Transcript Ep. 14: Kahei Shum Mcrae on Art, Costume Design, and the Chaos Where All Beautiful Work is Birthed

Lauren: This is the RDU on Stage Podcast. On today’s episode, I’m chatting with Kahei Shum Mcrae. As Wake County’s first artist in residence, Kahei Shum Mcrae, also known as Ketti, has spent the last year working with theaters across the triangle designing costumes for such shows as Raleigh Little Theater’s Measure for Measure, and the upcoming Theatre in the Park production of Godspell which opens in April. Ketti is originally from Hong Kong where she says her passion for art was nurtured through Chinese painting and calligraphy classes. Here’s what she has to say about art, design, and the chaos where all beautiful work is birthed.

Ketti: Very early on, my mother nurtured the artistic interest in me to paint and calligraphy. There is an aesthetic about Chinese painting that is very precise. It can go either way, very abstractive or it can get very precise. A lot of it utilizes imagination. Sometimes, you just put a blot of ink on the paper and it’s the torso of a panda kind of thing. The two different extreme aesthetics of Chinese painting really trained me to adapt to different styles of art.

Lauren: And that leads me to another question. How does your culture, your heritage, influence your aesthetic as a designer? I don’t even want to say costume designer because I know it’s kind of costume and production design, and possibly interior design. You’re just a designer. How does your heritage influence who you are as a designer?

Ketti: I think part of the very interesting thing that really helped me get into design is that I was raised in Hong Kong, which when I was growing up, it was before 1997, before it was returned to China. We had a huge variety of things and culture happening in Hong Kong. There are a lot of Caucasians, a lot of Americans, British people living there, but there’s a very strong root of Chinese culture as well. The merging and fusion of all these different cultures and styles were very interesting to me. I watched ‘ER’ and ‘Roswell’ growing up as a teenager but also watched historical Chinese drama. It was very interesting for me to look at everybody’s costumes or the interior design of the set and see the differences between different cultures, plays, and TV shows, and movies, stuff like that. That historical element of it really really drew me to doing research and understanding the background and go from there to analyzing the story more and think about, ‘Huh, why did this person, why did the artistic director or why did the production designer decide to use this for this character or for this show?’ That really, really helped me to get into the storytelling part of it.

Lauren: I also read on your website, that you got into storytelling and reading plays at a really young age. How do you make the leap from writing stories or writing plays as a child to storytelling through costumes?

Ketti: I just really, really love stories when I was a child. Very early on, I would just write stories about imaginations. I went to a Catholic school that was actually very encouraging in nurturing my artistic talents. We would produce these little plays and they let us write whatever we want. That’s the storytelling part that was nurtured through school. At home, I have always been this kid that has a notepad on my hand and when I’m watching TV, I would draw their costumes and just draw it. I didn’t know how to sew then, but I would just get my mom’s scraps of fabric and just whip out something and put it on my Barbie. It doesn’t look like anything because I didn’t understand the draping and the stitching and all that stuff, so things always fell apart, but I was always interested in that. I think a lot of it is just I always had an interest in people and how they lived their lives. I would go to a grocery store and just, while my mom was shopping, I would just people watch. That has a lot to do with what people wear and their story and their lives, which is essentially the basis of all theater or performance art and storytelling. I think it’s a lot of elements that roll into a ball. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a theatrical artist in any way. I always wanted to be a vet. I actually studied Animal Science for three years in undergrad until I decided to change my major. Even though I have all this passion and interest in storytelling, I never thought it would become a career. It was a surprise for me, too.

Lauren: When did you come to the States?

