Not every costume designer works closely with actors before, during and after the rehearsal process. Benjamin Taylor Ridgway does.
For instance, recently while fitting a costume for leading Austin actor Marc Pouhé in the Absurdist play, “Rhinoceros,” at St. Edward’s University, the two artists stumbled on a conundrum.
“He said that a line in the text calls his character, Jean, ‘black,’” Taylor Ridgway recalls. Pouhé is African-American. They wondered how the clothing might clarify or complicate the possible double meaning for a contemporary audience in Austin. “Does it become about race? Does it make sense to put him in a black suit or in another color? We agreed that, if the suit were black, there would be two separate thought patterns.”
Yes, that’s the level of detail in Taylor Ridgway’s thinking about costumes and their roles in a play’s meaning.
“I like working with actors, helping them find their characters,” says Taylor Ridgway, the designer for Austin Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing,” which opens Nov. 15 at the Rollins Studio Theatre. “We discover nuances in the look and even in the movement of the fabric.”
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These days, Dallas-born-and-reared Taylor Ridgway, 35, who trained at St. Edward’s, is among the busiest theatrical designers in town. The upcoming “Much Ado” also features actor Pouhé, who stars as Benedick, a witty soldier who tangles with the equally droll Beatrice before the combatants end up, naturally, as a couple.
Alongside his current duties for Austin Shakespeare, Taylor Ridgway is simultaneously in charge of costumes for “The Member of the Wedding,” produced by Different Stages at the Vortex. It opens Nov. 17.
And he is assisting the lead designer for “Anon(ymous),” which plays Mary Moody Northen Theatre through Nov. 19.
“I’m also helping a friend make the puppets for ‘Avenue Q’ at Lanier High School, because I had some time,” he quips.
Why is he the designer of the moment?
“Ben has been committed to working with our design team in ways that are super smart and delightfully playful,” says Ann Ciccolella, artistic director for Austin Shakespeare. “His creativity brings increased professional polish to each successive show with us.”
Road to the Rollins
Benjamin Taylor Ridgway is the rare artist whose parents, Don Taylor and Linda Ridgway, are also artists. They teach and work in the Dallas area.
“They are big inspirations,” he says of Taylor and Ridgway. “It’s terrible to hear about artists who had a hard time with their parents. I grew up seeing shows, going to art openings. My parents first critiqued me at age 5. Today, I’ll say to my mom that I’m crazy doing four shows at once and she says, ‘Well, staying busy is good.’”
At St. Edward’s from 2002 to 2007, he emphasized acting first but moved over emphatically to design. After college, he made the requisite move to New York City, where he became the resident costume designer for Theatre East, a small company with Austin roots.
“I picked up other shows where I could,” he says. “And I began designing for drag queens, which was a lot of fun. You can go to New York, not to make a career, per se, but to learn how to live in a big city. But I’d never go back unless I had lots of money.”
Repatriated to Austin, he found a latent artistic network and plenty of work to do.
“I became a more consistent designer,” he says. “But every show is a different rodeo. It’s all about staying organized and fitting the needs of the individual show.”
He is adamant that all the paperwork — notes, sketches, renderings, patterns, swatches — be delivered on time and in full.
“You try not to leave any holes,” he says. “You know what everything is supposed to look like, you can do any show. As long as you map it out.”
For “Rhinoceros” at St. Edward’s, his map included a particular set of resources. Although the school is relatively small, it comes with an extensive support system — generous budget, costume-building crew and time to plan.
“At St. Ed’s I don’t have to build the clothes, I’m just a designer,” he says. “More often, I’m doing everything.”
That’s the case with “Much Ado,” one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s comedies, perfectly suited for a pair of equally strong actors, such as Pouhé and co-star Gwendolyn Kelso, who plays Benedick’s sparring partner, Beatrice.
Taylor Ridgway’s design process fits well with Ciccolella’s directing technique.
“We worked together on several shows last season,” he says. “We met for this show in the middle of the summer while we were doing ‘A Comedy of Errors’ in Zilker Park. She doesn’t nail everything down for the designer. She’ll say: ‘I kind of want it to be Romantic, but also kind of fairy tale. We could go 1800s or early 1900s.’ She lets me go away and think about that.”
They ended up planting the play in 1890.
“That’s at the end of the Victorian era heading into the Edwardian,” he says. “So the shape of the costumes can by slightly Romantic but also slightly rigid. The conflict of those qualities is played out through the show.”
Because “Much Ado” is set in 1890, however, not every suit, dress or uniform will scream that season.
“You don’t just pick a year and everything in the play is what was in fashion that year,” he says. “You can go back, because some people would still be wearing older apparel, in this case, Victorian.”
For all his experience, Taylor Ridgway had never executed a show in the elaborate Victorian manner.
“You can’t just go into a store and find Victorian clothes,” he says. “But you can manipulate modern clothes to have the effect, for instance, by curving the ends of a long suit or taking a long skirt and adding ruffles and sleeves.”
Why not just create Victorian costumes from scratch?
“Well, it’s a matter of dealing with time, support and budget,” he says. “Making this from scratch takes a lot of all three of those. Changing out a sleeve or cuff is cheaper. It takes less time and you need less support. It’s knowing where to cut the corners and where not to. We are building three Victorian military jackets from scratch. That’s a hard thing in any show to get right. The military and the clergy are death in a production that doesn’t have a lot of funding. You just have to think smarter and know where to spend your money and make the best of it.”
To make matters more difficult, the production comes with a cast of 15. And in the Rollins, the audience will be very close to the garments, so you can’t completely fake it.
“I’ve almost always worked in small theaters,” he says. “In those cases, you should put the focus all the way around body. For instance, at St. Ed’s, which is in the round, someone is always looking at the back of an actor. I’ve never really worked in a giant space where people are 40 feet away, except at the Zilker Hillside. In the park, we were not concerned with a lot of details, but rather with bringing up the color. The scope gets much tighter at the Rollins.”
The audience is rarely conscious of how costumes help tell the story on the most basic level — for instance, telling the characters apart when the stage is full.
“Here the color palette is floral, so lots of warm colors,” he says. “But there are so many characters and so many elements. So I separated out the military in blues and gold, while the women are in florals, and the everyday folks have a lot a brown. The military costumes are very tailored. I wanted them to stand out and be bold.”
Taylor Ridgway finds a way to make it all work.
“Ann can ask for the world, and I can get it really close,” he says. “When we make compromises, we do it together.”
‘Much Ado About Nothing’
When: Nov. 15-Dec. 3
Where: Rollins Studio Theatre, Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Information: austinshakespeare.org, 512-474-5664