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Designing from Nature
Costume designer Sandra Woodall reflects on her source of inspiration for a ballet rendition of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream".

Two ballet dancers in a "A Midsummer Night’s Dream". The female dancer wears a dress inspired by the blooms of a fringe cup flower, found at Opal Creek.
Alison Roper and Ronnie Underwood

Award-winning costumer Sandra Woodall has designed stage attire for more than 200 theater and dance productions since 1970. For a new, critically acclaimed version of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream", she worked closely with the Oregon Ballet Theatre’s director and choreographer, Christopher Stowell, who chose to tell the Shakespearean story in reverse: The ballet opens with a huge, white-tented garden party with guests draped in contemporary high fashion. But, according to Stowell, "that slowly disappears in stages, and we are in a forest—a mysterious and magical place that is inspired by Opal Creek."

Opal Creek is an ancient forest tucked into the western slopes of central Oregon’s Cascades (see "A Rare Jewel," March-April 2007). After a series of battles during the 1980s between conservationists and the timber industry, which wanted to clear-cut the old growth trees—some of which are more than 1000 years old—Opal Creek was granted federal protection in 1996. (For more information, visit Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.) For inspiration, Woodall spent a day in the forest observing and sketching. "I tried to let the atmosphere and experience be ever-present while I was drawing," she says. Woodall then translated the natural beauty she found there for the stage. Audubon recently spoke with Woodall about her artistic background and how she brought the look and feel of the forest to the stage.


Q: What is your background, and how does it influence your designs?
A: I went to school at the original San Francisco Art Institute, and I graduated as a painter. I think I use more of a fine arts eye, a different starting place or way of seeing. It comes with you naturally, it’s just part of you—and obviously because of your training.  And having a lot of friends [we all come from different background that work together in the theater]—they always tease me because I have just a different point of view.

Q: How is your point of view different?
A: I think that the fringes of things are very important to me, and building the layers are very important to me—kind of like how you would approach a painting. It’s difficult for me to just go—boom—straight to the costume. ["A Midsummer Night’s Dream"] was a dream project in the sense that I was able to do the hike at Opal creek, and have the photographs and be able to spend the time drawing there. It was so wonderful for all of those reasons, and all of that meant a lot to me—even if an audience person wouldn’t know that—those layers help me make the choices as I’m going through the process and we’re deciding which character is going to be what.

Q: I understand you were with the new production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" from the beginning.  How was that experience?
A: It feels much more solid. It’s kind of typical for the way that I like to work, and I have been very lucky that the choreographers that I’ve worked with create a collaborative process. Christopher [Stowell] allowed me to have ideas and to together build a point of view. When I design something or have an idea, it gets integrated into the choreography.

A fringe cup flower.
Greg Rabourn

Q: Do the dancers respond to this?
A: I think they do. In working together, oftentimes in a project like this, a lot of the conversation happens before choreography happens. So if I have sketches, or research material, we put it up in the studio. There was one sketch that Christopher happened to really like. He was working with the dancers one day and said: "Can you take that pose?” And they just dropped into the pose. Then he just laughs and says [to me] “I did that for you."

Q: What made you want to use ancient forests as an inspiration for the sets?
A: Right now, everyone is conscious of the environment. I’ve been a very urban dweller without any kind of yard for years and years and years. But about five years ago I moved into my grandfather’s house. There’s a little yard there, and I decided to put in California natives. So I had a little bit more awareness of natives. 

We hadn’t decided how [the ballet] was set or where it was set. I’d been flying back and forth [between The San Francisco Bay Area and Oregon], and when we were in Oregon, I was looking at a garden in the place where we were all gathered together. The contrast of the two climates was so interesting to me.

But I wanted a specific place that I was thinking about [when designing costumes]. Christopher and I talked about it. And Linda [Besant, an OBT historian who went with Woodall to Opal Creek] was just incredible because she was just so knowledgeable, having been a ranger and knowing the Oregon environment.

Q: So you went to Opal Creek with Linda Besant. Did you take a lot of material back?
A: I was really lucky because three people had cameras, and I had my pencil. When we were there, these small flowers were blooming, these little pinkish-white flowers. They looked like little dogwood on the ground. That influenced the slim line of Hermia and Helena’s dresses.   

One of the things that was so great about the trip: You could really focus your eye to see the very small rather than just taking a big view. A lot of tiny, white floating flowers was a perfect [model] for all the fairies as Christopher had them—[on stage, they] just rush in and rush out; their clothes are almost nothing.

It is really important to me to be able to shift scale but and not make the dancers small. I wanted the piece to be more like zooming in on the fairies. You would see the choreography very clearly but you would understand that they are actually small.

Costume designer Sandra Woodall’s rendering of a dress for the ballet "A Midsummer Night’s Dream". She visited Oregon’s pristine forest Opal Creek for costume ideas.
Sandra Woodall

Q:  Have you done other productions where you have taken things from nature? 
A: I did a piece called Lambarena. It’s abstract, as if you were playing Bach and hearing African instruments at the same time. In that ballet, the clothes were painted silk and wwere an abstraction of Kente cloth [a colorful woven textile made in Ghana that is typically geometric]. And elements of the scene are [taken] from the way leaves look when they disintegrate to the point where the veins are left and you see the structure. We did it at San Francisco Ballet about 10 to 12 years ago, but it has been produced many, many places. The choreographer is Val Caniparoli.

Q:  What do you enjoy most about your creative process?
A:  I enjoy it all, but working with the choreographer early on and letting the piece unfold—I love that. And then from that, really looking at things and finding the elements that allow the piece to develop and enrich and have many layers of meaning that people could get. Or they don't need to get. It wouldn't interfere if they don't know all of these layers of interests that I have. But I really love to get under the skin of an idea and look around.


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Read related story: " All the Forest's a Stage."

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