Birrie le Roux is an award-winning costume and production designer. In 2016 she was awarded a Fleur du Cap award for her costumes for Orpheus in Africa. During the last year she has designed costumes for theatrical hits such as District Six- Kanala, Clybourne Park, West Side Story and Funny Girl to name a few. One cannot argue that Birrie’s costumes take on the role of an additional character on stage, they serve the plot, give context and always somehow manage to take your breath away. We sat down to chat about her full-circle journey back to her first love, theatre.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I just wanted to do it from the beginning. I think at school we were always asked as a class, “Do you want to go to this play?” And I always wanted to. I always just loved it and I used to stand and look at the orchestra and listen to them tuning their instruments. I just loved the excitement of it.
When did you make the decision to become a designer?
Right after school. There was a course at Pretoria University that they linked onto Fine Arts which was Theatre Design but it didn’t really work out. We had to change to Drama because they had cut our program. We ended up doing Drama and instead of acting we did design. I ended up with a BA Drama degree but not acting.
Did you feel like you had a natural inclination towards being creative or was it something you had to learn?
I think when you are young you always doubt yourself a little bit by thinking that you aren’t good enough. It’s both. I wanted to do and by the time you get to my age you think, “Was there anything else that I wanted to do?” I did work in film. I was a production designer for film sets and set decoration for a long time. I started in the theatre and now I am back in the theatre. I did the full circle.
What brought you back?
I always preferred it. It was my first passion and I always kind of anchored back and people like Janice Honeyman pulled me back every now and then and said, “Come and do this show with me.” It was a natural migration back to my old career, I suppose. It is also quite strange because I did set design and set dressing for movies, suddenly I was back in costume design and I loved it. I still love both. I think if someone came to me with a really beautiful script and said, “Do you want to do this movie?” I would be very tempted and I would try to maybe do it. I think that was always a struggle that I had throughout my whole life because I remember when I got into movies, movies were very small budget. There was an Art Department of about three people and we did everything. It went on like that and then there was a point where this very sane director said to me, “Well, you are going to have to choose now between costumes and art directing.” I chose the production design part of it which was the set dressing. It just happened from there. I don’t know if I could ever choose. I’ve chosen now but I think I would actually like to do a nice movie again. If it is the right script with the right budget and the right team, then I would do it again.
Where do you start in terms of your process?
With the script. The script is your bible. Then there is an initial meeting with the director where [they] tell you what [they] think. Directors always have very passionate ideas. They come with their things and I come with mine and you go back and you start researching. I don’t know what happens with other designers but I get completely obsessive sometimes and I can’t stop [researching] especially with the internet because you find something and you think, “Ok, maybe there is something nicer.” You keep looking and eventually you have this whole file of images that is for one character. You do that for all the characters or you find a movie and you find screen grabs until you have a clear image of what each character will wear. Then you have to work out how many costumes that character needs and what is the event that is happening with the characters on stage. I like to do an excel spreadsheet with all the names and the scenes and the costumes for each person. That’s how you end up knowing how many costumes you need for each person and why they are wearing that costume. It’s quite a process.
What is your favourite part within that process?
I think the making part is the most exciting. Although I like it all. The actual process of buying the fabrics, making it, fitting it and then seeing it onstage and seeing it work. That finally coming together part is actually wonderful. Except if it is a disaster and you have done something really bad. It’s always that thing when you see something and think, “We pulled it off! We did it! We made it!” It is not just me, it’s a whole team of people who help me get it there. It’s exciting. You do have moments of doubt where you think, “I don’t think we can do it. We don’t have enough time or money or people.” But it always works out.
I feel like there must be a lot more that goes into it that audience members don’t realize. Do you often have to over think how fabric is going to look under a light or how it’s going to move?
Ja. You do make mistakes sometimes. There is pressure from time to time and you can’t find the right fabric and you think, “This will do.” The choice of the fabric is really important. We don’t have that many options in South Africa but it always works out. Then there are all these other people who are amazing craftspeople; cutters and seamstresses, hat makers [and] shoemakers. At the moment, for King Kong, we are having to make four pairs of vintage boxing gloves. This morning I was with the guy who is doing it, he is very handy and makes props for movies and is good with leather. I mentioned it to him and he said that he has actually made gloves before. What he did was he bought cheap gloves that he undoes and then he uses the shape and recovers it with nice leather. I think that sort of thing is so nice because there are so many little things. We need boxing shoes as well from the 50’s. I don’t know if we are going to find them or have to make them. With Orpheus, we made little Victorian boots and hats. Every show has a new challenge and new people who must do things.
In terms of creating during a season, do you finish one production at a time or do you have multiple ongoing projects?
One production at a time. There have been times where there were more but I don’t want to do that anymore. When I was doing film sometimes there would be times where things overlapped and that is not nice because then you split your concentration and then it becomes stressful. It’s not ideal but it’s possible to be starting something and finishing something. That dovetailing is fine but not completely overlapping.
