Negroponte says a move overseas might eventually be on the cards, but believes there’s still a lot to learn within Australia. “There’s still a lot of people I want to work with in Sydney; I’ll be coming back.”

Dr Zhivago is currently playing at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre and will run until June 26. The show will play in Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre from July 6; seats are on sale now. For more information visit www.ticketek.com.au