Interview: Deborah Wright Houston

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by Rachel Wilson

Brooklyn Music School presents two upcoming shows, “The Shepherd’s Tale” and “Venus and Adonis.” “The Shepherd’s Tale,” which will take place on August 11 as part of BMS’s Summer Vocal Arts Junior Artists program and “Venus and Adonis,” which will take place on August 23 as part of BMS’s Summer Vocal Arts program. I received the opportunity to speak with Deborah Wright Houston, the costumer for both productions. Ms. Houston is classically trained in acting, singing and directing and has 30 years of performance experience in New York City. She is the founder of and Artistic Director of not-for-profit Kings County Shakespeare Company serving Brooklyn from 1983 until 2007. She has been with BMS since 2016 and has been the costumer for both the adult and children productions.

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Q: What was the process for selecting the costumes for ‘Venus and Adonis’?

A: Charles II, known as the Merry Monarch, was one of the most popular and beloved kings of England. Unfortunately, no live children were born to him and his queen, Catherine of Braganza. Very susceptible to beautiful, spirited women, Charles acknowledged 12 of the children born to his 7 mistresses. And he conferred titles on all of them.

When John Blow wrote this opera, it was performed before the king. The woman who played the lead role Venus was Mary Davis, she was called Moll, Mary Davis Moll. She was one of his mistresses, and the person who played cupid was their daughter.

So we decided the Baroque operas, the plots are not really intricate, they’re not the type of plots we get from Shakespeare and later playwrights. They were usually about the gods, and kind of more presentational, it was more like a concert with minimal costumes and props. Now that doesn’t mean that we, as modern actors, are not going to bring some heft to it. Marie, our stage director, and Lina, and I decided that we would make all of the singers one of those mistresses or the children. We will have somebody dressed as the king and we will have somebody dressed as his wife.

Much of these mistresses were looking for titles for their husbands, or they were looking for titles for themselves or their offspring. And he [King Charles] was very generous in all of those ways. This gives the actors something else to work with because they start out, when you see the beginning, you see everyone as a courtier of that time, and then they take on the roles of the opera, performing it before the king. We figured this would make it really, really interesting, for the actors, and also bring the audience into it. Also, I have these fabulous costumes that were made by a friend of mine that worked perfectly for the production.

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Q: What was the process for selecting and designing the costumes for “A Shepherd’s Tale?”

A: I use a lot of fantasy for the children. For "A Shepherd's Tale," I need to make seven sheep costumes, and I find that far more daunting than doing this [as in costuming for Venus & Adonis] stuff (laughs).  I’m figuring out how to make them the little droopy ears and make them look like sheep. I’ve also got a whole bunch of cupids that I have to create as well. 

I like to use, as I say, more fantasy and slightly period things when costuming the children's productions. When we did “To Dream A World,” which was about young Will Shakespeare, I helped write the script because I’m the one who is the Shakespeare person, to adapt it for the kids. The costumes for that, for Will and certain people in that, definitely were Tudor, the Tudor period. But the fairies and all of the sprites, those were all big imagination.

The other thing I do is I teach the actors how to use the costumes because sometimes they don’t know how to do that. They need to be exposed to it, they need to be exposed to as much as you can expose them to if you truly want to call yourself a training program. That’s also true with the children, I try to get them to understand: this is what helps you become the character.  

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Q: Where do you find inspiration for your costume designs and selections?

A: I have tons and tons of film, movies that I get that I hold onto because that’s how I do some of my research on some of these English films. So what I do, is I will show several of these to Lina and Marie. One of them in particular that I’ve recently shown takes place in the summer. If you notice, it’s the lighter fabrics they don’t wear all that heavy stuff, you know. And it showed them picnicking outside and having performances outside. So it gave them (Lina and Marie) an idea of sort of what I was thinking in terms of the opera they were telling me about.

Q: What was working with your Shakespeare company like?

A: When I had my Shakespeare Company we would hire costumers, I would work with them sometimes and the other ladies who were also wonderful with costumes who were on my staff. One of them was a graduate of FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] she made these for a production of mine and I have since then added a great deal of things.

Many times they would use the costumes I had, and I would tell them what they can do or not do since all of our costumes are re-purposed all of the time. That’s what so great, I have costumes from 1983 when we first started, they’re still in good condition, because all of the corseting, I wash them personally by hand.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add about your work here at Brooklyn Music School?
A: Our team of wonderful professionals and amazing people makes this program unique. Lina’s always saying "we need to grow, we need to constantly evolve." So, we’re all giving a little. All of us are bending a little we’re trying to just do a little bit more for the other people. It’s very important to have that respect. And it’s wonderful to see the kids so happy with their costumes, and you see the adults be so thrilled.


Want to see the costumes in real life? Come to see "A Shepherd's Tale" this Saturday, August 11 at 4 PM and "Venus & Adonis" on August 23.