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Q&A: Mark Zappone, costume designer for ‘Dorothy and the Prince of Oz’

The costume creations for Dorothy and the Prince of Oz are nothing short of spectacular.

On stage, they burst with color, sending the audience on a journey with Dorothy from Kansas to the Emerald City, where she’s tasked with saving the Prince and reuniting the land of Oz. (More on that post-Wizard of Oz storyline here.)

And the designer behind those costumes? That would be Mark Zappone, longtime costume designer for Pacific Northwest Ballet. He now freelances for ballet companies around the world.

Zappone worked with Edwaard Liang, BalletMet artistic director and the choreographer behind Oz, to bring his vision to life. The production, which is a special collaboration between Tulsa Ballet and BalletMet, first premiered in Tulsa in 2017 and will make its Columbus premiere May 4-6, 2018, at the Ohio Theatre.

Here, Zappone shares a little about the inspiration for his Oz creations, the unique challenges involved and a few of his favorite designs.

Tell us a little about your background as a costume designer.

I’ve been a dance costumer for most of my life. I started out in Seattle at a small theater. One day, I got a phone call from Pacific Northwest Ballet, and I just happened to be the one who answered the phone in the costume shop. They said they were looking for someone to come work at the ballet, and I said, “I’ll do it!” I went to the school of life—I learned as I went along, looking at examples of costumes that I admired, just feeling my way. I ended up working with Pacific Northwest Ballet for five years. Then I went to visit some dancers in Northern France and ended up with a job offer. I worked for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. It was exciting! I worked for Le Cabaret de Monte Carlo. I worked at Holiday on Ice in both Switzerland and Amsterdam. And then I ended up working in Paris, helping out at the Moulin Rouge. After my 10 years in Europe, I came back to Seattle and worked with PNB. I also began my freelance career with Edwaard [Liang, BalletMet’s artistic director] and Christopher Wheeldon and others all over the country. I’ve been at the ballet for a good 15 years, and now I branched out and have my own studio space in Seattle, so I’m able to freelance aside from working with PNB. One of the reasons I got this space was to be able to create the works of Oz here in Seattle.

And how did you first learn of the Oz project?

Edwaard called me maybe a year in advance. He said, “Would you be interested in working with me on a project in the future?” I said, “Of course, Edwaard!” I had worked with him already a couple times. He couldn’t tell me anything about it yet. I think it was the early stages, and of course he later got back to me and said, “Here’s what we’re doing…”

Mark Zappone Dorothy and the Prince of Oz costume
Photos courtesy Mark Zappone

 

Talk a little about your process—what were some of the things you looked at, read, watched that inspired your designs?

Well, I usually love to be able to watch the rehearsals and learn about the choreography, but this was planned out quite a ways in advance. They wanted to have it designed before rehearsals began because of the timing. I talked a lot with Edwaard about his vision and storyline. And I was somewhat inspired by the original film The Wizard of Oz but mostly by the glamour of Hollywood and the ‘40s. I think that’s a great time period. And often things just came to be because of the fabric I’d find. I just started with some ideas and I’d send them to Edwaard. It’s always important for me to make the first costume and figure it out. That’s part of my process. That’s what happened with Oz. I ended up making the originals of everything, and some of them we were able to have a wonderful woman in Atlanta, Valerie Gruner, help us. I’d make the originals of the Soldier Women or Men and she’d end up making the other six or seven.

What were some of the challenges you encountered along the way?

One of the challenges was with the Mist Maidens. Edwaard wanted them to be covered with a whole veil, but then all they do is turn and turn. The dresses looked beautiful but the veils were in their way, so we had to tweak it. A lot of that doesn’t come out until dancers start to move in the costumes. Some of the other challenges were with fabric, where I’d come across something fantastic, but there was only three yards and you needed to make 10 of something. One of my fortes is squeaking a lot out of not much. With the King in his first act costume, he wears this beautiful sapphire blue fabric I’d found, and there was only enough to make two. So it was just a matter of the company deciding on who performs that role, and if you do it too far in advance, that can change. But in the dance world, fortunately, when you ask what size, you can say, “ballet dancer size.” There aren’t huge variations.

Dorothy and the Prince of Oz Cast
Dancers Carly Wheaton and Caitlin Valentine-Ellis. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda

 

Which costume is your favorite?

All of them. I love Glinda. Glinda has a twinkle like I’ve never been able to achieve before. The little Oz kids—it’s very sweet to make costumes for children, and they don’t really come to life until you see them on the kids. I love the Queen and the Army Men and Women. And of course Dorothy herself, we took a cue from the movie and so the ballet begins in a sepia tone. We wanted to represent that she has a change like she does in the movie as she comes into full color when they all hit Oz. So those tones in both Act I and the final act are in the sepia tone. I love her dress. We ended up doing a striped version of the gingham.

What’s it like to see all that hard work finally on stage?

The journey certainly had its challenges, but it’s so worthwhile. It’s always a huge reward. And actually the best part is when the dancer first puts something on and goes, “Oh! It’s so beautiful. I can’t wait to dance in this.” It’s such a reward when they feel like that’s helped them become the character. They feel like they look the part.