Susan Hilferty, Costume Designer

The following biography was written for Susan Hilferty’s personal website.

Susan Hilferty has designed over 300 productions from Broadway to the Bay area- and internationally including Japan, London, Australia, Germany and South Africa. Recent designs include Wicked (2004 Tony, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk awards and Olivier nomination), Spring Awakening (Tony nomination) August Wilson’s Radio Golf and Jitney, Lestat (Tony nomination) Assassins, Into the Woods (Tony and Drama Desk nominations; Hewes Award), Manon at LA opera and Berlin Staatsoper, Richard Nelson’s Conversations in Tusculum, Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You and Chris Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo. She works with such well-known directors as Joe Mantello, James Lapine, Michael Mayer, Walter Bobbie, Robert Falls, Tony Kushner, Robert Woodruff, JoAnne Akalaitis, the late Garland Wright, James MacDonald, Bart Sher, Mark Lamos, Frank Galati, Des McAnuff, Christopher Ashley, Emily Mann, David Jones, Marion McClinton, Rebecca Taichman, Laurie Anderson, Carole Rothman, Garry Hynes, Richard Nelson and Athol Fugard (the South African writer with whom she works as set and costume designer and often as co-director since 1980). Hilferty also designs for opera, film, and dance, and chairs the Department of Design for Stage and Film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She was awarded a 2000 OBIE for Sustained Excellence in Design.

As the chair of the Department of Design for Stage and Film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Hilferty discuses what she looks for in a student here.

… She is not the only student whose background has left them woefully unprepared for life as a designer. I often get stunned expressions from candidates when I make suggestions about what they should be taking. They are shocked when I say that a student with a strong liberal arts background who has taken drawing classes in the art department and has had only a small amount of time in the theatre is better prepared to be a designer. “But I have worked on over 25 productions!” they wail. How do I tell them that they have been trained to be technicians, not built the foundations to be designers? Without taking history, political science, languages, English literature, all of the liberal arts; without taking even one pure art class, not even a figure drawing class; without having seen any of the current practitioners of this art form, how can they even know if they want to be designers?

… First, I took a critical look at what I was looking for in a member of my incoming class. I am looking for a student who is passionate about the theatre; who understands that it is a living, breathing thing directly connected to contemporary life and at its best helps us wrestle with an understanding of our own lives. The student I am looking for does not have to be highly skilled in the theatre arts, but must have a broad-based liberal arts background on which he or she can depend as a resource for his or her designs. The student must understand that we are designers and must be able to speak the language of design, which means the student should come equipped with some drawing background. The most basic requirement is that the student can understand and communicate proportion. I want someone who is insatiably curious about everything and is willing to risk and embrace failure in his or her desire to explore.

… For me, drawing is an essential tool, because it allows the designer to explore proportion, the keystone to any design idea. I feel that the student needs to speak the language of design to truly be a designer. I do not believe a student has to draw like Michelangelo, just to be able to put an idea down on paper in proportion to see the idea and then make a choice about the design. I believe that drawing is important as a way to explore a design rather than to present an idea.

Hilferty’s personal website also provides a portfolio with costume sketches and photos of her work, including Wicked, Into the Woods, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

An interview with Hilferty discussing the costumes of Wicked.

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