Meet the Artist
Costume Designer Ilona Somogyi
By Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
As a young girl, costume designer Ilona Somogyi dreamed of two things: making clothes and acting. Little did she know – even after her acting aspirations would eventually fall by the wayside – that her costume designs would someday be commissioned by award-winning directors and seen on Broadway and in countless regional productions.
Somogyi is a designer in demand. She has designed for three productions at Hartford Stage this season, including An Opening in Time, The Body of an American and currently, Romeo & Juliet. She is no stranger to Hartford Stage: Somogyi was the costume designer for five previous productions at Hartford Stage, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Noises Off, Tom Sawyer, Gem of the Ocean and The Crucible. She has also designed productions at Long Wharf Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre and Westport Country Playhouse. She designed the costumes for the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Clybourne Park on Broadway, which took home a 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. Soon, she will be designing Anything Goes! for Goodspeed Opera House and later this summer, she will begin working on former Artistic Director Michael Wilson’s production of Grey Gardens in Los Angeles.
Somogyi was first inspired to make clothes by her grandmother, an excellent seamstress, who helped support her family with custom dressmaking after fleeing Hungary for New York after World War II. Somogyi fell in love with needle arts and learned to knit, crochet and embroider – making clothing for herself and her Barbie Dolls. She recalls that her first attempts at doll clothes were “terrible” and that her first “legitimate” costume design was for a seventh grade production of The Taming of the Shrew.
“I played Kate and felt I needed to sew my own dress, so I made a very simple ‘period’ dress from a Simplicity pattern,” Somogyi said. “It was long with short sleeves, a high princess waist (elastic) and elastic casing at the neck, so that I could pull it down around my shoulders – a sort of early 80s/Renaissance mash-up. It was made from red polyester/cotton broadcloth.”
Somogyi also entertained the idea of acting but realized in college that she did not want to actually be on stage. Somogyi, who graduated from the Parsons School of Design in New York City with a BFA in Fashion Design and received an MFA in Design from the Yale School of Drama, says that her chosen field, which effectively combines her two loves, “turned out to be a perfect fit.” Although not an actor, Somogyi considers herself a storyteller and feels that it is the most important attribute for a costume designer.
“We have to help tell the audience a story by inhabiting every character, and understanding who they are, and how what they choose to wear informs, or perhaps intentionally misleads, the viewer as to their character and intentions. What people wear is an incredibly powerful indicator of so many things that pertain to humanity – class, group affiliation, modesty, humor, mental health, wealth (or poverty) level, nationality. We can say so much by carefully choosing the elements that make up a character’s wardrobe,” she explains.
“Sometimes, the differences are extremely subtle. The last thing I think about when I design is, will the costume design be noticed – usually it is not. I want the world onstage to feel cohesive and true to the story and within the style that the team is creating. Many times, actors have told me that they didn’t know who their characters were until they put on my costumes. I consider that a very high compliment and feel that I’ve done my job well,” she says.
Somogyi has currently been weaving together the individual stories of the many characters inhabiting the world of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Darko Tresnjak. For Somogyi, the challenges of working with large cast are all a matter of scale. She notes that more cast means more time sketching, more hours spent in the fitting room, more pairs of shoes, more lengths of fabric, and more staff needed for more quick changes.
“Oftentimes, actors double as multiple characters, so you have to carefully structure their looks so that you don’t confuse one character for another,” Somogyi explained. “It is simply a much larger and more time-consuming undertaking than a four- or five-character show.”
She loves working at Hartford Stage and regards the staff as family. “Coming back always feels like coming home. The costume shop staff is first rate, generous and warm, and just plain fun to work with,” Somogyi said. “I also highly regard the programming at Hartford Stage. I think the work selected is accessible and produced with the highest artistic integrity. Since I live in Connecticut, working for Hartford Stage is fantastic, as I don’t have to travel away from home for stretches at a time and be an itinerant gypsy. I consider myself very lucky to live close to such a great regional house.”
Somogyi has been working closely with Tresnjak on the conceptual designs for Romeo & Juliet, to be set in Italy after World War II and influenced by Italian cinema’s neorealism era, which will result in stark and simple designs. As part of her research, Somogyi studied Italian photojournalism from the late 1940s, focusing on everyday people struggling to rebuild their lives in a depressed post-war economy where fashion was a luxury afforded only to the very wealthy. Somogyi feels this turbulent timeframe is a fitting one for Romeo and Juliet.
“These are two noble families damaged by loss of family and property – with a governor who cannot control his people. And an improbably human, youthful love growing there, despite the hatred and fear,” she notes.
While Somogyi loves designing costumes for Shakespearean productions, she also enjoys designing for more contemporary works. “I consider myself so lucky to have designed the premieres of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris and Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, among many other great new pieces. It is wonderful to have the playwright alive and involved in the process, as the collaboration becomes that much more intense and meaningful.”
Somogyi is happy with the path her career has taken but notes that it is a difficult and competitive one. She has been a member of the faculty for the Yale School of Drama, her alma mater, since 2005 as a Lecturer in Design and serves as Costume Design Advisor for Yale Repertory Theatre. She advises those seriously interested in a design career to move forward cautiously and not hold high expectations. Somogyi also suggests a good graduate program and pursuing opportunities to be near the action and observe at close hand how good work is created.
“Learn to draw and draw a lot. Observe people. See a lot of theatre. Take clothes apart to see how they’re made. Go to museums and galleries frequently. Travel and experience other cultures first hand. Be curious always,” she said.