Along with Megan Fraser (Special Effects Designer) and Valentina Vatskovskaya (Hair/Makeup), costume designer Roselie Williamson is nominated for Outstanding Set & Costume Design for creating the incredible zombie at the heart of Jonny Sun (aka Jomny Sun)’s play Dead End, a world premiere presented by Theatre Lab. From finding the perfect blood recipe to thinking about the zombie’s life as a human and the footwear demands of a hyper-physical performance, Roselie took on one of the most demanding and detailed costuming jobs of the theatre season and hit it out of the park in her very first time working officially as a costume designer.
Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
Oh! Well, my mom used to take us to theatre when I was really little. I feel like, maybe, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang rings a bell. I don’t know where it would have been – maybe Young People’s Theatre… but we used to go to a lot.
How did you get into designing?
Well, I’m actually an actor, so the core of my theatre experience has been as an actor. I’ve mainly done indie theatre, and so in a lot of shows that I’ve done, there’s been either no costume designer, or it’s very low-budget, and the onus is put on the actors to each source and find their own stuff. So I guess after doing a number of shows where I’ve either sourced my own stuff or made suggestions, or collaborated with the director, I started feeling like “I kinda like this! I kind of could see myself maybe doing this as well as acting”, and so I’ve worked on it in subtle ways throughout the years, but this is my first show as a costume designer.
What have been some of your favourite projects as an actor?
One of my favourites was a show I did – I don’t even know how many years ago, but it was for Hysteria: A Festival for Women at Buddies [in Bad Times], and it was called Gaggle. We put together this show, and it was all these amazing, funny women, and very honest, true from the heart, but also hilarious. And just very funny, and smart. That was my favourite show I’ve ever worked on because I just felt like every single woman in it was so brilliant, and I just wanted to do – you work on the show and you’re like, “I just want to do this forever. I just want to do this for like a year”. So that was definitely one of them.
How did you get involved with Dead End?
I’ve worked with Theatre Lab before. I’ve acted in a bunch of different shows of theirs. And over a year ago, they had this festival of new work. People submitted, and then based on those submissions, they selected some people, and it was basically like you could show work at any kind of stage. And so they had a stage reading of Dead End. The playwright actually is doing his doctorate at MIT in Boston- he’s Twitter-famous; he’s like a prodigy, a genius- so he wasn’t there, but they did a staged reading of it, and I remember thinking, “this is so hilarious and so smart, and such a strong show.” And so I remember when I found out from Michael [Orlando, the director] that they were going to be doing it very early on, I was like, “I would like to be involved in some capacity. I don’t need to be in it, but I would love to be involved – in the design team or something”. So early on, I just said “I want to work on this.” And it worked!
Where did you start? So you get the assignment to be the costume designer – do you go to classic zombie sources? Where do you get your ideas?
That’s a good question. I have to say that coming at it from an actor’s perspective, I wanted that to inform the work. I wanted the guys to be, for me, to be the actors themselves, and the choices they were making, and the characters. It’s a very character-driven story, so I didn’t want to set anything in stone, because I wanted as I watched them work to let that inform. To let the decisions become clear to me as to who these people were and what they should be wearing. But I definitely felt inspired by Dawn of the Dead, and Shaun of the Dead. Have you seen Shaun of the Dead? It’s actually so funny. And such a great, funny zombie movie. And Dead End, too, has darkness, but it’s also very funny, and very fun, and so that influenced it a little bit.
Did you get to talk to the playwright, Jonny Sun, at all about his ideas about what he thought zombies should look like?
Yeah. It was interesting – I actually had the privilege to sit in on the zombie audition process. Which was really cool. Because everybody brought in a totally different zombie, and everyone was so strong. It was one of those crazy things that – I’m so glad I was able to experience that, because I totally get now when people say “you just weren’t right for the part”, or whatever – “it’s just not what we had in mind for that role”. Literally, there were ten amazing zombie options, it’s just, which one do you want? Choose from these, which zombie you had in mind. So it was really cool working with both Michael, the director, and Jonny, in these talks of “what zombie do you have in mind, and what level of decay”, and all this stuff – it was really cool. And Ceridwen Kingstone who played the zombie – I think again, she largely influenced what kind of zombie it was going to be. After seeing her work in the audition and callback, it became clear – “oh, this is the direction the zombie should be”, and it should be this sort of massively decayed, grotesque – and that idea of the Other was really strong in Jonny’s mind. So he didn’t want it to be a zombie dude or a zombie chick. Just this other being that’s different from us, in some ways that we can’t – the same in many ways, and then different in ways that we can’t quite pinpoint. And so it was – almost at one point, Jonny said, swamp creature. Not really, but this – she does swing things, and at one point, it’s really gross, but spit falls out of her mouth. So [Jonny] kind of did [have specific ideas about the zombie], and it was kind of what Ceridwen brought to it. And the three or four of us talking throughout the whole way. And in the end, it was a lot of – on the days leading up to it, more blood, and more blood! More dirt! Just more, more!