Ketti: I came here when I was 17. I got early admittance into Madison, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Madison, and I studied Animal Science there for three years. It was very, very tough because everybody was so smart and science is a tough thing for me, but I have always loved animals and wanted to be a vet. So I toughed it up and did it for as long as I could. While I was doing that, I would try to volunteer at theaters just to get the artistic side of me out and just do something as a hobby. Just volunteer there. I volunteered at the costume shop and I did a lot of props and I learned about lighting and took some classes that were just to fulfill the interest and also some humanity credits. In my junior year, I just realized if I love it that much, why can’t I make it into a career. I just decided to change my major and just hurry up and take all my classes and graduate on time.

Lauren: How would you define your design aesthetic in costume design and does your aesthetic change at all between costume design, interior design production design? 

Ketti: Something that I really like to do that really dominates my aesthetic is telling a story with colors and details. There are a lot of details in the costumes that often times audiences wouldn’t even see. It might be hiding under the costume or stuff like that. To me, that’s something that bonds me with the story and the actor. Sometimes, undergarments like a corset and what the fabric the corset is made out of, stuff like what is the ribbon of your pantaloons. That kind of stuff nobody would ever see but that’s something that is important to me, and I think that really ties all my design aesthetics together. Even when I’m doing production design for film, there are a lot of details such as there is something in the cabinet that you would never see, but for the actor to go on set and open the cabinet, they will feel like they’re at home or that kind of thing. It’s really details. The other thing that I use a lot is colors. I really like to apply the color theory a lot and use color to tell the story. I think color is an absolutely powerful tool to tell a story that is actually very subconscious to us. A lot of times, especially for costumes, it’s such a weird thing where if it actually is very appropriate, it actually fits the character, a lot of times it looks effortless and you don’t actually see it almost. To you, that person is a college student so he has a flannel shirt and ripped jeans and what not, but every single part of that stuff, of that outfit, has a decision making process. The colors that go into it is part of the process that gives you information about who that character is but a lot of times, we just don’t notice it. I think color is a very good tool to give information to an audience about who we think this character is. Once he goes on stage and you look at him or her, I think the colors and the details of what draws my aesthetics together as a whole.

Lauren: Can you walk me through your design process? I know you are just starting Godspell now, so talk to me about the first design meetings and how you go from almost a storyboard or your initial sketches to final dress?

Ketti: Every theater is different in terms of design process. Every director also asks for different things, but ‘Godspell’ is a very great example of how we usually start. We usually would have a design meeting amount, the set designer, the lightning designer, the director, and the costume designer, also the stage manager if the stage manager is already on board, and we’ll sit in a room and just close the door and just talk about the play. For ‘Godspell,’ there are a couple of things that Jesse, the director, really wants us to bring out about the story, which is the building of community and also the individuality that goes into forming the community. There are these two very different concepts that go together that really inspires me and the set designer about our design. We would talk about what’s important for us and throw some ideas, put some pictures on the table. For the set, the set designer was very interested in… She has a couple of great ideas about rebuilding community or just people without a home, without a place to go, coming together and forming something together because of the circumstances. I heard Jesse’s vision and then I realized that oh yeah, I want to bring out the individuality because a set is usually a big picture of the community and how pieces would fit together. In costumes, it’s a perfect way to present each person differently and how they would eventually come together. We just sit there and we just talk for an hour or two and then we go home and did our research and then yesterday or the day before, we actually had the second inside meeting where we all presented our ideas. The set designer, ‘Oh, if you’re doing a film, it’s the same way.’ As a production designer, you would show your white model or your first draft. As a costume designer, I would usually show the look book or mood board, which is essentially the same thing. I always call it a look book. It usually is categorized by each character with the actor’s picture so that we can consider the body type and then reference pictures and color palette kind of thing. Essentially, it’s a mood board. From there, if it gets greenlit by the director, I would go ahead and do sketches and then the sketches get approved and then I would do renderings. There are a lot of community theaters that because the directors are not professionally trained, they don’t essentially really care about renderings, so in that case, it’s just to provide a lot of visuals to make sure that we’re all in the same page. We would talk to the choreographer and make sure that they can move in the costumes and stuff like that. Every theater has a slightly different process and every project has a slightly different process. Generally, that’s what we do. We read the script, we analyze it, we talk to the creative team and we just create a world from it.