What is your favourite genre or time period to design?
That’s a difficult one. I quite like the 50’s to be honest. King Kong is in the 50’s. West Side Story was in the 50’s and Clybourne Park was in the 50’s. They are so different. It’s like the great American housewife kind of thing like Clybourne Park. Then there is 50’s South Africa which is King Kong and then West Side Story was a sort of hybrid mix [of] modern 50’s to make people, especially young people, not find it boring. At the moment I can say that the 50’s is my favourite period but it is not really true because I absolutely love The Funny Girl period, sort of after the First World War and before the Second World War. [That] transition from long skirt to flappers. It’s an interesting period.
How do you feel your work has evolved during the context of your career?
I think you find your shtick, your grove. I’m sure people have a style that they can’t really get away from and you try to not fall into that trap but it’s a personal taste thing as well. My work evolving is that story I told you about starting in costumes and going into sets and back into costumes. I think that costumes is where I have to be. I think that is my strong point. Every now and then when I do design a set for theatre, it is normally a small set. It is not complicated and big because that is not my strong point. One learns where your real talents lie and concentrate on that and watch that grow.
What do you think has been the most challenging production or piece that you have designed?
You know what I think it is? It’s not so much a piece itself that is challenging, it’s the director that you are working with. Sometimes you get directors that are very demanding but they don’t know what they want and if you don’t click with them, then that is a challenge. That is the biggest challenge, to try go where that person wants you to be. It’s always an evolving process. It’s the human factor that is the challenge.
Do you have a favourite production that you’ve designed?
At the moment it is Funny Girl but last year it was something else. I really love small intimate productions like what they do upstairs in the studio. I love the little productions that festivals do. I didn’t work on Hemelruim but I thought it was absolutely beautiful and it’s intimate and small and doing something with so little, with the minimum and not a lot of money to sort of capture the essence of something, really, which is a completely different discipline than, I would say, musical theatre. That is what is so nice about theatre that there are all these different things. Nothing is ever the same. It is always new. It can never be boring.
I must ask you about working alongside your son Rocco [Pool.] Now that you’ve told me that you were originally a set designer, was this something that you encouraged him to do?
If I did encourage him it was so subtle that I didn’t know it myself. I did try to encourage him to go into architecture until eventually he said to me, “I don’t really like buildings.” So I said, “What do you want to do?” and he said he wanted to go to Stellenbosch and study that technical course but now I am really happy that he is doing it because now we share so much and we talk about it. It’s nice.
Do you ever accidentally slip into “mom mode” while you are working together?
A little. Not so much anymore but in the beginning there was a time where I was doing a production that was going to Bloemfontein and it was quite a big production. Rocco came with because he is the handy one and technical and I’m not. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship. There was something that we didn’t agree on and then Saartjie Botha said, “Oh I love it when I see a mother and child relationship that reminds me of my own.” What is nice is that if he wasn’t in the theatre or the same kind of line of interest that I am, I wouldn’t have been exposed to all his friends and they way they think. Because they are so much younger than me, I am getting all that input that I wouldn’t necessarily have had on that kind of intimate level. You do get that anyway by working with younger people but it’s nice to have that direct connection. It’s like tapping into a whole young culture which I kind of only noticed suddenly. I think it can so easily happen to people that they get stuck in ways of thinking about things. There is all that new stuff happening. Check it out and move with it.
Is there still anything on your professional bucket list?
I just want to carry on working until I drop dead…and travel a bit in between. I don’t think there is a very specific play. I just get excited every time I do something new. I’m really looking forward to King Kong and working with Jonathan [Munby.] He seems like a really nice guy and it’s a great cast.
How are you feeling about designing the costumes for Shakespeare in Love? I feel like that’s quite different to what you’ve done before.
It’s a big show. When I first finished studying, I worked for PACT and then CAPAB. They did Shakespeare every single year, sometimes more because of the schools and all of that. I’ll have to go all the way back and remember what it was like because it needs to be realistic clothing of that time. In a way, I’m thinking, “Oh great I’m going to do it. I’m not just one of the many slaves that were making it happen.” It’s big and we are going to have to find those people again who can do all those [crafts] but it’s amazing. It’s a new period for me. I don’t think I’ve ever designed anything that is set in the renaissance or Shakespearian England. I am quite excited about it.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Obviously Janice Honeyman. I work with her a lot. She is amazing. There are very few female designers. There is a costume designer who is my friend but she only works in film. Her name is Diana Cilliers. We studied together and she is a great inspiration. We kind of grew up in the world. We worked together a lot on films and I did the production design. Saartjie Botha is amazing. What she has done for Afrikaans theatre and for theatre is quite astounding. She nurtures people who are young and she nurtures people who need to be brought back in. Maybe that is why I’m back doing this, because of Janice and Saartjie.
Special thanks to Jesse Kramer and Birrie le Roux.