Was there much discussion of the idea that the zombie would have been a human being when they picked the clothes out and put them on their actual body, and how that would have informed your costume choices?
Well, a little bit. Michael particularly didn’t want – just researching, looking at different productions, different movies and shows, The Walking Dead, and all these things – how they portray zombies. Oftentimes they look the same. A lot of people choose the same kind of thing, and Michael was like, “I don’t want that, but also it has to be true for what’s happening, which is a zombie apocalypse. You have to think that before they became a zombie, they were probably fighting zombies”. So, for this, we kept it masculine. Vague and masculine, so that Ceridwen, being a woman… I don’t know how to articulate it, but that it would keep it ambiguous, as much as possible. But without sacrificing previous backstory for this character if possible. Having substance to who she was – she was a thing, a person – but then also leaving it open to interpretation.
So when it came to choosing the actual articles of clothing that the zombie would be wearing, how did you approach picking this jacket over that jacket, things like that?
Well. For one thing, because it’s such a blank canvas of a space, it was a very minimalistic set. And because it’s so character-driven, I wanted them to each be distinct. I didn’t want to make choices based on “I want you to look different from you”, or anything like that, but at the same time, I wanted each person to be distinguished, and distinct from each other. I wanted Ceridwen to definitely be very different from the two guys, but also, I wanted lots of layers. Because we knew that there would be so much – I had to do so much distressing and decaying of the clothes, and destroying of it, that I wanted to be able to have a jacket tear open, and then matter would be coming out. So I think I made, for the zombie in particular, decisions based on “how can I get the most texture and layers, and gross – how can I make it as disgusting as possible?” I mean, I made all of them pretty disgusting. I actually feel really bad, because I made them wear these disgusting creations, these gross things.
What were some of the techniques you used to do the actual distressing? Specifically that rotten look you achieved.
It was a really lengthy – it was a lot of work. First with all of them, for distressing, it was using sharp objects. I had these little shears, and I had to secure it to something, and then basically, it was almost like attacking stabbing, rips and tears, putting it through the wash to expand all that, and then a lot of experimentation with realistic blood. It was a bit of a challenge because, well, first of all, we were also working with a blood pump, because at one point the zombie’s head explodes. So we needed to figure that out as well. We’re trying to figure out fake blood that wouldn’t clog up this tube that had to explode out of your back, and then in experimenting with what kind of fake blood do you use for that, trial and error, used different fake blood for all their stuff. I used everything from makeup to actual paint to food products- which were good, looked great, but were sticky and gross for the people to wear. Once we actually got into the technique, and we were under the lights, then that’s when I started working with Megan Fraser, who was our makeup and special effects designer. And so we were trying to make things bloodier and dirtier. And using a lot of fake blood, which is pretty expensive, so we actually went through a lot of it really fast. But then, by the next night, it had already dried and wasn’t showing up under the red gels any longer, so I kept taking it home, late at night, experimenting with other things, and in the end, just used a lot of actual red paint. If I showed you right now, it doesn’t look believable, but under the lights, it does. [laughs] So a lot of trial and error, and just experimenting.
What was your homemade food blood made out of?
Basically, there was corn syrup, red dye, red food colouring and cocoa. There was some actual cocoa in it. And Coffee-Mate, because it helps with the consistency, and you can also wash it out. But it’s funny because Michael tried to create all this, but he didn’t cook it, so it was really gloppy and gross, and he’s like “how is this not working?”
You have to do it on the stovetop?
Yeah, you have to actually melt everything, and whisk it, and then it becomes a good [texture].
Imagine someone coming home and finding you just cooking blood on the stove.
