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Designer Talk

An Interview with Costume Designer Alejo Vietti
by Alley Theatre's Director of Design, Michael Locher

Michael Locher: Alejo, by my rough count, you’ve designed over twenty shows for the Alley, including some real audience favorites: The 39 Steps, Around the World in 80 Days, A Christmas Carol, and most recently, The Three Musketeers. Some of our patrons may not know about the other amazing work you’ve done around the country and the world, and in other facets of the performing arts. What are some recent highlights?

Alejo ViettiAlejo Vietti: First of all, I love working at the Alley! My partner jokes that Houston is “my home away from home.” Besides being lucky enough to design 25 shows at the Alley (I actually had to count!), I have been very fortunate to work on different projects since I moved to the US from Argentina 20+ years ago.

There are five that come quickly to mind: I’m very grateful to have designed costumes for is Beautiful, the Carole King Musical, directed by Marc Bruni. It was my Broadway debut, and it ran for six years! We took the show to the West End, Australia, and Japan, and there have been tours in the US and the UK. I am incredibly proud to have designed for Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Scott Schwartz. We started the show at La Jolla Playhouse, it ran at Papermill Playhouse and then went on Berlin, Germany, where it ran for over two years. In Tokyo, it is running strong (albeit a hiatus due to the current pandemic). A project that is very special to me is Amy and the Orphans, a play by Lindsey Ferrentino and directed by Scott Ellis at Roundabout in New York. Lindsey wrote a wonderful and compelling play with a leading lady with Down syndrome, and a wonderful actress who has Down syndrome played the part. It was such an honest production and barriers were broken – I loved being a part of it.  And lastly, this past year I was able to design costumes for a production of Evita at City Center in NYC directed by Sammi Cannold. This was a dream for me, both as a Latin American and as specifically as an Argentinian, to be able to be a part of an iconic piece about a moment in the history of my country. It was an amazing experience.

ML: Wonderful. The coronavirus pandemic is having an impact in all corners of the economy, but the performing arts were arguably hit first, and hardest. What have the immediate effects been when it comes to your work?

AV: This crisis has affected all of us in many different ways. For me, most of my projects until July were canceled, with just one of them postponed. The new UK tour of Beautiful that we launched back in January of this year was halted, and 10 days later we were informed that it was canceled. The US tour was canceled as well for the reminder of 2020, but the producers hope to get it back out for 2021/22. It’s a very weird situation, as we are not only affected financially, but artistically. It’s very hard to deal with the fact that we cannot bring what we love to audiences, so they can experience joy – and we also cannot be around our colleagues collaborating on different projects. The lack of human contact with social distancing leaves us inside our own little bubbles with no possibilities to generate and create theatre, and that can be very hard when your work is driven by passion.

ML: I completely understand – it’s a collaboration-driven field, and we’re used to the luxury of close interaction with other artists. What has your day-to-day life been like since the closures began?

AV: I am the worst when it comes to having down time! It has been strange to say the least. I try to stay up to date with the news, but too much attention on that can create stress and anxiety. It takes a toll on you. So, I do the news in doses, and then create community through texts, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook. And I have downloaded an app to exercise at home, and I am following it every day… so far! I have also been more in touch with my family in Argentina. This past weekend, for example, I had an online baking party with my niece who is in my hometown in Argentina. We each made something different at the same time, and it was great fun! But I miss the theatre, I miss work, I miss being a part of a project.\

ML: The crisis has generated a lot of fear in our community: many theatre artists draw most (or all) or their income from freelance contracts, making it difficult to receive unemployment benefits. Others are worried because they’re unsure what the future holds for the theatres that hire designers. What’s the feeling among you and your colleagues?

AV: This is both a great question and a hard one to answer. We’re in a unique global situation and nobody knows how or when it is going to end. I think that it will take some time for theatres around the country to recover and go back to their usual seasons – it will unfold over time. On one hand, people will be eager to show their support of community.  On the other hand, I think that many patrons will be a bit cautious about being in a closed space with hundreds of other people around. But we will come back to a new normal and people will fill the theatres and auditoriums all over the country. Theater could bring people together, could be the catalyst binding.

