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Izumi Inabi

A Conversation with Animal Farm Costume Designer Izumi InabA

Izumi Inaba, Costume Designer for Animal Farm, was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on her work for this production.

This isn’t your first time working on an adaptation of Animal Farm. How did this production, and your design approach, differ?

Yes, this is my second time working on Animal Farm. For the Steppenwolf production in 2014, we worked witha very different version of the play. The animals were playful, lively, and warm at the beginning, and as it went on they became less playful, more cold and terrifying. We gave the ensemble a military uniform base, which could also look like farm workers. All the animals were constructed in the same manner: a masked hood and gloves with either hooves, or wings, which got gradually ripped away as the story went on.

In this version of the story, I felt that the text was somewhat more poetic and nostalgic. I also got a sense of these working-class animals already in pain and exhausted from the beginning. The scenic design for this production was also very different, so that helped me to imagine these animals living in this environment. I wanted us to feel the animals as abandoned and broken, and [director] May [Adrales] felt that it was important for us to see the actors’ faces fully all the time; so I came up with different mechanisms for each animal that would serve those aims. Much of my inspiration came from oppressed workers in many different countries during the Communist era. I wanted to reflect their struggles in how I represented the animals. They became a fun mix of costume craft, props, and puppetry, and our actors also weighed in with their thoughts on their animals. There were definitely some challenges, but I strongly believe this collaboration was the key ingredient for the successful execution of the design.

Obviously, Orwell’s original book tells the story of farm and barnyard animals as a way of conveying its allegory of human political behavior. How did you and director May Adrales discuss balancing the animal and human elements of each character?

In any play with animal characters, it is pretty obvious that it is human beings playing animals. I think it was important to us that we feel a strong difference between actors playing animals and actors playing human.

For the animal characters, May and I felt that they needed to feel unified, and since they switch animals quite often, their base costumes needed to be simple and effective for all the looks. It was also important for me to make them look less “human-y” but other-worldly—so we added the skull caps. The color palette of their base costume also helps the animal masks and human clothing stand out as focus points.

For the human characters, Jones and Pilkington, we’ve chosen to dress them fully in clothes with a red accent to represent the power of Mankind; but May and I had much discussion about the pigs’ final transformation (which I don’t want togive away). I asked myself, “What would be the complete opposite of weathered, dirty white jumpsuits?” I wanted them to feel dark, sleek, and sharp in style, so I assembled tailored suits. I just love the contrast of the last image, with the clean, suited humans eating out of this grotesque carcass.

When it comes to the animals themselves, what were some of the solutions you used to help us determine who represents which animal? How do those also help us as audience understand how and where each animal fits into the power dynamics of the farm?

To personalize each animal, we’ve relied both on the mask’s expressions, which helps show their personality, and on how they are constructed—shape and materials, mechanism and silhouette. Beyond that, a lot of smaller character tracking (who plays what) we discovered during the rehearsal process, so we needed to come up with some simple add- on items that could work for anyone in the ensemble. Besides tweaking the fit and wearing the animal masks, I found I could come up with almost anything that helped tell the story, because the actors were willing to try anything.

For the power structure of the farm, we found we had two main groups of animals: Good ones (the working animals) and Bad ones (pigs, dogs, Moses). For the Good ones, we’ve used more organic materials, such as burlap, furs, soft yarns, and leather. The Bad ones get mesh metals, tin sheets, bolts, chains, etc. The costume and props shops also spent a lot of time to achieve the right facial expression that conveys personality and attitude for each animal and each category—mostly by trial and error!

The book famously uses its animal allegory, and a bucolic setting in the English countryside, to respond to elements of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the subsequent Stalinist dictatorship; are there ways your designs convey that original impulse?

I looked at many research pictures from that era, and what really stuck in my mind were the propaganda posters. Simple coloring and a strong contrast really gave me a sense of alert, of alarm—which I felt was right for this story presented to modern audiences in our current political climate. While the text sometimes could feel somewhat Old Time-y to me, hearing themusic and seeing the set model for our production instantly took my vision to a much more modern world. My research for the ensemble's base costumes ranged from military uniforms from different wars of the 20th Century to the masses of uniformed workers in modern China.

How do you see the costumes and masks working together, as elements of the same idea?

In general I think costumes and masks have different purposes. Normally, masks and puppets are something that performers put their heart into and project through the face, so it is a form of its own. However, in our production, you’ll find the performers are mostly actors, not puppeteers, so I envision the animal heads to be an extension of their bodies, not really costumes. I think the world we created is special, where we see performers as actors and at the same time as puppeteers and the characters they embody.

What would you say was the most challenging part of your work on this show? And what’s been the most satisfying?

The biggest challenge was finding a cohesive aesthetic for all the animal masks. Originally, construction was divided between the costume shop and the prop shop. They each executed animal heads beautifully, but seeing the results all together on stage in tech, I didn’t feel that they were yet all living in the same world. Switching their eyes and giving more details and textures to their skin layers helped solve this challenge, and I am very pleased with how unique and specific each mask looks, while still living within the same world. The most satisfying thing for me was definitely seeing our actors embody my initial ideas from the sketches, and taking them even further. I have truly enjoyed the collaboration with our actors throughout the process.

Learn more about Animal Farm.