You talked about starting from a place of the actors’ performances. What were some of the physical realities of the zombie performance that you had to work around?
She did really cool things where – I don’t even know, it was a crazy balance thing. Must have been such an intense workout for her, because she would be constantly off-balance, and all of her weight would be shifted in one extreme. Moving around like that, and completely controlled. One thing for me was making sure her shoes were really safe, and secure, and not slippery underneath. So I actually went with boots, because I figured they would be the most secure, and she could do the most manoeuvring with them. And generally bagginess, to give her more movement, because she did have a lot of extreme movement and whatnot.
With so much focus on the zombie, you’d think the human characters would be easy. What were some of the ideas that went into making the looks of the other two guys?
Well, for example, Christian Smith played No Gun – they’re both really funny characters, but I just felt Christian was the less prepared of the two. And he’s very philosophical, more complicated, maybe makes things too complicated – overthinks things, and is analyzing a little bit, but he’s also an innocent. Has a naïveté. So I actually – and we were worried that this might be a little confusing to people, this choice, but I decided to go with shorts for him. Even though we were thinking this generally took place in autumn or fall. Just because of the shorts, for his character more, it was like the zombie apocalypse just happened upon him. Do you know what I mean? Almost like he didn’t have the wherewithal to run inside, put some sensible clothing on to go out for the zombie apocalypse. And his was much more weathered in the sense that we felt that he had been through more. Had maybe a few really close brushes with death. So a bit more blood. And sweat. A lot of sweat from worrying.
And then with Chris Wilson, who played Gun – he’s kind of a more tough guy, and he actually has a gun, so he’s a little bit more, we think, responsible. Or at least is taking charge a little bit more, and he’s the boss of the two, if there were to be one. So he had more sensible jeans, and a hoodie on.
I thought of them as these two comic book character guys. Like archetypes in a comic book, where they’re your average guys who are kind of funny, but it’s all happening to them, and they’re just trying to figure shit out, and get through it. So I thought of comic book influences. But really, I think with both of them, the core of it was watching them work. And I was like “yeah, I know exactly what I want, because they made it clear.”
What was your favourite design element of Dead End?
I really loved the lighting and the sound. Off the top of the show is one of my favourite things, where they both come in and it’s pitch-black, and flashlights – to me, that was really strong. A simple choice, but it immediately brings us into the world straight away. So that only light being the flashlights for the first ten minutes or whatever it is. I personally loved that. I thought it was a bold choice, and often, I find shows, they might allude to that, but then lights will slowly come up. And you’re like “then we’re not really in it”.
I really loved that, and I also loved the sound design – Jason O’Brien was the sound designer, and he wrote the score. And I loved it. It was really cool – when I first heard it I was like “oh, that’s different”. And then the more I saw the show, I was like “there’s something so unique and perfect for it”. It was a little bit Stranger Things-esque, but then it also had this really cool under bass thing. Almost scary, but just cool.
Were you pleased with how your design worked in practice with all the elements happening at once?
I was. Because this was my first time doing costume design for a show, everything was experimentation, and just trying to make everything fit together, and so I always felt like I didn’t want to just walk away and be like “well, it’s your problem now”, you know what I mean? I wanted to – if there were issues, stay involved in a way to figure stuff out. But I was happy. Like I said, tech week, even after the preview, I was still taking stuff home and working on it. But after opening, I was like “I accept this the way it is”. Again, it’s anyone’s artistic role in the show. At a certain point, you just have to go “oh, ah, yeah. Okay. This all makes sense as a picture, and now I’ve done my job.”
So what are you working on now, or next, or any projects on the horizon you want to plug?
Not really – I don’t have any theatre projects on the go, unfortunately, right now. Hopefully something soon. I’m focusing again on acting. Really I’m just kind of looking – I’m open to more costume design work, and I’ve directed before as well, so I’m thinking of trying to get back into that. Just want to do whatever I can. 2017 is the year of possibility.
And is there anything you’d like to add?
Just, Jonny was incredible to work with. He’s amazing – so funny, so talented. So I hope that he writes more plays. I’m sure he will. He’s writing a book right now, it’s being published by Random House, and it’s coming out in the summer. He, I’m sure, will continue to get bigger, and do all kinds of different things, I hope he’ll continue to think of theatre, and do more theatre. It was really cool working with him. And on a show that’s the world premiere of this cool, loving play.