Creating Worlds Through
Sets & Costumes:

The Work of Dede Ayite

May 25, 2013 |Arts
Written by Ayesha Harruna-Attah

Performance has long existed in African art. In oral traditions, an exuberant narrator was often the norm, sometimes requiring audience participation, mostly in the form of a chorus. That has trickled down the years, with new additions such as background scenes and intricate costumes. In places like Ghana, theater, although mostly for television, still reels in a large viewing audience.
Shows like Thursday Theater and Akan Drama in the 1990s, and Kantata, with its outrageous costumes (Bob Okala's iconic wall clock for a pendulum for instance) draw large crowds around TV screens countrywide. And yet, for a place with such an interest in costumes, drama, and fanfare, nobody really thinks of the production and design that bring these shows to life. It's the last thing on peoples' minds when watching their beloved Bob Okalas and Maame Dokonos, so much that on meeting Dede Ayite, a set and costume designer, most people are taken aback, the question on their lips, just how does one even think to become a costume and set designer?

Ghanaian-born Ayite has been working in New York for just under two years. A freelancer, mainly for theater, she started out assisting on several shows, and then began to take on her own projects, including the recently ended The Laramie Project at the venerable Brooklyn Academy of Music. Her resume is impressive and she works tirelessly to bring her costumes and sets to life, as true to the director's vision as possible, while anticipating gaps even the director might not have considered.

On a brisk Saturday morning I am supposed to be Ayite's assistant for a TV show pilot she's working on, which can't be revealed until it's aired. I find myself terribly lost, fingers frozen, and an hour late. If I were trying out for the part, I would have lost the job. Ayite's gracious, doesn't reprimand me. Or she doesn't have the time to. She's knees-deep in work, changing costumes for five different actors, planning their next sets of outfits, coordinating colors ("There's too much beige. I need to change the dad to jeans."), and working with the show's directors, producers, make-up artists, and sound coordinator.

The day before the pilot was shot we prepared by visiting a myriad stores on Harlem's 125th Street and a delightful costume rental shop in midtown Manhattan. She browsed through racks of dresses, examined fabric, studied prints, and was constantly thinking through how a costume would fit a character's personality, what would look good on screen, and what would portray the story at hand. Showing the larger picture while honing the smallest details—fitting a bow tie that can easily be wrung off for instance—is what Ayite constantly does. Hers is a balancing act: figuring cost, dealing with actors, anticipating any number of ways a character will be seen on stage or on screen, and ultimately telling a story. I asked her some questions about her process.

Design233: I'm sure you get this question a lot, but your career is so niche that it has to be asked: why theater design? Your background is in Neuroscience, so you'll have to tell us about that too.

Dede Ayite: Haha. Wow! Great question. It's the one my family asks most often! As an undergrad, I studied Behavioral Neuroscience because I wanted to understand why we do the things we do. The course was focused on the biology underpinning our actions: how are we able to think and act? Basically the "stuff," that allows us to think, to dream, to have ideas and interact with the world around us.

I happened to take a scenic painting class in school and found myself mesmerized by using simple elements—paint, wood, etc.—to create an entire world that a story would unfold in. After that experience, I just kept going down the rabbit hole. I did some freelance work after school—designing shows, and costumes and eventually decided to get an MFA and turn one of my passions into a career. I don't necessarily peg myself as a theatre designer: I am simply a designer, an artist, someone who is excited by discovery and problem solving and has a great love for being in a creative space. I try to work on projects that excite me and have great potential to challenge myself and others. With the storytelling I do through theatre/film, I get to reach people in visceral and mental ways. Looking back I suppose it's not a completely different path from the one I started on. I went from wanting to understand how we react to the world to creating worlds that will elicit particular reactions. And I love it!

D233: What came first stage design or costume design? Are they terribly different animals? I saw you pick outfits for a film shoot, and you had to anticipate scenes and situations that weren't even in the script, but you had to be ready. I imagine with set design it's different.

DA: Well, scenic painting actually, I first got introduced to scenic design through a scenic art class I took at Lehigh [University], and it all sort of progressed from there. Once the scenic painting bug had bitten me, things progressed somewhat naturally. I started out doing a lot more set design and then developed a sense of how costumes work….

From a working point of view, the fundamental approach in both cases is quite similar. The first step involves understanding the world that the director is trying to create and what that means for the characters. I typically spend a lot of time studying the script, discussing my initial ideas with the team and doing a lot of research just so I understand the world the story takes place in. At this point, I typically have a few ideas and there's an iterative process that begins; working on each idea until it's developed fully, scrapping those that don't work for whatever reason and hopefully getting closer and closer to bringing the vision to life.

The biggest difference between set and costume comes from the degree of planning and permanence that the work takes. Set design allows you to be a bit more concrete earlier as most of the planning and execution will be done before you load in and build. However there are things that come up, such as finding specific props, finding that something doesn't work with lights or that doesn't behave in the way you anticipated. Every department has its challenges and there is a certain amount of fluidity and troubleshooting one has to do.

D233: What about film versus theater design? How different are they?