Lauren: You worked on Measure for Measure and one thing that I spoke to Rebecca Blum, the director of that piece about, was the intimacy directing. You spoke about the undergarments and the details that go into the costume that people don’t see. When we were talking about intimacy directing, there are a lot of details related to creating a culture of consent. How does the employment of an intimacy director, how does that impact you as a costume designer? How does that impact how you design a piece?

Ketti: I think essentially both the intimacy director and I have one purpose, it’s to help the actor tell the story comfortably. Because we have that common goal, we work towards the common goal together. For ‘Measure for Measure’ with the assault scene and a lot of the intimacy scenes, we just want to make sure that the actors are protected, both male and female. They don’t feel like there is any way that there is anything happens that they wouldn’t feel comfortable about. It was a lot about layers and covering everything. Isabella had a period skirt. Under the drindl skirt, she had pantaloons. And then we also made sure that they will have undergarments to protect them. The guys all have compression shorts with a cup that’s built into it. It is the actor’s choice to wear them or not because some of them, as the play goes by, they all become friends. It becomes just choreography. They get used to it. They have the choice to not wear it if they feel comfortable, but we always want to give that as an option for them to protect them. I think that’s very important because we want them to feel protected and to be comfortable with the character when they’re on stage.

Lauren: In your experience as a designer, are these conversations occurring more and more during the design process?

Ketti: I think so. I certainly think so. I think we are more aware of these things. I think it’s not just intimacy, too. I think there are more and more discussions about the emotional needs of the actors. When we were working on ‘Measure and Measure,’ there were a couple of actors that suffers from anxiety disorder, so they would have to be separated because it was a huge cast. They would love to be separated. I think we just get more and more conscious about emotional needs with actors. I just finished working on ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly’ with Forest Moon. There were a bunch of teenagers and there were a bunch of adults. It’s really how do you group people together to make them feel comfortable when they’re changing. That kind of thing has become more and more important to us as designers.

Lauren: I know you’ve designed for the stage as well as for film. Is there a difference between the costumes you design for the stage and costumes that would appear on a screen? 

Ketti: Yes. There’s a huge difference. I would like to say that the creative process is similar because you analyze the characters and you talk to the actors and you collaborate and to think about design. But the focus is very different because when you’re working on film, you can have close-ups. Sometimes, you only shoot the first half of the body or the lower half of the body. There are a lot of things that you can cheat. Because the storytelling process in film is not linear, a lot of times you shoot according to the actor’s schedule, so you would shoot right in the middle of the storyline and then go back and stuff like that. It’s just a very different process. The other thing is in film, continuity becomes a huge thing that you have to follow through. Say somebody gets wet, you need to make sure that in the next shot, that person is still wet, but you also need to make sure that he’s going from not wet to wet. That kind of non-linear storytelling of having to have multiple costumes or having to blow dry that costume for him or her to look dry again and then wet again. Or stuff like bruises or blood kind of thing, that continuity aspect is very different. I think the theater storytelling process is a lot more natural because they tell the story from the top to the bottom but it also means that the process is different in a way that you have less time to prep each thing because you have to make sure that everything can happen on theater. There’s not much room to cheat. You can’t just call cut and shoot again. In that way, it’s very different. The process is different. The design concept and exploring the characters and the collaboration part is similar. 

Lauren: Sometimes in the theater, there are some very fast costume changes. Even though a costume might look like it’s buttoned up, it’s really zippered up.

Ketti: Yeah, a lot of times if you pull costumes from a theater, like a dress shirt, they’re all velcro and they’re like, ‘What, why?’ That’s all quick change. All these theater tricks is what I love about theater because it’s magic. It’s theater magic.

