ArtsAlive.ca – The Secret Life of Costumes

Featured designers
By Michael Eagan

François Barbeau

image:Compte de Richmond, Richard III (1990)
Compte de Richmond, Richard III (1990)
Designed by François Barbeau / © François Barbeau

If there is an heir apparent to Robert Prévost as a leading Canadian designer from Québec, it is most certainly François Barbeau, who began his professional life as an assistant to Mr. Prévost in the late 1950's and acquired his first design experience creating costumes for Paul Buissonneau’s famous mobile theatre, La Roulotte, in Montréal’s city parks. Since those early beginnings, Barbeau has evolved into the complete man of the theatre. Primarily known as a costume designer, he has taken on other roles in the creative process, including theatre director, film art director, teacher and designer of many projects in dance, circus and variety. His work has been largely concentrated in Montréal theatre, but Barbeau has designed in English Canada for CanStage (Toronto), Theatre New Brunswick (Fredericton), the Stratford Festival (Stratford), the National Arts Centre (Ottawa), Harkness Ballet (New York City), Batsheva Dance Theatre (in Israel) and in Paris when he designed Gorki’s Les Estivants for the famed French director, Jacques Lasalle, at the Comédie-Francaise in 1983.

Throughout the entire period from the 1960s to the present, François Barbeau’s production is nothing less than staggering. He forged professional relationships with all of the important Montreal theatres: the Théâtre du Nouveau-Monde, la Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale, la Compagnie Jean Duceppe and the Centaur Theatre. He also designed for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and for many seasons was resident designer at the Theatre du Rideau vert. Many of these shows were in co-production with the NAC, and the NAC costume archive has a selection of original sketches and many of the actual costumes from them.

image:Britannicus, Britannicus (1982)
Britannicus, Britannicus (1982)
Designed by François Barbeau / © François Barbeau

More recently François Barbeau has undertaken design projects for the circus. In 1998, he joined the team of designers behind the Cirque du Soleil’s world-touring show Dralion, with circus choreographer Guy Caron. The mega-production featured 36 Chineses acrobats and earned Barbeau an Emmy in 2001, awarded by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for "Outstanding Costumes for a Variety or Music Program". Dralion was an opportunity for Barbeau to mine the rich lode of Chinese motif and styles in his costume designs.

He has also worked with Robert Lepage on projects destined for international audiences. Barbeau has often designed for feature films. He did the costumes and art direction for Claude Jutra’s Kamouraska (for which he won an Emmy Award for costume design). The film is a milestone in québécois cinema, and Barbeau’s visual account of a romantic rural Quebec in the early ninteenth century is definitive and unforgettable. Collaborations with other celebrated film directors include Atlantic City with Louis Malle and Tartuffe with Gerard Depardieu.

Teaching at the National Theatre School of Canada

image:Néron, Britannicus (1982)
Néron, Britannicus (1982)
Designed by François Barbeau / © François Barbeau

Designing for both film and theatre is demanding and time consuming, but François Barbeau manages to sandwich a parallel career as a teacher at the National Theatre School of Canada (NTSC) into his already busy life. Barbeau was recruited in 1962 to give classes at the newly-founded NTSC. He continued teaching until 1971, when he became Director of the Scenography Section at the school. During his tenure, he was responsible for the training of a new generation of Canadian designers. His influence is inescapable as traces of his strong style can still be found in the designs of many of his former students, now flourishing in careers of their own. Barbeau’s teaching has been important because of his generosity and rigor, but most of all because, along with the fundamentals, he teaches an enthusiasm and love for the work. He held the post until 1987 and since then has continued teaching periodically, as he values maintaining contact with his students for their sheer energy and raw talent.

Comparisons between Barbeau and Prévost

Since Robert Prévost mentored Barbeau and paved the way for his early work in design and teaching, comparisons of the two are inevitable.