At the end of the day, I think that we are going to survive these quarantine times with the support, love, and camaraderie of our circle of affections - family, friends, colleagues. And also by the arts, like when we watch TV, movies, listen to music, watch - or read - plays, concerts and operas online, visit museums virtually, join classes on social media, read a book, or many other options. We can never forget or underestimate the immense contributions provided by artists all over the world - and if you can, please help them recover, every contribution counts!

ML: The arts community had no way to see this coming, there’s been some discussion of what we might learn from this episode. Do you think this experience has taught us anything about ways to protect artists? Has working in these conditions yielded any interesting or positive surprises?

AV: Those are really interesting questions, since we are all spending a lot of time thinking and reflecting.  I think that we are still learning about the consequences of a pandemic and how it affects us all individually, and as a collective. As a member of art form that relies on collaboration, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where we could do our art while keeping isolated.

It’s too early to have lessons learned, but two possibilities come to mind. One, an affirmation of our sense of community. I think we will all learn as members of a society about how to survive and to prevail during a pandemic and how to keep focus and stay calm in a moment where we are asked to isolate ourselves and stop working. In moments like this it’s important to still think as a society and not as individuals. Another is an emphasis on invention. We need to figure out what we can do - after all this is over - to prepare ourselves for other situations like this, personally and professionally. I think during this time some of the work we do, how we do it, and how we all collaborate, will be given a fresh eye.  We have so much ingenuity in our community! We may look back and say “that was invented during the 2020 pandemic.”

If anything, I think that this health crisis has served as a tough reminder of what’s really important to each of us, and to put everything in perspective. When this is over, I am confident that there will be some re-structuring in the system.

ML: Good insights, Alejo. You mentioned your family back in Argentina, where you’re from originally – I hope your loved ones there are safe and healthy. Do you know how the performing arts community is faring back home?

AV: For what I know, the theatre situation in Argentina is very similar than the one here in the US. There’s much uncertainty and fear, with many producers thinking that this year may be over without much theater happening and hoping for a strong summer season starting next January.

ML: Along those lines, we’ve had to lay off the majority of the Alley staff and shut most major operations down due to the pandemic. We’re working hard to bring the staff back as soon as possible, but it’s a difficult time for a lot of your friends and colleagues here. In the meantime, is there a memory you’d like to share from your time working at the Alley? A message you’d like to send to your friends in Houston?

AV: My heart goes out for all the people at the Alley. I did my first show at the Alley - Bad Dates, directed by Jeremy Cohen and starring Annalee Jefferies - back in 2005! So, I have had the chance to go back often during the last 15 years, where I have developed and strengthened great relationships with many wonderful people. Many great times and some scary ones, as well. I remember being in Houston for Cyrano de Bergerac when Hurricane Ike hit and we had to remove all the (many!) costumes from the shop and put them on racks along the long hallway behind the Costume Shop in case the windows shattered. I was able to get on one of the last flights out of Bush airport and came back to Houston on one of the first flights from La Guardia. I will never forget seeing the landscape of a flooded Houston as we approached. It was heartbreaking! And almost 10 years later, when it happened again with Harvey in 2017, it was much more devastating and damaging. Horrific! But the Alley community is incredibly resilient, strong, and has a wonderful sense of camaraderie and unity. They care for each other, and that’s always evident to any artist who has the chance to work there. The theatre re-opened again, and we did another show.

This crisis is unlike anything we have lived before. And the moment I heard that most of the staff was laid off, I contacted my friends from the Alley Costume Shop to check on them. These are people with whom I have shared so many great times and different experiences. I have great respect, affection and admiration for them. I am keeping my fingers crossed hoping that this crisis will end soon, and that we will be able to start rebuilding and connecting in person with one another. In the meantime, I’ll think about the all great times I’ve had at 615 Texas Ave, and about that taco lunch I hosted for everybody at the Costume Shop as a thank you for the amazing work they all did on The Three Musketeers. That was my last time with everybody, and I am looking forward to the next one!