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Behind The Scenes: Scenic and Costume Design of ANTIGONE

Part of a scenic model with two figures.
Scenic design model for Antigone by John Culbert.

The world of Antigone, is bright, vibrant, modern, and most importantly, feminine. Scenic Designer John Culbert and Costume Designer Raquel Adorno use their artistry to tell the Antigone of right now and show us how a play written over 2000 years ago can be visually compelling today.

Scenic Design

John: Oedipus Rex was this very masculine world – sharp edges, sterile, place of power. If you take Antigone literally, we’re in the same place as we were in Oedipus Rex, around the place of power in Thebes. In my initial conversations with Gabby, we discovered that the place that we are in now is different, because in Oedipus Rex, we are in a public, masculine, place all the time. The women in Antigone would not be empowered to be in that public place, so we are around the corner, underneath the floor, or behind the door for most of the play.

A Richard Serra sculpture.
“Junction” by Richard Serra. Photo from the Larry Gagosian Gallery.

The image that inspired the world of Antigone is a Georgia O’Keeffe painting that Raquel found to represent this production, which is female-centric in contrast to the very male-centric Oedipus Rex. This image and this contrast led me to explore  architecture that is not sharp-edged or rectilinear, and more feminine in its feeling and approach, which then led me to the sculptor Richard Serra. If you’ve experienced his works, they are very strong, curvilinear, and organic, which gives them a powerful feminine quality. While the design team was in Los Angeles with The Gospel at Colonus, we went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where they have a Richard Serra, to experience it live and in person. 

A kayak in front of the Pictured Rocks.
Photo of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Alger County, Michigan by Madeline Marquardt.

We were invested in having a more organic surface to our world, as compared to the Serra sculptures, which are monolithic. We wanted a more complicated, organic, oxidized, and layered feeling, so we further were inspired by the Pictured Rocks in Michigan, which have some similarities to the Serra. We ended up with this theatrical world inspired by the Serra shapes and sculptures, but incorporating the oxidation variation of the Pictured Rocks. 

Something else we did was incorporate visible microphones throughout the set. We’re being very upfront about how we’re telling the story. We’re not recreating a Greek world, you know, we are telling the story today. That’s the privilege of working on this text, that we are looking at this ancient story, but we’re looking at it from right now. From 2024. We’re not representing something from 2,000 years ago, we are figuring out the world to tell the story today.

I think of this set as a sculpture in Court Theatre, rather than a representation of a specific place outside the theatre. 

Costume Design

A Georgia O'Keeffe painting.
“Music, Pink and Blue No. 2” by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Raquel: The costume design for Antigone is in conversation with beauty, Afropunk aesthetic, symbolism, military cultures, and contradictions. I wanted to explore a world where powerful women wore rhinestone mesh, pink, luminous makeup, chiffon, and flowers while princes wear black t-shirts and kings don’t wear crowns. The costume design for Antigone is inspired by the Afropunk Festival, as well as the beauty supply and clothing stores in and around the University of Chicago campus.

Last season, the design for The Gospel at Colonus was inspired by ritual and the grove. Everything on stage was made of a natural fiber like cotton or linen and hand-painted or hand-stitched with gold trim. In contrast, Antigone takes place in Thebes, a city where fashion is heightened and defined by the two sisters, Ismene and Antigone. Both shows are built upon principles of essentialism with little to no costume changes and big visual gestures. In The Gospel at Colonus, Polyneices was the only person who wore a color other than beige. In Antigone, the starry burial skirt measures about 40 feet and is a garment and a symbol of the marriage bed Antigone and Haimon will never share, a shroud, and a wedding dress. 

Costume designs.
Costume design drawings for Antigone and Ismene by Raquel Adorno.

Some of the same shapes and colors from The Gospel at Colonus carried over into Antigone. Creon is in a suit once again; but gone are his white linen suit and gold shoes. He now wears teal and a black turtleneck. The depiction of Creon’s grief in Antigone has become so important to me. It drives him to make some devastating choices, and I wanted to acknowledge that in his costume. Ismene is once again in a fit and flare dress, but in this iteration, she is resplendent in pink mixed with the lightest shades of Payne’s grey, and covered in flowers. Ariana hugely inspired this design. She is a radiant soul. Gabby and I wanted to celebrate this by creating a design that felt like a garden filled with flowers and butterflies. Ismene ultimately casts out Creon, whose grief is poisoning Thebes, and the bright overcomes the dark. 

Two women sit on a stage looking at each other.
Photo of Ariana Burks and Aeriel Williams by Michael Brosilow.

Aeriel also heavily inspired Gabby and I with her own radiance and strength. Antigone is once again in white (as she was in The Gospel at Colonus), but this time she is grounded in black, already partially consumed by the underworld when we meet her. She is also covered in pearls. Pearls have been associated with death, purity of heart, and the journey of the soul in many cultures, so it felt fitting that Antigone should be encrusted in pearls for this journey. 

Both the costumes and the set of Antigone are very colorful, which is great, because color palettes are my most favorite thing in the world! John is a wonderful collaborator, so we have meetings where we discuss research and palette, and then I spend hours creating different color versions of every look. I love it! I’ll often generate a color palette from a research photo or photo of the color model that I use to digitally render. Sometimes I’ll take photos that feel like the world and generate a palette that way. I could go on and on! 

Antigone is onstage from February 2 – March 2 and tickets are available now! Join us for the culmination of our Oedipus trilogy.

Posted on February 26, 2024 in Productions

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