DA: Great question! While the preparation and fundamental thought processes are the same, there are a couple of unique factors in each case. While the order of the work is generally the same, theatre offers a chance to fix things in previews and in rehearsals. This allows me to get a very accurate sense of what things will look like at the end of the day. However, in film, I feel as though more forethought is needed to think through how things will look through the lens before anyone ever snaps (the magic board). As a result, there isn't as much time to fine-tune the design. It basically needs to be ready once shooting begins. In addition to this, the perspective of the audience is very different; theatregoers can see the entire stage, whilst movie watchers only see what the lens sees. As a result, film creates a little more of a focus on what the director wants us to see…

D233: Take us through a typical day for you, though I imagine there's no such thing for you:

DA: Haha. You're right. However, because my workdays have a habit of taking many unplanned turns, I find it important to structure at least part of the day so I can be productive no matter what happens. So rather than say what is typical, I'll outline my preferred type of day…

I typically start my mornings by updating my agenda for that day and the rest of the week with a hot cup of tea. I'm typically more creative in the morning and try to do my sketches and drafting then. This usually gets me to about noon when I focus on research and try to get some shopping done. Because of scheduling constraints, meetings are sprinkled throughout the day but I try to stack them later in the afternoon so they allow me to get important creative work out of the way beforehand. Because there's a lot of iteration, it's important to have new or updated ideas to contribute and share and this schedule makes it bearable. Evenings are typically spent in tech (technical rehearsal). And I like to cap the day off with dance class, especially Bhangra on Mondays!

D233: How much direction do you like to work with? Are you a clean slate kind of person or do you like to reproduce what a director has in mind? And how often do you get to completely control the aesthetic? What happens if you don't get the director's aesthetic? Has that happened before?

DA: I have to be boring and say that it depends. Designing for the stage and screen is largely a collaborative effort. I sincerely believe that openly sharing ideas, giving and receiving feedback makes the final product that much better. As I've grown as a professional, I find that different directors require varying levels of control over my work with the vision we are trying to create. I think the key is to develop trust and credibility so you can explain why certain things work or don't and become a trusted advisor and partner.

D233: Do you have any influences? I did some sleuthing and in an interview you mentioned your Ghanaian background. How does that come through in your work?

Growing up in Ghana definitely comes through my work. A lot of the design decisions I make are instinctive. They draw from past lessons, things I might have seen or experienced. My influences have morphed slightly, but I do feel that my sense and use of color, shapes, patterns are certainly influenced by growing up in Ghana—it's the essence of who I am. My style has definitely changed since I have been living here [in New York] for a while, and I've slowly become a melting pot of experiences. I also try to see as much theatre, film, and other works of art as much as I can.

D233: You are a master multi-tasker. How many things do you have going on now and how do you keep it all together?

DA: Haha, I don't know if I'm a master… The industry requires that you be able to keep several things going at the same time and keep them all straight and understand your responsibilities and deadlines. Currently, I have three ongoing projects. Two costume projects I'm designing as well as a theatre set project I'm assisting on. They each have multiple elements that I need to deliver on and I've found that making notes and keeping lists keeps me sane! I write everything down. At the end of the day, I plan, put in great energy, and work hard. And it all comes together.

D233: We've talked a lot about doing a Ghanaian production. What's grander in your eyes? A theater production or an epic movie?

DA: Another great question! I think I would love an opportunity to do either: the really important factors revolve around the team and the project. I think working on a Ghanaian production might allow me to express certain ideas a little more than I usually do and would enable me to create something that would really have an impact and touch people. Film has the advantage here because of it's superior reach. But I think theater has come a long way as well and may allow a particular kind of storytelling… In all honesty, it comes down to the material, and what I would be able to contribute to help make it a special production.

D233: You took me to a costume rental center in the middle of New York. There must be times when you can't find what you're looking for? Do you improvise?

DA: I hope that wasn't overwhelming! There are certainly times when the vision calls for something that either can't easily be bought or that the budget can't meet. Those are the occasions that require an additional level of creativity—beyond being creative about the vision and the design and starting to think very tactically about how we can make the vision come to life given the real world constraints of materials and budget. It's exciting because it introduces an element of risk that I have to dig deep to overcome. But that's one of the most exciting parts… It's when my adrenaline is pumping and I get to be the most creative.

D233: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

DA: Well, I would say I've made strides in balancing a high workload and multiple projects. However, I think being true to oneself is sometimes challenging. Designing, being creative, requires a lot of honesty and putting a lot of yourself into your work. One of the challenges is being open to feedback and hearing the ideas of others and incorporating that information without being too sensitive and still retaining your ability to express yourself through the work. And then top of that keeping in mine budget and feasibility of ideas. It's all a balancing act

D233: Costumes have been bought and fitted. Or the stage has been built with all the trimmings. What emotions do you go through on opening night?

DA: Relief, Anxiety and Excitement! All at the same time! Relief because a large amount of the work is done and we've made it to the end of part of the journey. Anxiety, because I'm a bit of a perfectionist and typically think there's some element that could be improved. I am probably making minor mental edits in my mind. There's going to be feedback from the audience almost immediately and it's always exciting to watch them react to the work. I love watching them experience it. I'm excited to hear the feedback and excited about having made an impact! Design and creativity are a constant and fluid it never ends. It's life and should never feel stagnant.

Image Credits

Dede Ayite