Dreaming About Design: An Interview with COCA’s Costume Designer Claudia Brownlee

Four Little Girls: Birmingham: 1963 imagines the lives of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia D. Morris Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins, before the terrible event on September 15, 1963— the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Delaney Piggins, COCA Community Producer and Teaching Artist, sat down with COCA’s Costume Manager and Costume Designer, Claudia Brownlee on her work and process in capturing the era in the upcoming production.

“The value of my work is to be able to help educate and empower young artists.The importance of younger generations designing and performing art is to give them a platform of expression, imagination, and a voice.” 

Delaney Piggins: How much research is required to design a show? What is included in your final design portfolio for a production?

Claudia Brownlee: The amount of research definitely changes and depends on the story and production. In dance shows its more inspiring images and color palettes, but in this particular one there will be articles that I’ve found surrounding the event and there will be interviews that I’ve had with various people who have lived experiences during this period, like my grandmother.

I chose to do personal interviews because some of the older women that I grew up with lived in the south at that time. So I ask, “What was it like in the south for you at this time? What grade were you in? And, the children are going to church, what were the norms of going to church?” And she’ll say, “Gloves,” And I’ll ask, “Okay, why gloves?” and she told me, “Because that’s what ladies wear.”

So those are the kinds of things that will be in that package, and then final illustrations would also be in my design portfolio after the production is done.

That’s very interesting to hear your personal stories as a part of it, because I think a lot of people know that actors pull from their personal experiences, but costume designers…

Well that’s why I got into costuming – I started off wanting to be an actress, and found out that I was too shy to be in front of people. But the thing that I liked about acting was being able to create the character and being able to explore a different life, and in costuming you can also do that. In costuming you can do that with a larger range of characters not just the one or two you are portraying in a production. You are able to make up stories and figure out each character’s backstory, up to the present events of the play.

Was there one line or theme from Four Little Girls that really sparked your interest and informed your design?

The theme of a dream is a pretty good one, because it is able to translate to today and not only for African Americans but for any and everyone. Everyone, regardless of their background has a dream, something they aspire to or for, so that’s a theme that’s really relatable.

From Claudia’s Research Portfolio. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Museum of Civil Rights.

The 1960’s was a really difficult yet inspiring time for African Americans with the African American civil rights movement really coming to the forefront. With that cultural and ethnic history in my background, that was inspiration enough for me to definitely want to delve deeper into what was happening in that time period. The way Christina wrote the script, it’s still relatable.

This entire script—it just hit home—it was home to me because I grew up with a bunch of Southern women and I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. The story, the atmosphere of it, the humanity of it, it’s relatable from the 60’s on up to today.

How many people are needed to create the costumes and make them come to life?

Traditionally for a production of 20 plus cast members you would have 4-8 people working on it. At the core, you would have the designer, the design assistant, the costume manager. Then you have drapers and cutters and stitchers to do all the construction and alterations. Then you have your wardrobe staff who actually handles the costumes. So traditionally that’s what you get, but for this production it’s just me.

From Claudia’s research portfolio, photo courtesy of NJ Left Behind

Christina Ham wrote a play for young actors, for an audience ranging in age. This show not only features work by student actors, but design/tech interns as well. Working at COCA, you costume many student shows and work with a lot of students. What is the value of this work? What can any audience member gain from seeing a show designed and performed by young people?

The value of my work is to be able to help educate and empower young artists.The importance of younger generations designing and performing art is to give them a platform of expression, imagination, and a voice. It helps them cultivate their ideas into what their values will be as an adult. If you really pay attention to performances given by young people, you can see what it is that they are picking up on, what they want to speak to. I think especially in this time because a lot of youth are more focused on larger global/international issues like politics and climate control. As they grow and develop that’s something that they will be charged with more and more. You also see them learning how to move and be a person in their bodies. Because performing in any type of way helps a young person develop the confidence that they will need to grow up to be an actor or a dancer, or someone outside of the arts.

Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 is a collaboration with The Black Rep and will run October 18-20 & October 25-27.


Purchase Tickets Here

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