Multi-award-winning costume designer Ann Hould-Ward tells Liz Hoggard about being inspired by the Montana prairie where she was raised, working in the UK, and designing for the world premiere of The Prince of Egypt
Broadway costume designer Ann Hould-Ward is remembering her childhood in rural Montana. “We grew up with very little money, so I made clothes for my paper dolls,” she says, before adding with a laugh: “I’m still making paper dolls. That’s all I do.”
Hould-Ward has had a glittering 37-year career that spans theatre, dance and opera. In 1994 she won a Tony award for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, where she had to dress all the characters from a dancing teacup and a feather duster to the Beast himself, whose costumes required 27 fittings.
Her designs for the original Broadway productions of Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George were also Tony-nominated. More recently she worked on The Color Purple with Cynthia Erivo and Joel Grey’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, performed in Yiddish.
Hould-Ward is renowned for her versatility. One minute she could be designing a drawing-room comedy, the next working on costumes for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. “I’ve been really lucky,” she says. “I’ve had this journey learning a lot of different aesthetics, and working with different kinds of performers.”
The last time the designer worked in London was on Gillian Lynne’s Dear World in 2013. Now she’s back doing costumes for the world premiere of The Prince of Egypt, at the Dominion Theatre, an adaptation of the DreamWorks Animation film, with music by Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz.
If anyone understands the juggernaut that is the costume department of a West End musical, it’s Hould-Ward – “It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, really” – for The Prince of Egypt she had more than 380 costumes and 250 pairs of shoes to design.
She lugs around a huge suitcase in which every costume has its own A3 folder, complete with her research, the original line drawing and the painted sketch, photos and fabric swatches.
Embroidery has been commissioned from all over the UK. “You have some of the most wonderful makers in the world, who come to see us personally. Whereas in my country we have eight very large shops in New York, and I go from shop to shop.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
A counsellor at Camp Scoutana, a Girl Scouts camp in the Rocky Mountains. Then I was a part-time sales person at I Magnin and Company in San Francisco while at college.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The Goldoni Trilogy at the Guthrie Theater in 1982. It was summer vacation madness and my first big professional design job.
What’s your next job?
I’m doing a revival of Assassins with John Doyle in New York in the spring.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s all about the people you work, strive and dream with – you are only as good as those you work with. Enjoy the people.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My grandfather, chief justice of Montana Supreme Court; my mother, an English teacher and avid reader; my father, the hardest worker I ever met, and Patricia Zipprodt, the brilliant costume designer who was generous enough to let me see her life and work up close.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself. Think through the character as you see it.
If you hadn’t been a costume designer, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
When things are going all too well, I say to my assistants: “When will the other foot drop?” I’m waiting for something to go wrong.
Based on the Book of Exodus, The Prince of Egypt follows the story of Moses, found as a baby by the Pharaoh’s daughter, and brought up as a prince. As an adult he discovers his Hebrew identity, renounces a life of wealth and leads the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. “What’s so exciting about this script is the way it examines political power, religious power and family.”
Fashion is dictated by who is in power in the world, she says. “To understand a period and its relationship to a theatre piece, you need to study the history of the place where the piece is taking place, the people there and their culture.”
History is her obsession. “Americans call it going down the rabbit hole.” During her time in London, she’s been studying the Queen’s wardrobe. “Her hats are so clever, because they have height and the visual essence of a crown.”
With The Prince of Egypt she knew it was important to give a sense of two religions “in disharmony”. She continues: “It took me a long time to get to my epiphany of how significant to make it in the design work.” The Egyptians live in a “blue-golden-purple world”, while the colour palette of the Hebrew slaves is “grey, brown with smatterings of pale blue”.
And because it’s a modern interpretation, performed by modern actors, she is constantly looking for ways to reflect that in the costumes. “I asked myself: ‘aesthetically, how do I present a world that doesn’t just look like old Egyptian wall art?’” She has used circular symbols on robes and headgear to signify the Egyptian elite. “It’s not Egyptian collars as we know it, but it reflects that shape.”
