For Garry Lennon, a theater professor at California State University, Northridge, the challenge was creating costumes for A Noise Within’s production of “Frankenstein” that help tell the stage version of Mary Shelley’s electrifying tale of a creature cast away by his creator into a hostile world.
Lennon, an acclaimed costume designer whose work has appeared on stages across the country, found his inspiration in Shelley’s book and playwright Nick Dear’s adaptation of the book for the stage.
“You have to go back to the script,” Lennon said. “That is always your starting point, and that is the point you are always going to return to.
“There’s this old rule that says the designer should read the play seven times,” he added. “That’s what I was taught in design school, but, really, it’s arbitrary. The point is, you have to know the play. So, when you have a question and you can’t solve the problem, you go back to the play. That’s what I teach my students, and that’s what I have to do as a costume designer.”
A Noise Within’s production of “Frankenstein” is the California premiere of the play, which was first performed at the Royal National Theatre in London in 2011 and starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, with the two actors alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature.
Lennon’s costumes are pivotal role in telling the stories of Victor Frankenstein and his creation, known as the Creature.
“The thing about this play that interested me is that the Creature ends up being more of a gentleman, more noble, at the end of the play than Victor Frankenstein is,” he said. “Victor, in the end, is more of a monster while the Creature has evolved to a different state of being.”
To convey the evolution of those characters through their costumes, Lennon said he had multiple meetings with director Michael Michetti, going over the most basic questions about the play and its characters.
“You have to convey an idea,” Lennon said. “In the first 10 seconds you meet somebody, you have already formed an opinion of them by how they dress, by how they look — all the things we see visually. That’s the costume designer’s job. The actors have to walk on the stage and know who they are and where they are in the world of the play, and audience has to know that too.”
Over the years, Lennon has designed costumes for such acclaimed theater companies as Los Angeles’ Independent Shakespeare Company; Boston Court in Pasadena; Trinity Repertory in Providence, R.I.; Mixed Blood in Minneapolis, Minn.; the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood; and A Noise Within in Pasadena.
“A lot of my conversations with Michael Michetti for ‘Frankenstein’ were really about logic,” Lennon said. “If you were to build a body, if you were to actually do this, how would you do it?”
Lennon said everything about the Creature’s costume has “a basis of reality and logic to it, but the actor still has to be able to move and do things.” There were a lot of questions, he said, about the Creature’s clothing.
“What is he wearing? Where would it have come from?” Lennon said. “The Creature does not have money. He is not buying clothes. All those things together help inform what I create.”
That approach of breaking down all the aspects of the characters in a play — from who they are at the start of the play and who they will be at the end to how an actor will move and feel in their costume and where the characters would have gotten their clothes — all influence Lennon’s creative decisions when he designs costumes. They are key lessons he teaches his students.
Lennon said his experiences working as a professional costume designer help make him a better teacher, just as his teaching influences his theater work.
“The juggling is hard, but it’s worth it,” Lennon said about his efforts to balance both jobs. “The work I do at the university feeds one part of my soul — the need to teach and pass on my knowledge to a new generation. There is nothing better than that. I’m here to help the students become the best artists they can be, and I am giving of my knowledge and experience to guide them.
“When I am doing freelance work, that feeds my artistic soul,” he said. “The two actually complement each other.”
But it’s more than that, he added, noting that at some colleges, those teaching the technical aspects of theater haven’t worked professionally for years.
“In this day and age, it can’t work that way,” Lennon said. “In this department, we work. We are out there at night, doing a show, and then come back the next morning to teach. We are teaching what we are actually living.”
Performances of “Frankenstein” run through Sept. 8 at A Noise Within.