“It’s the combination that makes it”
BTR: Mr Besuch, you would have been in Bayreuth now, working on the “Ring of the Nibelungen”. Had you already started making the costumes when it was called off?
Andy Besuch: Yes, it was all very dramatic! I felt like a racehorse, chewing at the bit and ready to sprint to the finish line but then not let out of my box. The costume workshop was already staffed, the tailors were there and the wardrobe director. We were just about to take up the scissors and cut the material! And then they said, hold it, freeze. It was really an extreme situation, even physically.
But I’m very happy that the “Ring” was left in one piece and postponed to 2022. So, it’s all there now, ready and waiting.
And now you are fully back at work, making costumes for the Munich Kammerspiele. What is the piece about?
It’s about exactly what we shouldn’t do right now: touch. And I don’t know about “fully back”. Because of this Corona crisis, various productions were just dropped! We were wrong to assume it would all be resumed or continued another time. Productions just came to a dead-end. At the Burg [Theatre in Vienna], we were in the middle of rehearsals for “Peer Gynt” and thought it was just a question of a short postponement. But that production won’t happen at all anymore. One at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus was cancelled, too. But there’s no point crying over what’s gone. We’re looking ahead now. We’ve finished our first week of rehearsals in Munich. There are seven dancers. And even with all the regulations, the internal ones and the ones for the rehearsal stage, we generated some pretty amazing moments. And that feeling of putting on a show again! I must say, I am really impressed by what is still possible despite everything. You just need to be creative.
That’s the magic of theatre – breaking things down, doing them differently, being creative.
Precisely! But here it’s also about exploring basic social mechanisms like distance and closeness, and their dysfunction: What exactly is touch? How do we make contact? When is it dangerous? Those are primal human questions, nothing new. We are just more aware of their relevance now. The dancers for “Touch” have come to Munich from all over the world; the choreographer Anouk van Dijk came from Australia. On the first day of rehearsals they were all there. We couldn’t quite believe we had the whole team sitting there. It was a fantastic, moving first week.
The restrictions affect all areas of work. Extra care needs to be taken in the workshops and even more when fitting the costumes. You must work so closely with the performers that bodily fluids might be exchanged…
That’s why we need to wear masks! We just had two costume designs approved by doctors and virologists. Falk wanted the costume designs to bridge distances. I thought up something and said, we need to get that approved. Partly to get the doctors’ feedback on what they could imagine working with our ideas and what wouldn’t work. Then you get a whole squad of ten experts standing around two dancers in costume and giving advice. A bizarre scene.
You draw on an abundance of sources for your designs, sometimes showing baroque opulence, all exuberance and fun, then other times an almost expressionist or colour-based, painterly approach. Where do you get your inspiration?
To me, costume is far more than skirts, trousers and shirts. As I say, H&M is not costume. Studying at the HfBK [University of Fine Arts] in Dresden, the great thing was that the building for my department [stage and costume design] also housed other practical stage design related courses. I spent a lot of time in the studios for scenic painting, prop and sculpture making, wardrobe directing and make-up design. I learned more about the possibilities in theatre there than on my own course.
Dealing with materials has always interested me. Just sitting at the table with my models and pens isn’t enough for me. You can get so much more inspiration out there! And I try to tell younger people who want to start their careers, guys, don’t just get inspiration from the internet or Pinterest, you have to go out! Go to museums, look at nature, the colour combinations you can find out there. Keep your eyes open outside and project what you have seen into your design work, like through a prism, and let it fan out. I loved doing that even on my course! It’s a shame that so much is computer-generated these days. I prefer to try things out, combine things in different ways. That’s where creativity starts. Mixing, clashing things. I can get just as enthusiastic about a visit to the Louvre as about the dumbest Marvel action movie. But the combination of those things – that is fantastic!
You think giving into the temptation to use digital media could cause horizons to narrow if we’re not careful?
Yes, and I’m always open to others’ opinions about myself and my work and ask, is that it now? What does that say? Costumes are always about movement and feeling. I need to generate a feeling through the costumes, together with the actors. And that brings us back to the materials. Colours. What use is it to just tear out any old fashion spread and have it robotically replicated? Where’s the energy in that? It’s very important to me to work things out with the team, the actors, the dancers, on the rehearsal stage. Plus, you mustn’t forget the audience’s sensory responses. But you need to want that, be brave, love colour, love materials. I like to go to the Première Vision in Paris, the biggest fabric fair in the world, just to see what’s new on the market. But I don’t always need or want the most fabulous, expensive silk brocade. Here at the Kammerspiele in Munich I said to my assistants, listen folks, today we’re going to wander around the entire house and see what we can find in the bins (laughs). A bit of gaffa tape here, a bit of decorative foil there, and combine that with almost true-to-original, historical 17th century pieces that I’m just having made, with embroidery and the whole caboodle. In the end it’s the combination that makes it. All the elements connect with and pervade and each other. And something new is created. That’s more or less my approach to costume.
So, you spend most of your time in theatres, workshops, at rehearsals, on the stage?
Right. How I submit my designs varies, depending on the director and the project. What I just said about working on “Touch”, the mix-and-match approach, would be unthinkable for the “Ring” in Bayreuth. It needs to be far more concrete there; you need to show complete figurines. And the preparatory work is different, too. For music theatre productions I play around with Photoshop, improvising and putting different things together on the computer, because the way opera theatres work, you can’t usually do it any other way. That method is of course based on trust and needs to be negotiated with the different departments. Yes, I’m there the whole time.
That brings me to my last point: Is it true that costume designers are worse paid than the other members of the team?
The situation is still outrageous. I don’t even expect complete financial equality within the team, but alignment with the stage designers would only be right. Another thing is that the general public sees costume making as a hobby. As if to say, all that shopping must be fun. But it’s damn hard work! Not to mention the costume assistants and their pay. Costume design students should be given more self-confidence at university and greater awareness of the profession should be promoted. I see a lot of room for improvement there. It should be discussed at the various symposiums and theatre meetings. There are theatres where the costume department’s budget is up to the technical directors. That’s just not OK. I drive a hard bargain when it comes to costume budgets.
It’s bad enough that since the late nineties and noughties, important branches of the workshops have been closed: hatmakers, scene painters, armourers and shoemakers. Shrinking it down to the smallest economic denominator… They want Hollywood glamour on stage but give you hand-me-downs for costumes. Sure, that can inspire creativity – I often and happily dip into the stores, but at some point, it’s not enough. I deal with it in my own way, by trying to get everyone in the house on board. I always have teams who stand behind me with and offer strong support.