"Giving it a bit of a look" is one of Roger Kirk's favorite phrases--and a pretty apt job description. For the past 20 years, Kirk has been giving Australian theatre, film, and television "a bit of a look" as one of the country's most versatile and successful designers.
He is best known as a costume designer, though he also designs sets. He's renowned for doing "glam"--there isn't much he doesn't know about sequins and beads--but he is also expert at realism. As fellow Australian designer Brian Thomson has said of him, "His strengths are in recreating something that is known but passing it through that filter that makes it utterly theatrical."
Kirk's costumes for three recent theatrical productions attest to his versatility: the new Australian musical about Peter Allen, The Boy From Oz; the West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind; and the UK tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. From beaded Hawaiian shirts to kids' tatty dungarees to army disposal gear, Kirk's costumes for the productions run the gamut from glitzy to gritty, proving that he doesn't need a sequin to shine.
Kirk's entire resume is decidedly diverse, ranging from sets for Elton John's 1986 Australian tour (a lit Perspex amphitheatre) to sets and costumes for the Australian TV version of Gladiators, to countless AFI (Australian Film Institute), Fashion, and ARIA (the Australian equivalent of the Grammys) Awards. "It's a breath of fresh air," he says, "to do an opera one week and then Gladiators in a huge stadium in Brisbane the next."
His film credits include Blood Oath and Rebel, both of which won him AFI Best Costumes Awards, and On Our Selection, starring Geoffrey Bush and Dame Joan Sutherland. His stage credits are as long as your arm and include costumes for a recent Australian production of Cabaret, West Side Story, and The King and I, which won him a Tony Award in 1996 when the production opened on Broadway.
Kirk is a tall, immaculate man who looks not unlike Noel Coward on occasions, though the accent is gently Australian. He is a bit of a perfectionist--his sketches are immaculate--but once the clothes are onstage, he's happy to improvise if the director wants changes during dress rehearsals. This is why directors like Gale Edwards find him easy to work with, as well as a lot of fun--so much so that Edwards recently took him to England for Whistle and Superstar.
Kirk trained at ABC television. He started out as a stagehand and floor manager in the Sydney studios, then took off for London, where he worked in the West End for three years doing props. Returning to Australia, he joined ABC's design department, cutting his teeth as a designer on a host of extremely popular variety shows, which is where he first got his reputation as a master of glam. One of the choreographers he was working with at ABC told him about a production of Chicago that Richard Wherrett was to direct for the Sydney Theatre Company. Kirk met Wherrett and landed the job of costume designer, his first mainstream theatre assignment. It was also the first time he worked with set designer Brian Thomson, with whom he has collaborated numerous times over the years, including The King and I, for which Thomson also won a Tony.
For a designer who loves to "razzle-dazzle 'em," Chicago was the perfect stage show to start with. The production, which premiered in Sydney in 1981, was hugely successful, transferring for an extended season and then touring to the Hong Kong Festival. "Until then, [large-scale musicals] had been brought 'holus-bolus' to Australia," says Kirk. "It was one of the first times that a local team had done their own production."
Kirk first worked with Australian director Gale Edwards on a production of The Magic Flute for the Victoria State Opera (now merged with Opera Australia). On the strength of that, she asked him to design sets and costumes for her 1992 Australian production of Aspects of Love. Andrew Lloyd Webber liked it so much that he took the production to England on a tour and then onto the West End in 1994. So began an extremely fruitful working relationship with Edwards, and, through her, Webber.
In 1997, Kirk worked with Edwards and English set designer Peter J. Davison on Puccini's Manon Lescaut for Opera Australia. The same team would go on to collaborate on The Boy From Oz, Whistle Down the Wind, and Superstar. Kirk's costumes for Manon were predictably gorgeous. He retained the 18th-century silhouette, but reduced the look to shape and color: there was no patterned fabric, just bold, plain colors, with the cut and the wigs indicating the period. In the second act, set in a Parisian salon, Davison created a huge white and gilt wall with a gigantic mirror and oversized doors. The costumes took their cue from the set, ranging in color from a huge gold dress for Manon through ochre and orange to off white.
As the team put Manon into Sydney (the production premiered in Melbourne), they also worked on The Boy From Oz, which opened in Sydney in March 1998 and continues to do huge business in Australia. The show is tentatively slated for a late 1999 Broadway opening, with producer Ben Gannon also planning a movie.
Given the story of Allen's life, which moves from the Australian bush town Tenterfield to Radio City Music Hall, and features such icons as Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, The Boy From Oz had to be reality-based. At the same time, it is a real showbiz fairy tale.
Set at one of Allen's last concerts, the musical tells his story through flashbacks. Edwards wanted the effect of the production to be a composite. "Peter was a bit of a mystery man," she says. "He was a firefly; his flash was gorgeous, but we don't know what he was like when he was home by himself. Luckily, the ballads are very autobiographical and reveal a person with a lot of facets to his personality. Peter is a kind of jewel--if you like, a gem--and every time [the scene] shifts, the light hits a different facade, and a different side is revealed. That's the principle of the show."
Davison's set is a dark blue box into which elements--a large spiral staircase that leads up to heaven, bars, tables columns, starcloth, neon, and lights, lights, lights--arrive to locate the scenes. The clothes complete the picture. "It's very much like the way we did Aspects," says Kirk. "The ensemble [players] are like extras in a movie. They help tell the story; the clothes tell you the period."
The costumes glitter from beginning to end, except for the scene in the pub and one or two purposely pulled-back outfits, notably Allen's battling mother, his lover Greg's white "death" outfit, and the gay crowd at Stonewall mourning Garland's death. Other than that, it's all glam. "I have been able to put my beaded stamp on the show," says Kirk with a chuckle. Most of his beading is done in India, where he has good--and carefully guarded--contacts.
