ANITA YAVICH: DESIGNING A WORLD
By Anne Phelan
Anita Yavich won the Irene Sharaff Young Master Award in 2003, an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Costume Design in 2006, and a Lucille Lortel Award in 2016. She has worked extensively in theatre and opera. Her designs have been on Broadway (Fool For Love, Chinglish, Venus in Fur, Anna in the Tropics); Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club (Tales from Red Vienna, The Explorers Club); Signature Theatre (Iphigenia 2.0, Golden Child, Big Love, Kung Fu); Classic Stage Company (Caucasian Chalk Circle, New Jerusalem, Texts for Nothing); New York Shakespeare Festival (Kit Marlowe, The Winter’s Tale); and others. Her work in opera includes Cyrano de Bergerac (La Scala, The Metropolitan Opera); Les Troyens (Metropolitan Opera), Steve Reich’s Three Tales (Vienna Festival and international tour); Madama Butterfly (Houston Grand Opera and Grand Théâtre de Genève); and more.
Born in Hong Kong (a British colony at the time), Yavich grew up in a colonial education system as a colonized child. It was very confusing to be educated to dissociate with her own heritage. The idea of a Noblesse Oblige Education instilled a sense of inferiority and disempowerment with the collective psyche of a colonized people.
The first illustrated children’s storybook Yavich remembers reading was King Lear. “I have two sisters, my parents didn’t get along, and my father left us to start a business in Nigeria when I was nine years old … Lear had a great effect on me. Particularly Kurosawa’s Ran, his version of Lear, made me understand the art of interpreting story in a broader context where I was able to see my own life within a larger universe. It was life-changing,” Yavich said.
“Being exposed to different cultures and mindsets had a big impact on how I see the world.”
At age 13, Yavich “lived in Nigeria with my dad for two years, where I went to the American International School. It was very liberating because it was an education that required my active participation, where my thoughts were valued,” she admitted. Later, Yavich went to India for four months on a TCG grant. She said, “Being exposed to different cultures and mindsets had a big impact on how I see the world. The subject of my design is designing a world. My life has prepared me for this: to be open.”
After Nigeria, Yavich moved to the U.S. The first opera that she saw in New York was Rigoletto at City Opera. She remembered, “At the very end, with Rigoletto cradling his dead daughter Gilda in his arms: it was devastating, moving, and very beautiful at the same time.”
When Yavich was an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, she initially wanted to be a painter, but she did not feel any connection with the painting instructor. Then a new design professor, Dunya Ramicova, came to the theatre department, and was soon Yavich’s mentor. She said, “Dunya told me ‘You have to find out for yourself if you want to work with people,’ meaning collaborate, ‘instead of painting alone in your studio.’”
Yavich took a few years off after college, continuing to work on her portfolio with Ramicova. She was accepted at the Yale School of Drama, where she studied with Ming Cho Lee, Jane Greenwood, and Jess Goldstein. It was at Yale that Yavich learned how to develop her practice. “You need to trust yourself, and not spend your time second guessing what you think the teacher would expect from you, or spend all your efforts to emulate their aesthetics, even though you are in awe of their artistry.” Of Ming Cho Lee, she said, “He would scan our designs like an x-ray machine. He knows and understands how and why we made mistakes and created detours in our design process, because he’s already made those detours before.”
“We cannot begin designing without asking some fundamental philosophical questions about the play and how it represents, presents, and addresses the world that we live in.”
Yavich remembers hearing a Buddhist monk say in a lecture, “First thought is the best thought.” To her, “that means being in tune with your intuition, knowing who you are, how you see the script. If you think design is only a craft, then it would be all about solving a bunch of theatrical problems. In actuality, theater designers are artists, we cannot begin designing without asking some fundamental philosophical questions about the play and how it represents, presents, and addresses the world that we live in.”
When asked about her favorite part of the process, Yavich replied, “Initial meetings, and trying to figure out as a team what the piece is about, and then you figure out how you manifest it visually, and working with the actors- who are going to embody these roles. Design for me is about the word ‘inevitability.’ Finding out what’s most essential. If you’re designing options, they look like options. And sometimes, instead of looking for fabric, you need to let the fabric find you. When the fabric finds you, it is something that you didn’t think of before, and you need to open yourself to the universe.”
“Imagination is not something that we possess, it is something that is larger than all of us out there.”
She elaborated: “Imagination is not something that we possess, it is something that is larger than all of us out there. If I happen to be touched by it in a fleeting moment and am inspired to create something out of that, I consider myself a very lucky person. Being an artist is to be able to allow that inspiration to go through you. It’s not about asserting your own will. You have to be open to it, serve it, and surrender yourself to it. You have to find your path within the creative process each time (and each time is different), and that’s what makes it so exciting. Because it is about discovery–discovery of what the project is about, how you are connected to it, and who you are at that moment in time.”
“Being an artist . . . is not about asserting your own will. You have to be open to [inspiration], serve it, and surrender yourself to it.”
One of Yavich’s most memorable experiences was designing The Sound of Music for the world-famous Salzburg Marionette Theater, noted for its precise articulation. It took her 18 months to complete the process, starting with researching the tradition; for example, all the puppets’ heads are carved from linden wood. Yavich said, “I visited the warehouse where they keep all the puppets from all the shows. I almost cried.” She had to figure out to tell the story of the musical with the puppets; besides being a part of the team in the process of creating the overall storyboards, Yavich had to design the heads, faces and the bodies of each character before designing the costumes. At the dress rehearsal, the director sat on the stage giving notes, as the puppet operators stood above it. Each time the director gave a note, the marionette would acknowledge it with a nod!
Currently, Yavich teaches at SUNY Purchase. “When students graduate from our design program they ought to have a strong understanding of who they are as artists. They must present their ideas verbally and visually, and continue to improve these skills throughout their lives. It is equally important for them to be able to evaluate what kind of projects will help them grow as artists once they enter the profession, and be able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. To be a successful collaborative artist requires the ability to understand what is unique about one’s own vision.” This is not always been easy for students who come out of test-heavy high schools these days. “We have to work extra hard toward changing the mindset of coming up with the right answers to the need of asking the right questions,” she said.
Yavich’s most recent work is Lessing’s Nathan the Wise at Classic Stage Company, which runs until May 1. She believes the play is particularly timely because it’s about religious tolerance. She is currently working on Aida at San Francisco Opera. The costumes will be contemporary, but all designed for the show. The show opens November 2016.