Lauren: I started out as a visual artist myself and had a studio and Artspace, and I’m a messy… My workspace is messy. Another artist came in and he said, ‘Oh my gosh. This is constrained chaos.’ I loved that. That’s how I always talk about my workspace. On your website, you have a Thesis Gallery and you call it ‘the chaos where all the beautiful work is birthed.’ Can you talk to me about the chaos that is your workspace?

Ketti: My workspace is very chaotic. Ask my husband. Because my brain is always on the project, so sometimes I would be eating dinner and would just run up to my studio. I have a studio at home too. I would just print out some pictures and scatter it around or something because my brain is always there. But I think it is the chaos, you would know, it is the chaos that gives you surprises. It is all the information that you find and all the inspiration and all the people around you. The world is full of ideas and it is this chaotic mess that gives you something brilliant. That’s why I really, really, really love to collaborate. When you have a good artistic team, just like the team we have for ‘Godspell’ right now, when everybody has ideas and they all throw it on the table, they may not be useful ideas at last, but when everybody does that, then you just have a world of ideas that you can pick from and fine-tune and pinpoint. I really don’t like restraining my ideas when it’s the creative phase of the process because you can explore, you can play with it. That’s the fun of it. I really love that. There’s just a chaotic mess everywhere, in my brain, on my desk, in the design room, on my computer.

Lauren: How did you learn how to sew? Did you learn later in life? Did you learn as a child? 

Ketti: I learned how to sew when I was in college when I was volunteering at the costume shop. I was really interested in lighting design at that time, so I spent a lot of times trying to figure out light plots, which I could not. When I realized that, I started taking more and more classes in different fields and when I took costume design class, everything just clicked. I always say that sometimes it picks you, just like you picked it. Costume design absolutely picked me. I realized that just knowing how to draw and analyze a script is not efficient enough. It’s not sufficient, so I started volunteering at the costume shop and I would just do anything they ask me to do. I volunteered at a dresser as a dresser wardrobe crew supervisor. I had to do a lot of quick stitching backstage, so that really trained by hand stitching skills. Over the summer, I was volunteering in the costume shop to hem things and make costumes and stuff. That gave me a very solid background in basic stitching. I didn’t really get into patterning until I was interning at Orlando Repertory Theater. All I knew was how to stitch but when I was there, they would give me a costume and let me figure out how to make it. That’s when I really realized I can make anything in the world. The skills were not very solid then. I was an intern so it was more about trial and errors. I would do it and it would be wrong and then my boss would tell me, ‘Oh, this is the right way to do it. Here, let me show you.’ That year went by super fast. I went to grad school, I was in the costume design MFA program, but we still had to take the technical classes. A lot of people don’t know that costume designers in the professional world generally don’t sew. All the things were actually made by the costume shop managed by the costume shop manager leading a group of drapers, stitchers, and craft artisans. In a way, costume designer is the architect and the drapers are the engineers. In the professional world, you don’t actually make a lot of costumes as a costume designer. You can if you’re hands-on, but a lot of times you don’t need to. The program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts was brilliant. They made sure that we know how to pattern and stitch and how to do what we want to do as designers so that we can communicate with the drapers and the draping team and the stitchers. It’s a great thing to learn because then you know how much time it would take to put something together, if it is practical or not for the actor to move in it. Just because you see something on a magazine or see something during research, doesn’t mean that it still fits contemporary body types. That was very helpful to know the construction of the garments even though a lot of times I don’t have to do that anymore.

Lauren: Well, and you mentioned lighting. I think when you have a well-rounded education in theater, and I speak to a lot of creative teams, creative artists about this, when you have a little bit of knowledge in all those areas, it helps what you’re doing. William Ivy Long talked to me about the fact that he had to make several ‘BeetleJuice‘ jackets because it had to move a certain way in the light. When he’s turned a certain way, the lighting had to hit the clothes just right. I think having that well-rounded knowledge is important.