"There is an image that you have to create. You don't have to reproduce it, but you have to create the illusion of it," Kirk says of Allen's costumes. Kirk's main challenge was designing costumes for innumerable quick changes. Scenes slide into one another filmically, hopping from one decade to another. Allen's wedding to Minnelli is only a few seconds long--as long as it takes to pose for a photo. The flash goes off and the scene changes. Thus Todd McKenney, who plays Allen, is constantly changing costume. "Plotting him was quite difficult because he rarely leaves the stage," says Kirk.
After a full onstage change after the first scene, cleverly done by the television "dressers" for a scene in Bandstand (a popular Australian program on which Allen appeared in 1960), most of the split-second changes involve only the top. These include mostly one beaded shirt after another, but also a glittering Australian flag shirt for "I Still Call Australia Home," as well as a mirrored jacket. "So, you don't worry about period shoes," Kirk says. "As long as the basic image is right and everyone behind him has the right look, you'll be OK."
For Garland and Minnelli, Kirk used recognizable outfits: the classic little black beaded dresses and jackets that Garland so loved, and the rusty beaded suit that she wore at the London Palladium. Minnelli wears a glittering red Halston-style, three-piece suit, and in one scene, rips off two overdressed costumes as she sings, eloquently conveying her changing image as her career progresses: from long green velvet dress to flapper-like beaded dress to red leotard, sequined waistcoat, and bowler hat.
The blue set allows Kirk great latitude with color, and in many scenes he has taken his cue from Davison. In a Hong Kong scene, the restaurant is red and gold, so Garland is in red, and the rest of the ensemble is in more muted tones. For the Bandstand scene, all the costumes are black and white. Appropriately enough, the most flamboyant design is saved for the show's finale, with the song "I Go to Rio." Davison's set has bananas and the word "Rio" in red neon, so Kirk's ensemble costumes are red, yellow, and orange extravaganzas--with bananas. Allen is in a red glittering outfit with maracas. As the principal artists join him onstage for the finale, they are each dressed in red and a floral beaded fabric--the same fabric as the shirt Allen wears in the opening scene, completing the circle of Allen's life. "I think the show has a good look to it," Kirk admits.
Whistle Down the Wind was a different challenge altogether. Webber relocated the story, taken from Mary Hayley Bell's novel, from the Yorkshire moors to the Bible Belt in the Southern US. (The story focuses on a drifter who is found by a group of children who mistake him for Jesus.) Davison's hydraulic two-tier set moves to create the fly-over of interstate highway, a diner, and the barn where "The Man" takes refuge. It is consciously concrete-ugly.
"Gale's big thing was that she wanted it to look poor, and that's what I spent most of my time doing," says Kirk. "It wasn't a big 'make' show. We bought a lot of original clothing and overdyed it and broke it down. We had whole teams of people over-painting and spraying and grating, trying to make it look realistically poor."
Although one tends to associate Kirk with glamour, he is quick to point out that he has frequently designed at the other end of the spectrum (Blood Oath, for example, was set in a prisoner-of-war camp), and that is just as much of a challenge. "I remember someone saying to me that shows like this [unglamorous] aren't as hard to do, so they didn't want to pay me as much! But a lot of people can't do realism. Their idea of it is to take a pair of scissors and cut the bottom off a pair of pants."
Knowing the 1950s well, the only detailed research he needed to do for Whistle was for the sheriff and police uniforms, for which he got a great deal of helpful information from the police department in Baton Rouge, LA. The rest of the costumes are basically street clothes.
Kirk's goal was to make the children, who represent the fantasy world, look colorful, and the adults, who represent the real, cruel, world, look drab and dark. By the end of Act I, when the children are in the barn with the man they believe to be Jesus and the adults are above them on the split stage howling for the blood of the escaped murderer, there is a powerful contrast.
The ugliness of the set is contrasted with the beauty of the colors in the sky. Kirk echoed this in the costumes for Swallow (the girl who discovers The Man), which are pale blue, pink, and yellow. Whether audiences make the connection doesn't matter, says Kirk. "It's just the way you put things together. It's how you evolve your ideas to make something work."
>From Whistle, the team (which included American lighting designer Mark >McCullough, who also worked on The Boy From Oz), went on to Superstar. >Edwards had directed the show successfully on the West End, but the UK >touring version (on the road for the next 12 months) is a new production, >the look of which is decidedly contemporary.
"The street fashion when I was there was all the army disposal gear, so that's the look I went for with the apostles," says Kirk. "They wear khaki and jungle green with patch pockets. Judas is in red camouflage with a leather jacket, Doc Martens, and football socks. The Zealots are in blue camouflage and berets, a bit like an Israeli army or something. It's made it much more accessible to a younger audience."
In the first act, Jesus wears sandy-colored hiking boots, linen jeans, and an Indian gauze top. "He has that 'look,' with the long hair and beard, though it is still contemporary," the designer says. In the second act, Jesus' look becomes more Biblical--the same gauze shirt but longer, gauze pants, and sandals. The crucifixion is a graphically Biblical image, but the periphery isn't," says Kirk, "but it does all mesh together well."
And Kirk couldn't resist the opportunity for a little razzle-dazzle. Herod is reminiscent of Joel Grey's MC in Cabaret. The three girls who flank him wear hot pink sequined fishtails with beehive hairdos, while the boys look like the Blues Brothers, with pink frilly shirts, pink sequined cummerbunds, and pink sequined gym boots.
Yes, Kirk can do "poor," and he can do "street"--convincingly, cleverly, and above all, theatrically--but at heart, he's a glamourpuss.