Behind the Seams: Costume Designer Robyn Ayles

April 5, 2017

Robyn Ayles is a theatre designer and educator currently teaching at Ambrose University and Red Deer College. Recent designs include set for 'Heathers: The Musical' (MacEwan University), costumes and set for 'Nativity in the City' (Fire Exit Theatre), costumes for 'Dr. Faustus' (Ambrose University), and set for 'The Winter's Tale' (The Shakespeare Company). She is a member of IATSE 212, Canadian Institute for Theatre Technology, and Associated Designers of Canada.

Where do you call home?

I’ve lived in Okotoks for more than 25 years.

Tell us a little about yourself as a designer. How’d you get started in theatre?

I first got involved in theatre in high school in Vancouver, B.C. It turned out I loved backstage and behind-the-scenes work much more than I liked being on stage. I worked as a scenic carpenter for a few years before I went to the University of Alberta to do a degree in theatre design. I am a production designer, so I design sets, lights projections, and costumes.

How would you describe your process? Is there a best part / hardest part?

The hardest part is putting your pencil on the paper… or in my case, the stylus on the tablet. I love the research and I’m a terrible procrastinator. I could spend all day looking at period photographs or researching the politics surrounding Woodstock or the protests that accompanied the 1969 Miss America contest in Atlantic City… deadlines are my best friend.

Mrs. Antrobus, Act 1. Design by Robyn Ayles.

The Skin of Our Teeth is an epic show that transcends a specific time period, yet seems firmly rooted in certain mid 20th century American dynamics. How did you go about choosing the costume eras for an Ice Age, Flood, and aftermath of a major war?

The Skin of Our Teeth is such an intriguing play. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943, but when I read the play the first act just screamed 1950’s. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus and their children seemed like a late 50’s sit-com like Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver.

Gladys Antrobus, Act 1. Design by Robyn Ayles.

The second act was already pretty firmly in Morris’s mind as the late 1960’s and Woodstock. This really resonated for me, too, as did Mrs. Antrobus’s impassioned speech about women’s rights, which really foreshadows the women’s liberation movement and their activism against the Miss America contests in Atlantic City in 1968 and 1969. The third act for Thornton Wilder takes place both after the Napoleonic wars, for the Antrobus family and in modern day, for the actors in the play. The important situation is the aftermath of war, rather than the specific war. This play was first produced during WWII, between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It’s important that we, the audience, understand that the human race and the family will survive; will scramble up from the ruins of war, of the apocalypse and begin to rebuild… to have some hope and some plan for the future.

I think time and place for Wilder in this play are fluid: Sabina tells us in the First Act “the author hasn’t made up his silly mind as to whether we’re all living back in caves or in New Jersey and that’s the way it is all the way through.” The catastrophic events are the important thing.

What resonates for you in the story?

I’m drawn to the women in this play: their relationships and their ability to survive. They struggle against each other, but ultimately it is they who come to terms with each other and keep the family together. I tried to reflect that a little in the Act 3 costumes; tying Sabina, Mrs. Antrobus, and Gladys together by shifting and mixing their colour palettes. I also see the fortune teller as Everywoman: a layered wise woman whose silhouette, line, and colour is reflected in the three female family members after the apocalypse. She’s the only character who seems to understand and accept the cyclical nature of the play, although perhaps Sabina is beginning to figure it out. Maybe the fortune teller is a version of Sabina from the future…

There’s a certain silliness to this often serious play. How do you factor humor into costume design?

Sometimes the funniest thing you can do is play it absolutely straight. These characters are all such perfect archetypes my task as a designer becomes finding the right costume archetype to support these characters. In Act 1, Mrs. Antrobus as the perfect housemaker, Gladys as the pony-tailed bobby-soxer, Henry as the disillusioned punk teenager. I also pulled in a little of the theme of the solar system. For me, Mrs. Antrobus represents the sun, Mr. Antrobus represents the earth, and the children are the stars and the moon… well, perhaps Henry is more of a black hole than a star… but that’s the general idea. It’s not something I really expect the audience to pick up on… it’s more an underlying structure that informed some of my decisions.

Mr. Antrobus, Act 3. Design by Robyn Ayles.

Do you have a favorite costume from the show?

Well, no. I’m fond of them all for different reasons… but I’d have to say my favorite character is Dolly [the dinosaur.] She was so patient at her fittings.

The puppeteers did such a wonderful job of bringing her to life. She’s a big beast to manipulate and it takes real team work to move her through the space of the house and the earth dias.

I guess if I had to choose a single favorite costume it would be Sabina, Act 3, in her blanket superhero cape.

Sabina, Act 3. Design by Robyn Ayles.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received (or given) about design?

One of my university professors told us to ‘design the design approach’… or in other words, find a new way to approach every play. It’s a lovely ideal that I try to follow, not always successfully.

What’s currently inspiring you?

Every show I do seems to spark a new path for me. Right now I’m exploring images of New Mexico and the artists Georgia O’Keefe and Ansell Adams for An Almost Holy Picture. The best thing about research is getting side-tracked into new areas.

Behind the Seams: Costume Designer Robyn Ayles

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