ArtsAlive.ca – The Secret Life of Costumes

Featured designers
By Michael Eagan

Susan Benson

image:Two sketches of Julia, The Wood Demon (1983)
Two sketches of Julia, The Wood Demon (1983)
Designed by Susan Benson / © Susan Benson

The costume archive at the NAC has a broad selection of designs by Susan Benson, another of Canada’s premier theatre artists. In the four decades since she came to this country from Britain in 1966, she has earned a reputation as our most poetic stage designer and a great colourist with a highly nuanced palette. Benson studied painting in England at the Wolverhampton College of Art, and her mother operated a theatre school, so she was sensitized at a young age to ideas of visual art and its role in the theatre. Her family later arrived in Montréal and then traveled by train to the west coast. She tells of how she was struck for the first time by the sheer vastness of the country.

Getting quickly established in Victoria, her mother continued teaching, eventually at the University of British Columbia, and Benson was drawn naturally into combining painting and stage designing. She worked with directors Malcolm Black and Joy Coghill on a number of productions at the Vancouver Playhouse and at the Krannert Centre at Simon Fraser University. In 1974, she began designing at the Stratford Festival, and it was at this point that she effectively relocated to the east and began her national career, which would eventually take on an international dimension. She continues to live in Stratford and is married to Canadian lighting designer, Michael Whitfield.

image:Helena, The Wood Demon (1983)
Helena, The Wood Demon (1983)
Designed by Susan Benson / © Susan Benson

Over this period, Susan Benson has designed innumerable productions at Stratford as well as for other leading Canadian producers, including many for the NAC. Her work in opera and ballet design at the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada led her to commissions for the San Francisco Opera and the New York City Opera and as far away as the National Ballet of Finland in Helsinki and the Opera Australia. Throughout this busy career in design Benson has developed a highly personal and romantic esthetic that pervades all of her work. Her style is rooted in painting, and each series of designs presents an ambience that is almost tangible - the result of careful colour control and killer craftsmanship. She mixes media but seems most at ease working in coloured inks and water colours (transparent, as opposed to Prévost’s opaque gouache). The colours and tones she uses are rendered in a sequence of washes and the effect is often atmospheric and moody.

The NAC archive houses Benson costume designs for Murrell’s Memoir (1978), Strindberg’s The Father (1978), John Hirsch’s A History of the American Film (1979), Chekhov’s The Wood Demon (1983) for director John Wood, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1983), Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink (2002), and Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife (2006) among many others, but if Susan Benson has a signature piece, it has to be her designs for The Mikado. At Stratford she had begun a series of design projects with Brian McDonald, the renowned choreographer and director of musical theatre, notably their productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Her designs for The Gondoliers are remarkable as prototypical Venetian vignettes, but the costume designs for The Mikado, in their delicate muted drawings, seem to embody the Benson style, and the traditional kimono shapes lent themselves perfectly to her sensual wash drawings. The Mikado designs were first created for the Stratford production in 1990 where it enjoyed a huge success and was later recreated at the NAC and subsequently toured widely. The silks used in these costumes were dyed using the ombre process in which the dye is allowed to run and fade out over the length of the fabric before being fixed. It is a complicated technique, but one perfectly suited to executing Benson’s designs and translating her particular sensibility.

Whether it is her keenly observed Venetian imagery for The Gondoliers or her take on classical Japanese styles in The Mikado, Susan Benson’s stage designs are always permeated with her taste and judgement. Her “eye” is precise, restrained and just. She is altogether an outstanding theatre artist whose work and designs are generously represented in the costume archive of the NAC.