A decade ago, after graduating from Oberlin College, Montana Levi Blanco moved back to his native Albuquerque, New Mexico. He got a dog and started working at Whole Foods. “One day,” he told me, “as I was pushing carts in the snow, I thought: there has to be more to my life than this.”
Blanco, who did the costumes for Pipeline (and for the current LCT3 offering, Ghost Light), applied to a graduate program in public humanities at Brown. “As an undergraduate” – he majored in history and the oboe – “I did a thesis on sartorial communication, about how people of color use their body as adornment and capital and power.” The interest in clothing returned during Blanco’s final semester at Brown. “I took an intro to set-design course and it blew my mind. I thought: you can play make-believe for a living?”
In stage design, Blanco could integrate his previous passions: music, history, art history. After an internship at the McNay Art Museum, in San Antonio, and in particular with the museum’s respected Tobin Collection of Theater Arts, Blanco did a Master of Fine Arts degree in design at Yale. Lileana Blain-Cruz, the director of Pipeline, had been to Yale just before him. “We didn’t meet in class,” Blanco said, “but we met in New Haven when Lileana came back to do War at Yale Rep.” A play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, War was subsequently produced at LCT3.
“Lileana and I have worked together so much now that we’ve developed a shorthand,” Blanco said. Even with a familiar rapport, he continued, his process doesn’t vary greatly. “In the first meeting with the director about a show, I am mostly listening and trying to learn as much as I can about the story.” Before long, Blanco has what he calls “my go-away time. I think about the play and I become a curator of possible looks for it. At this point, I may check in with the director about something like swatches but not much more.” He said that he and Blain-Cruz have developed sufficient trust “so that by the time of the first fitting she isn’t surprised by what I’ve done.”
Blanco said that his work is often inspired by nature: “I love Audubon illustrations of birds, especially of mallards.” He also draws upon painting: “Dutch still lifes are a big favorite of mine.” Of an illustrious costume designer and mentor of his at Yale, Blanco observed: “Jane Greenwood says that if you respond to an image you should meditate on it and try to translate it directly. But don’t overdo it.”
That philosophy may apply especially to period costumes, but what about contemporary clothing such as that in Pipeline? “In one sense,” Blanco explained, “modern dress is simple: jeans and shirts. In another sense, it’s tricky: everybody has an opinion about the clothing that they themselves live in everyday.”
As with all productions, with Pipeline Blanco listened to the actors during their fittings. “Performers often have a lot of good ideas,” Blanco said. For example, with the character of Nya, played by Karen Pittman, Blanco explained, “Karen and I would have great dramaturgical conversations about what Nya would wear when she went out to look for her teenage son, after he has gone missing. What would a mom wear when her world has been flipped over and she feels desperate? A long sweater? A trenchcoat? Something else?”
Blanco added: “Pipeline is a very real play. The clothing couldn’t be heightened. That would have taken too much away from the impact of the story.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.