At the beginning of the show Moses and his Egyptian brother Rameses wear a version of sportswear that you might see on the catwalk for rapper Kanye West’s Yeezy fashion label. “I’m trying to interpret it though a very modern sensibility of boys in T-shirts. Because the Egyptian silhouette is so far from the modern eye it would be extremely hard for people to look at. What was really a guide for me was what would a 16 to 18 year-old make of the story? Who is Moses? He’s a boy in a T-shirt. He can have the embellishments, but using a modern style of graphics.”
She explains how dance in The Prince of Egypt is used to convey the dividing of the Red Sea and the horrific plagues that strike the Egyptians. “It’s all really interpreted like clots of blood,” she says, poring over her sketches of the plague dancers in their Ballet Russes-style costumes.
In a world in love with digital technology, Hould-Ward, who originally trained as a fine artist, still does exquisite line drawings of every costume, and hand-paints them, before sending them off to be realised in 3D at the costume shop. A good sketch is the road map to good work, she argues.
Hould-Ward’s childhood in Montana was tough. Her family were dry-land farmers, who had to collect portable water every three days. But it remains her greatest aesthetic influence. “My sense of colour balance comes from the barrenness, the browns and greys of that vast prairie of Montana, and the amazing sunrises and sunsets.”
Her English-teacher mother showed her how to sew and she devoured books. Her grandparents took her to the theatre. She won a full scholarship to Mills College in California where she studied fine art. “Darius Milhaud [the French composer] was head of their music department, and Merce Cunningham was part of the January term, so for the first time in my life I could see it was possible to have a working life in the arts.”
After a master’s in fine arts, she wrote to legendary costume designer Patricia Zipprodt, who worked on the original Cabaret, asking if she could work with her in New York. Zipprodt accepted her as an intern but when she arrived in New York, Zipprodt’s production had been cancelled so she was sent to assist Russian designer Rouben Ter-Arutunian at New York City Ballet, who was costuming a Balanchine double-bill with Nureyev.
It was a brilliant learning experience and after 18 months she returned to work with Zipprodt. Her first Broadway costume designs were for Sunday in the Park With George in 1984, in collaboration with Zipprodt.
Today she regularly collaborates with Joel Grey and the British director John Doyle. And she was entrusted with giving the US’s favourite hamburger clown, Ronald McDonald, a modern makeover in 2014.
Hould-Ward’s daughter is also in theatre – she is one of the business reps for the Theatrical Wardrobe Union in New York. “She’s been backstage since she was little seeing these people at work on big musicals and it’s so great that she learned at the dinner table how important these people are.”
The veteran costume designer has worked all over the world, including overseeing the costumes on 35 international productions of Beauty and the Beast. So she knows how hard it is to get costumes transported in and out of countries.
“It’s about how countries relate to each other and what their trade and tariff issues are. I go to Russia and I can’t get fabrics. If I have six prima ballerinas who need to wear the same fabric, God knows how I’ll do that. But then I go to the wig makers in Russia and there are hay-sized bundles of blonde hair.”
She’s already arranged for the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library to take her archive, but she laughs off any notion of greatness. “I’m a real hard worker. And I was taught to work hard by a man in the fields – my dad. We are craftsmen, we are artisans in the theatre. And I say those words with as much pride as humanly possible.”
Born: Glasgow, Montana, USA, 1954
Training: Bachelor’s in fine arts with highest honours from Mills College, Oakland, California (1973); master’s in fine arts, with highest honours at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville (1977)
• Sunday in the Park With George, Broadway (1984)
• Into the Woods, Broadway (1988)
• Beauty and the Beast, Broadway (1994)
• Othello, American Ballet Theatre (1997)
• Yiddish Love Songs, Opera House, Tel Aviv, Israel (1999)
• Company, Broadway (2006)
• Peter Grimes, Metropolitan Opera, New York (2008)
• The Color Purple, Broadway (2015)
• West Side Story, Salzburg Festival, Austria (2016)
• The Bronze Horseman, Mikhailovsky Ballet, St Petersburg, Russia (2016)
• Othello: A Dance in Three Acts, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company for Norwegian National Ballet (2016)
• Inaugural Patricia Zipprodt award for innovative costume design by the Fashion Institute of Technology
• Tony for costume design for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1994)
• Prague Quadrennial international design award (1995)
• American Broadway Tour award (2000, 2001)
The Prince of Egypt opens at London’s Dominion Theatre on February 25. For more information visit: theprinceofegyptmusical.com