From storybook to costumes

8 Mar 2018

Discover how Costume Designer Chloe Greaves brought Norman Lindsay’s illustrations to life for The Magic Pudding – The Opera.

(Left) Norman Lindsay's illustration from The Magic Pudding. (Right) Nathan Lay as Bunyip Bluegum, Timothy Reynolds as Bill Barnacle, Jeremy Kleeman as Puddin' and Brenton Spiteri as Sam Swanoff.

Costume designers draw on a variety of sources to inspire their designs but for Chloe Greaves the original point of reference was clear – the Australian classic book The Magic Pudding. From the debonair koala Bunyip Bluegum to the thieving Possum and Wombat to the ill-tempered Puddin’, the anthropomorphic characters had already been realised in the pages of Norman Lindsay’s much-loved storybook.

‘The illustrations were paramount,’ says Chloe about her creative process. ‘We knew straightaway that we wanted to bring the drawings to life. We want people to come to the show and feel like the characters had stepped off the page and onto the stage.’

The first challenge Chloe faced was how to turn illustrations of cartoon-like animals into costumes for people. Constrained by working with the human form, she devised a clever way to transform the performers’ bodies into the shapes of animals.

‘Wanting to bring these characters to life we had to create their silhouettes,’ Chloe says. ‘The cast predominantly wears suits that are heavily padded to create the shapes of the animals. For example, Possum has a large bottom and Wombat has a big tummy. Sam Sawnoff, the penguin, has low crouch lines so he has to wobble along.’

(Left) Norman Lindsay's illustration from The Magic Pudding. (Centre) Chloe Greaves' costume designs for Possum and Wombat. (Right) Shakira Tsindos as Possum and Shakira Dugan as Wombat.

As part of the design process, Chloe researched Norman Lindsay’s body of work, examined photos of real-life animals and looked at how other designers had realised animal creatures on stage. The Lion King stage musical was one point of reference that helped inspire the designs.

Bringing the titular Puddin’ to life was another challenge. The approach taken to create the animals was not going to work for the Puddin’ so Chloe took inspiration from the image of the Puddin’ reaching his arms up in the air to be pulled around by other characters.

‘Jeremy Kleeman who plays the Puddin’ is quite a tall man. There was no aesthetic way of making his head a pudding so I decided that he should be a puppet,’ Chloe explains.

‘Puppetry is whole skill on its own. People study it for years. The decision of making a puppet is quite a big one. I designed it so he had to do as little actual animating of the puppet itself as possible. The legs of the puppet attach to his shoes, so when he walks the puppet walks. But Jeremy is an incredibly talented human and he got it straight away. He does such an amazing job.’

‘Jeremy’s costume mimics Puddin’s costume but in a gentlemanly way. The character is such a smutty little white grub that the idea of a gentleman operating him is a nice juxtaposition. They match aesthetically in that they both have white hats on – the Puddin’s is a bowl and Jeremy’s is a white bowler hat.’

The padded suits took about two weeks to construct which involved adjustments to get the right silhouette for the performer’s body. Consequently, the rest of the costumes also had to be specially created because of the usual body shapes they were being fitted to.

Chloe personally sourced all the fabrics, ensuring that they existed in the time that the book was written. She focused on materials such as linen, moleskin and cotton, using plain and plaid patterns that were common in 1910s Australia.

(Left) Norman Lindsay's illustration from The Magic Pudding. (Centre) Chloe Greaves' costume designs for Bunyip Bluegum. (Right) Nathan Lay as Bunyip Bluegum.

Once the costumes had been created, the biggest challenges turned out to be caring for the performers once they were wearing them.

‘The cast are in these massive padded suits so they get very hot under stage lights. We actually had to sew in pockets to put ice packs inside their suits to keep their body temperature down,’ Chloe explains. ‘They also all have headpieces, which makes it difficult for opera singers because they have to be able to hear. So, we had to make holes in them to give them the full range of sound.’

As a result of Chloe’s imagination and careful research, The Magic Pudding – The Opera brings to life the characters from the pages of Norman Lindsay’s book filling the onstage world with singing animals from the Australian bush.

(Left) Norman Lindsay's illustration from The Magic Pudding. (Centre) Chloe Greaves' costume designs for Benjimen Brandysnap. (Right) Stephen Marsh as Benjimen Brandysnap.

The Magic Pudding - The Opera was performed as part of Victorian Opera's Season 2018 and 2013.

Illustrations: © Image H.C. & A. Glad, 1918, from The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia.

Photography by Charlie Kinross.