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My Life in Culture: Costume designer Clíodhna Hallissey

My Life in Culture: Costume designer Clíodhna Hallissey


by Sarah Finnan
15th Jun 2024

A drama, theatre and performance studies graduate from University of Galway, Clíodhna Hallissey now works as a costume designer for theatre – in her words “making sure people aren’t naked on stage for a living”. The associate costume designer for Druid's next major production, Endgame by Samuel Beckett, the show will premiere at the Galway International Arts Festival next month.

The last thing I saw and loved… probably a piece of theatre called André y Dorine by Kunka Teatro, that I saw in Colombia recently. It deals with love and loss, centring around an elderly couple, one of whom has dementia. Their skilful use of masks and physical theatre meant I didn’t need Spanish to understand it. My friend and I were shocked when only three actors came to take a bow as they had made the cast seem far larger. One part of me wished I could’ve been backstage as well to see how they managed it. 

The book I keep coming back to… is A Song for Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. At this stage, its familiarity allows my brain to easily head off on a holiday to the Appalachian mountains when it needs a break from rainy Galway. 

I find inspiration in… since people watching probably doesn’t count, I would say exploring vintage and charity shops. Sometimes when I’m feeling stuck, I just have to get out and look at people and clothes and remind myself that these tangible material things are what we’re aiming for. Soon these ideas will be out of my head and on an actor’s body onstage. I love finding unique and strange things and wondering who they once belonged to. 

My favourite film is… A Day At The Races by The Marx Brothers. The sarcastic quips and old-fashioned comedy is great but my favourite scene is the Water Carnival. They’re all in these boats around a central stage but, because it’s in black and white. all I remember is trying to picture the colour of the incredible gowns the women were wearing. Meanwhile, Chico and Harpo are being chased around it causing mayhem. The scene is so glamorous and pretty unnecessary for the plot but I have always been utterly captivated by it. It sparked my love of old movies as a kid because I would just paint in the colours of the costumes with my imagination. 

My career highlight is… my career highlight so far is definitely co-designing costumes for the Druid O’Casey trilogy alongside Francis O’Connor. Playing with colour, texture, and historical accuracy was particularly enjoyable for us, as it allowed us to breathe new life into these beloved stories while paying homage to their heritage. Having these then immortalised in paint by the wonderful artist Mick O’Dea in his exhibition ‘What is the Stars?’ in the Molesworth Gallery in Dublin was the cherry on top. 

The song I listen to to get in the zone is… I would say maybe “I Feel Like Dancing” by Leo Sayer. This song is pure joy in musical form. Is it because I remember it from The Goofy Movie as a child? Who knows but I can’t not dance to it which helps when the creative brain is in knots and you need to shake it loose!

The last book I recommended is… the book I recommended most recently is Women in Clothes by Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, and Sheila Heti. It’s a collection of images and testimonies from women about their favourite objects – clothes, lipsticks, and other cherished items. They discuss what these objects mean to them, revealing how fashion isn’t just some frivolous thing. Just as costumes tell stories and define characters on stage, our everyday objects are integral to our lives and narratives. These items contain our stories and some serve as our armour, profoundly impacting how we present ourselves and how we experience the world. It’s a reminder of the significance of clothing in storytelling and character, both in theatre and in our everyday lives.

The piece of work I still think about is… an exhibition I still think about is Alexander McQueen’s retrospective at the V&A in 2015. What struck me most was the unmistakable link between McQueen’s fashion shows and theatre. Each runway presentation felt like a performance art piece with elaborate sets, evocative music, and dramatic choreography enhancing the narrative of the garments. He also collaborated with the best of the best which is all that any of us can hope to do in our creative work – find a talented group of people who understand your vision. 

I never leave the house without… my notebook. I go through several notebooks during each show and I like to keep them to refer back to. Sometimes just to peek into that time in my life again where my brain was so full of a show that I no longer remember the finite details of. 

My dream show to work on would be… maybe a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s a play that holds a special place for me since the first production I ever solo designed was a version of it for the NUIG Drama Society. Now, with much more experience behind me, I think getting to reimagine a well-loved play that was significant in my own journey into costume would be fun. 

The best advice I’ve ever gotten… probably the best advice I’ve ever received is to view creativity as a journey rather than a destination. It’s a reminder that each design, no matter how imperfect, is a step forward in your evolution as a creative human. 

The art that means the most to me is… the list does really feel endless here but if I were to pick one something that had a direct impact on where I am today, it would have to be the immersive theatrical experience of ‘DruidShakespeare’ in 2015.  Now I know that it does sound like flattery given that I work with them but I swear it’s true! It was probably the first play where I saw firsthand how the liveliness of the design could drastically affect the reception of the play. At the time, I had decided Shakespeare was stuffy and unrelatable but I was proven wrong when I stayed glued to it for five hours, it rained inside the theatre and I was splashed with mud during a fight scene – incredible! It fully solidified the ‘I have to do this job’ for me.

My favourite moment in this show is… there are so many memorable moments in this show, but if I had to pick just one, it would be when Marty Rea makes his entrance. He swishes in with this breathtaking red robe, painted white face, and bald head with an intricate metal crown. The robe reminds me of a piece in one of Alexander McQueen’s collections actually and it draped and moved so well. We still have it in the workshop and I will admit to having swished around in it once or twice myself!

The most challenging thing about being in theatre is… balancing artistic creativity with practical constraints and deadlines. As a costume designer, I’m constantly striving to be creative while also meeting the demands of the production schedule and budget. 

After a show, I… you’ll often find me knee-deep in laundry, sorting through a colourful array of costumes that tell the tales of the stage. It’s a stark reminder that behind the perceived glamour of theatre lies a mountain of mundane tasks, from delicately handwashing vintage lace to repairing frayed seams.  

If I wasn’t a costume designer, I would be… I would likely own a vintage clothes shop or work in a job where I could collect beautiful things! I’m drawn to the stories behind clothing and objects so I would need another way to get to explore that. 

The magic of theatre to me is… there’s something truly special about seeing an actor put on a costume and suddenly embody the character right in front of your eyes. It’s like the final piece of the puzzle falling into place. That moment when they look in the mirror and you can see they feel like the character – that’s magic. Plus, knowing all the little behind-the-scenes secrets of how it all came together adds an extra layer of enchantment. I think that’s what I’m most in love with: the shared journey and the hidden details that make the whole production come to life. 

Endgame runs at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway from July 5 – 28. Presented as part of the Galway International Arts Festival, tickets are on sale now and can be booked from both the theatre and the festival.