Ketti: Absolutely. That’s part of the reason why I went back to school to get a BFA in Production Design because I realized that just because I know how to do costumes doesn’t mean that I can work in film for costume design. I also realized that I don’t really know how to read ground plans. That was really one of my weaknesses. That’s why I couldn’t do light plots to save my life. So I went back to school and learned a lot about sets. Production design is a lot about sets on film. I learned to draft, and I fell in love with drafting. I learned a lot more about lighting camera angles and all the stuff like that. It has helped me tremendously even in my costume design field, even though that degree, that BFA, is not about costume design because I finally understand what other people do in both film and theater and how they think. If you watch, say, ‘Big Bang Theory,’ I was watching it the other day with my husband and I realized the fridge in Sheldon and Amy’s apartment was at an angle very strangely. Normal people wouldn’t notice it. It’s all because of how it would look appealing on the camera and a lot of times, things like these, it wouldn’t even appear to you but there is a purpose there because of how the camera shoots and how you would see the angles of how you would see things. It really, really helps to make it more appealing. It’s just stuff like that, that really, really helps me to understand when I have a design meeting, I understand more about sight lines now. I understand more about color palettes and how the light would affect the different textures and colors and elements like that.

Lauren: You were selected as the first Wake County Visiting Artist. Tell me about how this experience is helping you grow personally as an artist and a storyteller. 

Ketti: Because I’m the first one, I think a lot of us were still trying to figure out what this would be but this has been great and just wonderful. I’m designing for all kinds of different theaters and teaching workshops within the county. I always say that it’s kind of like a speed dating process because I would jump from one project to another and then to another. I think it really helps me grow, partly because it takes me out of the comfort zone entirely. Every time I go to a different theater, they are very different and they have a very different way of working things out. That’s why I always say it’s like speed dating. I just go to each theater and try to figure out what’s their process and how do they do things. That has really expanded my horizon and expanded my understanding of community theaters and also my respect for these people. They have full-time jobs. They work 8 to 6 every day and then they rush to the theater and then they practice all night, rehearse all night, and go home, sleep for a couple of hours, and then wake up. That love for theater, that is something that is just amazing to me. I think in that way, it brings a new light to theater to me on community theater that I never had experienced.

Lauren: Being around them, has that awaken that little girl in you again that first fell in love with storytelling in the theater? 

Ketti: Yeah. That became very obvious when I work at Raleigh Little Theater. Raleigh Little Theater actually is very interesting in a way that they are a community theater but they are very professional. They are almost too professional to be a community theater just because their staff are all professional artists and a lot of them has master degrees. A lot of them are really well-trained but what is amazing about them is that the volunteers that work at the costume shop, they just go there because they want to. They would just, even if they don’t have anything to do, they will be like, ‘What? I can’t come in? Why not? I just want to come hang out.’ Jenny Mitchell, the shop manager and the resident designer there, she’s everybody’s best friend. Every volunteer comes in and just wants to talk to her. Me, too, me included. I go there all the time to just talk to them, talk to her and Jeremy. Their environment is so warm and welcoming. It’s just something that is very different. There are some professional theaters that I’ve worked at that has a very similar atmosphere. Especially I’ve realized that the older the theater, the more of that strong sense of the community it has. When I worked at The Barter Theater, it was the same way because it was a very old theater in Virginia and generations have been going there and volunteer there even though they are professional lord theater. That sense of the volunteers coming in and the family. They really are a family. That love is amazing. You’re right. It really reminds me of why I did this in the first place.

Lauren: Ketti has three shows opening up in April, including Godspell, at Theater in the Park, The Addams Family at Holly Springs High School, and Pete the Cat at the Children’s Theater of Charlotte. More information on all of those productions can be found in the episode notes along with information about a Godspell giveaway you are not going to want to miss. If you liked what you’ve heard on today’s episode, please consider subscribing to the podcast and leaving us a review. Until next time, I’ll see you at the theater.