When it comes to revered creative works, there are those who believe that a classic is not to be touched and those who believe that the spirit of creating art is in pushing those boundaries and buttons, to attempt to develop a new piece of art that both pays homage to the original and seeks to place it in a contemporary setting that it might be more accessible to the general public and thereby spur them to revisit said classics. Costume designer Ruoxuan Li has worked with those on both sides of this idea. She feels that her role is not to be the one who is polarized on the topic but to grow through embracing both perspectives. This what me be referred to as a “creatively open mind.” It’s something that would seem to be inherent in the artistic mindset but is not always so. Luckily for those she works with, Li has the pedigree and the experience to enable both factions. When ISC (Independent Shakespeare Company)was presenting a modernized production of Shakespeare’s “The Two Men of Verona”, Ruoxuan was an obvious choice as costume designer. Li cut her teeth in Shakespearean theater at the at Wimbledon College of Art, University of The Arts London. Since then she has worked on countless productions including Distant Vision with Francis Ford Coppola. Intensely familiar with both traditional and contemporary approaches to the look of stage, TV, and film, Ruoxuan worked with director David Melville to place the characters in a modern world for crowds of 20,000 in Los Angeles.
Melissa Chalsma is the artistic director of the ICS production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” who sought out Ruoxuan and enlisted her into the production team. Melissa describes, “I was first attracted to Ruoxuan’s work because of her outstanding portfolio and the breadth of her experience. She is an inter-continental artist who excels in a wide range of styles, has done excellent work in a variety of mediums, and has wonderful inter-personal skills. Without Ruoxuan “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” would not have looked as good as it did, nor would the actors have even as able to do their jobs. She created an entirely unique world with vastly different styles authentically placing the action in the 1950’s. Each costume piece supported the actors in their work. Speaking personally, the costumes Ruoxuan created were absolutely perfect!”
Early meeting with the play’s director set the tone that the play should be apolitical and be a place of respite for the public to escape the volatile events around them. Melville communicated to Ruoxuan that he was interested in a Rockabilly style that was full of bright and engaging colors. The two primary challenges in this is that Shakespeare is not known for its use of bright colors and, as a native of China, Li does not share the same frame of Americana reference that many might in regards to the 1950’s Rockabilly style and era. Research would begin for her at ground zero rather than twenty or seventy-five percent. To fit the classic Shakespearean sensibility into a new concept of 1950’s, she started by matching the social group status for characters such as the greasers for the outlaws, teddy boys/girls for the naughty ones etc. Li then tracked each character’s change of status and change of their mental/emotional evolution, trying to express the changes cohesively through costuming. She was given some allowance to be not period-dead-on but tried to catch key elements of the 1950’s rockabilly look such as white socks, rolled up hems, pointy shirt collars, circle skirts, etc. These helped to sell the period when it’s not a full-on authentic period show.
It’s the very nature of a mingling of the arts that they affect each other. This also applies to the costume design; add maneuverability to that as well. The Rockabilly application to this classic Shakespeare play was like an actor itself, taking on the visage of a “greaser” from the era. This meant that the music and style of the 1950’s was inseparable from the look Li created. Watching the rehearsal is a key part of her process in finalizing the costuming. Ruoxuan relates, “When I saw the rehearsal with the band and all of the dancing, I realized that the research I did was not fully matching the energy on the dance floor. There were actors rapping the Shakespeare lines, the duke being the drummer at the same time, one of the two gentlemen acted like a nerdy teenage facing his lover…all these sparkling moments gave me inspiration. I switched my color palette to a much more vibrant and youthful combination of bright pastels and saturated jewel tones. I shortened all the skirt for dancing, added ruffled collars for crab the dog, and asked the attendant rapper turning his bell boy hat front to the back. These might seem minor but they bring everything into focus.”
Broadway World stated, “Ruoxuan Li’s black leather jackets for the outlaws, and circle skirts and preppy plaids for the leading players all lend authenticity to the period and its unbridled optimism.” This statement communicates the concept that the costuming itself is part of delivering the emotion to an audience, an emotion that must be congruent to that of the intent of the director. With this understanding, Ruoxuan takes great care to plan and maintain an aesthetic consistent with her director’s goal. This process begins with a conversation that continues up until the actual showtime. A strong sense of design partnered with an ease of flexibility is what has resulted in so many directors seeking out Ruoxuan to create the look for their productions whether it be stage, TV, or film.