Prévost, with his cours classique education and his association with the visionary Jean Gascon, his wife, Mimi, the composer Gabriel Charpentier and the actor and director, Jean-Louis Roux, was present at and a participant in the establishment of the modern québéquois and Canadian theatre. He also had an enormous zest for life with epicurean tastes and appetites of heroic proportions.

Barbeau, on the other hand, has a much more artisanal (workman-like) approach. He studied drawing and painting at Sir George Williams College in Montreal (now Concordia University) as well as cutting and pattern-making at the prestigious Cotnoir Caponi (haute couture) school. This training and much early experience in various workshops is evident in his work to this day. In any Barbeau sketch of a fitted bodice, one can instantly feel the effect of corseting on the human figure and sense where the seams should occur. Should it end in a curved shape exactly at the waistline, or should the bodice be longer, flared and terminate almost at the hipline? These and other design decisions are worked out by Barbeau, first in the sketch and ultimately in the fitting room, with care and precision.

image:Agrippine, Britannicus (1982)
Agrippine, Britannicus (1982)
Designed by François Barbeau / © François Barbeau

The design sketches themselves have a character that identifies them at once as Barbeau drawings. He works in an unorthodox mixture of pigments that often incorporates gouache, acrylics and coloured inks and he sometimes overdraws using a very large-gauge ballpoint marker. The heads of his figures are usually impossibly large – and almost universally shown in sharp profile – whereas the costumed bodies are drawn as if seen from the front; all the better to analyze the construction of the costume, and show the headwear! In the hands of a lesser artist, these qualities would seem hopelessly mannered, but Barbeau manages to communicate a tremendous amount about both the costume and the character in his intensely personal and eccentric style of drawing.

So while Prévost’s costume drawings are impeccable gouache paintings full of classical references, Barbeau’s sketches are always directly related to the actual craft of costume designing – always maquettes meant to work from the first step in a process through the fittings to the finished costume. One has only to consider a group of 20 or 30 of his drawings to have an insight into the range of the characters and the emotional climate of the entire piece. Prévost: the highly cultured, Rabelaisian bon vivant, and Barbeau: the driven workaholic, the monkish esthete and the consummate professional.

Experimentation at the NAC

image:Irina Nicoaievna Arkadina, La Mouette (1978)
Irina Nicoaievna Arkadina, La Mouette (1978)
Designed by François Barbeau / © François Barbeau

Barbeau’s designs have been seen on the NAC’s stages since the beginnings of production at the centre. Many of them originated in the Centre’s costume department, and he remembers these as occasions to experiment; like the time when he had an idea to execute a set of costumes using catalogne, a type of primitive weaving using thin strips of scrap cloth, québéquois traditional. The NAC has always retained a full production facility, and the costume department encouraged and supported this kind of experimentation. Barbeau speaks fondly of these collaborations, particularly with Ann Elsbury, Jan Cogley and Normand Thériault.

The costume archive has a great collection of Barbeau’s design drawings and costumes, and they share a quality of elegance. Everything from his version of classical antiquity and the Spartan-inspired military gear and helmets (pre-300) for Britannicus (1982) to the drop-dead chic of la Dame de chez Maxime (1971) and Claudel’s Partage de Midi (1977), one of many successful designs for Olivier Reichenbach at the NAC. Barbeau has a natural affinity for French plays, and he has designed for a great many from across this vast repertoire, including Racine’s Andromaque (1974), Molière’s Tartuffe (1977), and Marivaux’s L'Heureux Stratagème (2001). He also designed costumes for actress Shirley Douglas and her son Kiefer Sutherland (star of the television drama 24) for The Glass Menagerie (1997), which played at both the NAC and at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. Along the way, Barbeau has designed many of the first productions of plays in the Michel Tremblay oeuvre with André Brassard directing.

Awarded the Order of Canada in 2001 for his career achievement and the recipient of numerous other awards, François Barbeau continues to work apace on multiple projects. The sheer longevity of his career, along with his elegance, passion and drive explain why he is considered the dean of Canadian costume designers.