Sue Blane Interview - Crazed Imaginations

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(Modified from an article in issue #84 of Crazed Imaginations. Interview by Ruth Fink-Winter)

[Ed note: In April, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Sue Blane on the set of the fab musical “Tanz der Vampire” in Stuttgart, Germany. (See CI 81.) She was kind enough to fill in some of the details from her Q&A session at the October Orlando con, and she was so generous with additional information that we’re printing the rest as separate interview.

Enjoy. Thank you, Sue.]

SUE BLANE on the creation of Rocky Horror, her “signature look” and more…

The Rocky Horror Show

CI: Please explain what you meant by the underwear/vulnerability theme in the RHS.

SB: Frank was in underwear, women’s, as it happens, except the pants…the underpants, were very much male, but sort of sexy male. Rather than using that in a showgirl way, like Las Vegas would, where you’d probably wear a pair of hose underneath, in order to make your legs look good… it was real. At such close range in the original production, that made it very very outrageous. It’s that joke of being seen in your underwear, [which] unless you have a perfect physique, is actually quite shocking. ….

How did you do the shopping for the show?

I think we had five weeks or so to prepare it. That was pretty full-time…. Tim and I went out shopping together for his shoes, which was terribly funny, going into regular shoe shops and him trying the shoes on. Raised a lot of eyebrows, it did.

Where did you get the idea for the floorshow feathered gauntlets?

I got the idea for that from some old costume bits that were hanging around the studios where we were based for the Los Angeles production. Lou Adler had his offices there and found us the space to manufacture the costumes.

In an adjacent room…were some old costumes that I think were Las Vegas ones. Amongst them were some silver sequined gauntlets—sleeves, if you like—with the feathers round the top. And I just fell in love with them.

Lou or somebody from his office found out that nobody particularly owned them and that we had permission to use them. …. I think we used them for real in the Los Angeles show, for the floor show. And also there were some wonderful jackets that must have belonged either to the MC or maybe the ushers. They were made of the most beautiful fabric that had little tiny stars woven into it. We used some of those in the Los Angeles production for the ushers, broke them down a little bit.

Where did you get the idea for Nell’s costume?

It was a pair of trousers from the King’s Road that we chopped off and joined up into what was then called hot pants, shorts. The idea of the shorts really came from Ruby Keeler and those famous pictures in her shorts tapping away. …. One of the outtake photos shows Nell in a totally sequined outfit –jacket and shorts—why was that idea discarded? Did we not use those? Is there not a piece in the film where she’s in sequined shorts?....I think she had a complete outfit; it’s interesting we never got to use it. It’s also interesting how well I don’t know the movie.

Tell us about the Rocky Horror/Maids Connection, please…

I worked with Lindsay Kemp on a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids in the Citizens’ Theatre of Glasgow with Tim Curry as one of the maids. He was Celeste, with James Aldbury and Rupert Frazer. And Lindsay directed it. …. I was doing the costumes, guided very strongly by Lindsay ….. He was first, if you like, to take a form of cabaret work to very dark limits in a Genet-esque way. Certainly the Transexual world and gay theater. His work’s incredibly powerful. ….I directly utilized the look that we developed for Tim and for James as the two maids in that production when it came to doing Rocky. I owe that inspiration to Lindsay Kemp, there’s no question about it….What I feel I did with it was make it into my own…the development of that idea is totally mine.

Colin MacNeil was the chief costumer of the Citizens. So the first thing I did was rang him and said, ‘Hey, can you come down to London and work with me on this? And can I have Tim’s corset and that old pair of gold shoes that are upstairs in the storeroom?’ And they said ‘yes, of course.’

The Maids was a starting point for Tim’s Frank costume. He didn’t look like that in the Maids. It was much, much dourer…. The idea of the corset in the Maids was not for the sex that I then used it for in Rocky.... It was something that was restrictive, not liberating.

Did you make the costumes yourself?

I did a bit. I can sew in a domestic sense, but I’m certainly not a cutter, in the sense of being able to draft a pattern, or take the flat and turn it into something on the body. Colin MacNeil, who sadly is no longer with us, was a superb cutter and tailor with great flair. He and I together invented Magenta’s [dinner] dress. We could afford two and a half yards of silk chiffon. Between the two of us we had the nerve to take the scissors, cut a hole in either bit and put it on. It was a big moment because we had absolutely no means of going and buying any more. So if we blew it, that was it. That was great fun. That was both of us together saying ‘what are we going to make out of this?’ And it worked a treat.

Patricia Quinn says that you invented punk. What do you think about that?

There’s no question that the punk look was about in London on the streets, and I was drawing on that. But what I added to it was the ripped fishnets, the sequins glued on, the whole distressing idea, plus I think the fun of it…. So whether I invented punk, I don’t know, but I’m very happy Pat Quinn says I did. If one can be proud of something like that!

Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood had a bit to do with it as well… certainly I was drawing on all of that. I owe a lot to them in that respect. In fact, Magenta’s wonderful little spiky boots that she wore with the spacesuit come from “Granny Takes a Trip” [ed note: McClaren’s and Westwood’s shop that later became “Sex”]. One of our totally over-the-top purchases with our very small budget …We remade them for the movie. They’re fabulous, aren’t they? Absolutely fabulous!

The one I’ve [still] got is one of the maid’s shoes, the little button boot with the stiletto, and that was made for the movie.

What about the RHS revival designs you did?

It’s been glammed up a little bit. Since the movie, of course, when we do the show…it seems a pity not to include some of the images from the movie. In that revival with Jason, we put in the cocktail frock that Frank wore for the dinner party in the movie.


We have to ask a couple of questions about the film…'

“I won’t remember so I’ll make it up.”

Were the RHPS costumes painted?

Frank’s corset obviously was. I think his floorshow corset was sprayed into a little bit. And I think the surgeon’s gown might have been. That was probably because it was too bright, and obviously things like bloodstains were put on. Meat Loaf’s jacket was painted; I painted that actually…. I remember sitting in the studio in the middle of the night, painting that for the next day’s shoot.

Why leopard print lining in Eddie’s jacket? That was a leftover. It’s always been a love of mine, is leopard print, from my love of the 40s and 50s clothes. In the show version, Eddie is done in the UK as a teddy boy. Now teddy boys didn’t really exist in the States. And consequently when we did the Los Angeles production and then on into the movie… we very much deliberately went down the road of a rocker, rather than a teddy boy. But the original Eddie costume had been a leopardskin waistcoat, or vest, as you call it in America. And so the leopardskin sort of followed through.

I’ve been thrilled with the revival of leopard prints, which are now so passé it isn’t true, but I’m still toting them ‘round, I’m afraid. They’ll come ‘round again, like black did.

Shock Treatment

Was Shock Treatment a disappointment for you?

What I now realize is I think it was probably 12, 15 years ahead of its time….I think had it had come out in the late 80s it would have been quite a different story. And I mean that as a compliment to Jim, Richard, Brian and everybody. And also a major compliment to the score of Shock Treatment. I think Shock Treatment’s got some wonderfully original things in it. And it’s just a joy to listen to. It really is. It’s fabulous. And there’s some terrific performances. Wonderful, wonderful…

What is your favorite Shock Treatment costume? The storyboards are quite nice; I’m very fond of them. I did them in magic marker. And because I’ve had to look them out to scan in for you…it’s reminded me that that’s such a very different style than I usually draw in… I’m thinking I’m going to use it again on my next project, I’m going to go into felt tips. You can’t rub them out. So you have to mean what you’re going to do with them.

Probably the stripey straightjacket… the one on Brad. Well, everybody gets them in the end. I’ve got one of those, actually. I should at some point auction some of those bits and pieces.

How did the availability or more modern fabrics affect the costumes?

God, what you can get now is unbelievable! The Mac and Nation costumes were made of Lycra. It shows actually, ‘cuz it’s not that easy, it wasn’t then, to get it to tailor…. The overall look for Shock Treatment—I can only describe it as airbrushed. In other words, what I was seeing of pop art and fine art, heavily influenced again by Brian—I’ve always said he was the Andy Warhol of Australia. His knowledge and interest in fine art, particularly modern, was and is phenomenal….His great love was Lichtenstein. So it was very much deliberate to try and create that look of airbrushed stroke cartoon/graphic look and the polyester and the crimpoline—actually I don’t think it was polyester then—look. I knew that it would be very solid color, very rich and sharp.

Creating the “look” for Shock Treatment

It’s surprisingly hard to manufacture off-the-peg looking low-to-medium price clothes unless you’re in a factory environment ….you can’t get that factory-pressed finish. Which in a way is very integral to the design of Shock Treatment…[K]nowing that I couldn’t make, for instance, the medical uniforms look like the ones you buy from a medical supplier, one might as well make the shapes slightly more extreme than the real thing… Put the big shoulders in, which were fashionable at the time.

Pat Quinn, when we were doing Shock Treatment, bought a coat dress that was by Thierry Mugler. It was so beautiful; she absolutely adored it and of course looked absolutely fabulous in it….It had the most beautiful shaped shoulders. We as much as possible tried to copy that shape for her costume….Absolutely exquisite garment.

You mentioned uniforms as being very important to the overall look of Shocky.

It’s just a huge range of classic looks that I would view America as having. But the idea of uniforming is very much one of them. It’s my take on middle America of that period. I’m sure it’s not like that any more. I used to love things like—which I’ve still got—the catalogs from the suppliers of uniforms, where ‘please, we can customize their tiepins’. I just adored all that. We really didn’t have that in the UK. So for me, that was just a complete eye-opener.

Sue on costume design

What is your approach to costume design?

I try to always apply a slightly modernistic approach so that even though one’s suggesting a particular period or even recreating it, maybe you do certain things that mean it relates to certain things during my lifetime.

