Costume designer David R. Zyla was put to the test when asked to design for the Broadway revival of Big River. This revival, vastly different than the original production, features deaf, heard-of-hearing, and hearing actors — a challenge, as one can imagine, for Zyla to costume.
The inspiration for the costumes came mainly from the set design, which Zyla says, “dictated the idea of the autumnal palette that I did.” Based on the illustrations in the book, the set relies on sepia tones, dark brown line drawings, and parchment backgrounds, leaving Zyla with a clear plan of the colors, patterns, and textures to use for the costumes.
In keeping with the simple set design, Zyla chose to keep the costumes subtle as well so that nothing distracted from the hands or faces of the actors. “We had to keep in mind what would become a backdrop for the drama of what the hands were doing, so it had a lot to do with the choices of fabrics and patterns,” says Zyla. Because facial expressions are also important to deaf theater, all of Zyla's costumes are done in such a way that the audience is able to see the face from all sides. The character of Miss Watson, who is described in the book as wearing goggles, was instead given thick glasses because, “with the goggle idea, we really lost too much of her face,” explains Zyla.
Using the illustrations of the book as the inspiration for his costumes, Zyla encountered a certain amount of trouble in keeping with the time period. Twain's story is about a time prior to the civil war, but the illustrations used for the set were not drawn until 1879. Zyla's solution to this puzzle was to simply mesh the two eras together. Of the final outcome, Zyla says, “It's an idealized pre-Civil War period, that's how I would label it.”
All of Zyla's ideas blend together to create understated yet effective costumes for this Big River revival. “I don't think anything has fed me the way this has,” he says. “I couldn't be happier.”