Kendra Rai, a guest lecturer in costume design in the University’s Department of Theatre Arts, recently earned a Helen Hayes Award nomination for her costume design on The Magic Finger. This world premiere, produced by Imagination Stage, is based on a story by Roald Dahl and adapted by the famous author’s theatrical adaptor, David Wood. The Helen Hayes Award recognizes excellence in theatre in the DC area, and Rai has previously won the award in 2012 for The Green Bird at Constellation Theatre Company. After her nomination, Rai spoke to the importance of collaboration in the theatre.
Collaboration is one of the unique thrills in theatrical creation, according to Rai. “I love that it’s not just me, but it’s actually a bunch of artist working together to make a product,” she explains. Speaking specifically, Rai notes that forming relationships with directors help designers secure work and flourish as artist. When working on The Magic Finger, the director told Kendra, “I want lots of patterns.” This allowed her to draw on a variety of sources, such as the movie Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, in order to create a variety of British “mix match patterns.” The freedom and respect given to the designer help create the wonderful results on stage, with Rai stating, “I love the directors who will just let you free.”
She also notes the importance of incorporating feedback on the design. Rai says her first ideas for the ducks were “cartoony” and had a “comical feel” and were “a little more human.” The director then told her she wanted these costumes to be “as duck as possible.” The more duck-like costume helped underscore the difference and transformations that take place later in the show. This openness to collaboration was instrumental ton creating the award nominated designs for the show.
The idea of collaboration extends into her advice for emerging designers. Rai encourages those starting out as costume designers to work in a costume shop because it is a, “safe place to learn both the technical side of what we do, but also to learn how other designers do their job.” When she left school she got a job at the Washington National Opera as a draper, and from here she observed how Broadway designers “interacted with people,” thereby learning the skills that eventually allowed her to create exciting costumes like the ducks in The Magic Finger. Learning the craft, communication skills, and building a network are vital steps for emerging designers, and a process that Rai now pays forward by taking on assistants of her own.
Having arrived at Pitt for the spring semester, Rai says, “I’m having a great time!” Working in Pitt’s own costume shop she feels wonderfully supported by the staff and students. When I came to talk with Rai she was hard at work helping a student in the shop. You can see Rai’s work in Upstages’ next production, Agamemnon, opening February 14th.
The Helen Hayes Award winners will be announced on April 21st, best of luck to Kendra Rai!