I think I perhaps do that more deliberately than a lot other designers. I think something that is effectively a period piece also has a resonance to now, whenever now might be.

You talk a lot about distressing/“breaking down” costumes. Please elaborate…

The distressing does many things. It can be literally to make things look old, and to tell the story that they’re old…but also it’s a theatrical thing... I love having costumes painted, just to emphasize shape and texture. The lighting’s so extraordinary in theater. But really, it’s much better when it’s got something to play with, something to really move across. I choose the fabrics to also increase that. For instance, in Dance of the Vampires, the peasants’ [costumes] are mostly made out of cottons, linens, which crease up wonderfully, and also take paint well, and they’re all dyed and then re-dyed and sprayed into and patched….so when you throw light across, perhaps a shirt, you’ve got real depth like a sculpture in the creases.

How much time do you spend on research?

It totally depends on the piece. If it’s a straight period piece I’ve got a lot of material at home. Nowadays, I tend to work in bigger companies…they all have their own experience of period, or they’ll look it up themselves. It’s happening at the moment on the Carmen I’m doing—the workrooms at Clybourne have come up with fabulous research period-wise.… in fact just before I came over here, I saw a corset that they’ve made for it, and it’s absolutely stunning… it’s made completely of 4-mm, 5-mm sharkfishing line. The whole corset is corded. It’s about 40 meters of this line. So instead of using traditional bones, it’s just tons and tons of tiny channels…. It’s like some extraordinary sculpture.

Disney’s influence on Sue’s work

I think a lot of my costumes, and Shock Treatment may be a good example, have a cartoon element... That’s why I was so thrilled to do [Disney’s musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame]. The brief from my director and the producers [for Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame] was to flesh out the story in the costumes. The design at the beginning was very minimal, very dramatic…a clean canvas. They also wanted “color,” put into it because it’s such a dark subject… being billed as a family musical. So there was a definite need to put some real visual feasts in there so it wasn’t too dour.

However, I’m not one for brash, bold color; it was a very fine-tuned palette, actually. In the end it didn’t quite look like that because many other elements came during the production, [like] Jerry Sirlin’s projections. …. I certainly wasn’t putting the cartoon on stage….

Visually I’m such a fan of Disney. Snow White’s the basis for Frank N Furter, of course. …. Where Lindsay Kemp may claim that it was his influence from the Maids, I’d say that I then added Snow White in, that whole look of the collar is the wicked stepmother from the Disney cartoon. I think it’s one of the most beautiful visual things ever, that cartoon ….

Tell us about Brian Thomson.

He’s brilliant. He’s a brilliant, brilliant designer. [Editor’s note: the Rocky Horror Show was the first time Thomson and Blane worked together.] I’ve had a lot of big influences in my life, both domestically and career-wise. Brian was a very big one….Brian has a fabulous visual sense of humor…. I would say that I get the humor in a lot of my work from him. He has a wonderful love of kitsch. …. I owe a huge visual debt to Philip Prowse, Maria Björnson, who designed Phantom; she and I started our first work together. Philip Prowse was then the designer at the Citizens’ Theatre, the designer of the Citizens’ Theatre, almost. He’s now a very-well established director. He was part of the trio that ran the Citizens’. So that had a very big influence on my life.

We were very much a group. I lived round the corner from Brian. I et out with him probably four times a week. We were all pals. It was actually a terrifically happy time, I have to say. It was lovely.

Have you thought about putting together an exhibit of your work? Actually, I’ve thought about it a lot… I need maybe three, four months, solidly, to start to prepare and archive ... I just haven’t had the time. But it’s certainly something I plan to do in the near future. Had I not been offered this lovely job in Vienna [ed note: 'Wake-up', a new musical which premieres at the Raimund Theater this September], I would indeed be doing it through this year…..I’ve refound drawings that I’d done in my teens, before I went to theatre. And they’ve rather interested me, because now I draw costumes, or something that’s actually going to be turned into something else. But then I was drawing as a fine artist. I think I might have been quite good if I’d have stuck at it… I’d quite like to exhibit some of those along with some of my costume work.

Do you still do set design?

I recently did “The Relapse,” set and costumes, which is a Restoration drama, written in 1690, at the National Theatre with Trevor Nunn. What’s On magazine did an on-line election, alongside the Olivier Awards, for which I’ve had lots of nominations but never won one, [and] I did get voted Best Design by the readers... I’m very proud of that. Midsummer Night’s Dream in Stockholm was my complete design as well. It’s quite a radical set.

I still every so often make sure that I do do both... It keeps me sane.

How would you define “Sue Blane’s design signature”?

I hope I wouldn’t be able to. Other people might... I would like, if I was not the modest person I am, to say that the most important thing for me, beyond the obvious things like the storytelling, and making the artist feel good …or helping them in any way I can with their performance, would be that one does it with wit, so that whatever the audience is seeing, if they wish to go into detail, there’s something there for them to find amusing or interesting or exciting.