BY HOWARD SHERMAN
With a resume of recent costume design credits including American Son and Children of a Lesser God on Broadway, Fireflies at Atlantic Theatre Company, Slave Play at New York Theatre Workshop and School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play for MCC Theater, it’s slightly surprising to learn a few facts about Dede Ayite’s education and training. “I double majored in theater and behavioral neuroscience,” says Ayite, a graduate of Lehigh University. As for her graduate work at Yale School of Drama? “Scene design,” she explains.
Ayite connects the dots that took her through various courses of study to her burgeoning costume design career. Growing up in Ghana and only moving to the U.S. in her final years of high school, Ayite recalls, “I’d very much been into clothing and fashion in Ghana. You have your own clothes made, so that was very exciting for me. I would just sketch it out, and then I would go to the seamstress’s and spend the day there, just hang out, to see what they’re doing, how they’re putting things together. But it was just something you do for fun. I enjoyed it.”
Because formal theater wasn’t part of her experience in Ghana, that only came when her family moved to Maryland and later when she matriculated at Lehigh. “At Lehigh, we’re supposed to take a seminar as an introduction for freshmen, and they stuck me in a scenic painting class. I actually didn’t know what that was. But because all of the biology classes were filled up, I landed in a scene painting class. And I realized, ‘I like this. This is fun’.”
She credits Lehigh professor Drew Francis with providing her a broad theatrical education and many opportunities. From scenic painting she began set designing, saying, “I did it as an outlet. There’s just something about creating. For me, it’s about discovering.” So even when she graduated with her dual degree, she remained at Lehigh initially, running the scene shop, designing, and managing student productions.
While her studies at Yale focused on scenic design, students are required to study all disciplines, but following an initial post-grad stints including assisting Eugene Lee and an apprenticeship at Santa Fe Opera, she began the shift toward costumes.
Taking a Different Path
She recalled thinking, “‘There’s no set-in-stone path for you to take.’ So, I decided, ‘Well, if I’m going to go for it, I really do like costumes and clothes. Why don’t I go for it? It doesn’t mean I’m leaving sets behind.’ But I’ve always been super-fascinated with clothes, and what they do to people.”
She received encouraging words via an e-mail correspondence with designer Toni-Leslie James. and started working as an assistant costume designer, finding it invaluable, citing Clint Ramos and Emilio Sosa as early mentors with whom she worked as an assistant.
“Just being in the room was a gift,” said Ayite. “In my mind it was, ‘This is your chance. Whatever you can do to support the production. Whatever you can do to help the designer, or assist the designer, you need to do it.’ I learned so much from them, because so that’s how I picked up a lot my costume design experience. Coupled with, of course, the paper stuff you do in school, and the stuff I’ve done on my own. A lot of it just came from assisting, and from working in the city.”
Her relationship with director Robert O’Hara, with whom she worked on Slave Play, as well as Mankind and Bella: An American Tall Tale (both at Playwrights Horizons), and The Wiz (at Oregon Shakespeare Festival), came about when Ramos recommended her for a small production O’Hara was directing, with minimal budget and resources, at NYU. O’Hara gave Ayite several of her earliest design gigs, including Marie Antoinette at Steppenwolf and Five Guys Named Moe at Arena Stage.
What’s behind their ongoing creative relationship? “I just love that he’s unafraid,” said Ayite. “The gift is that we all actually collaborate together, with the other designers in the room, and talk about the piece. I have an idea of the language he speaks, and I appreciate that language. Robert is truly, ‘Let’s try it.’ It’s always a conversation. ‘Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, you toss it out.’ That is very precious and helpful.”
Much of Ayite’s early work as costume designer came not in New York, but regionally, and she credits that experience as really aiding in her development. “Those were a gift, honestly,” she enthuses, “because New York City’s much harder to break into. When you’re able to get at least one or two regional shows, you have the support and it gives you the space. That’s very important, I think, actually having the support, having adequate support that allows you to create something that you might not otherwise have had the budget or the money to create in New York City. To showcase it. ‘Hey, I can actually do this. I can handle this project, I can design this show’.”
Ayite places great value on the in-house costume shops at regional companies. “It does take a little bit of the stress off of you because it’s not all on my shoulders to execute this,” she explained. “Sure, there’s a conversation between me and the script, me and the director, but you also need that space to have a conversation with someone else who is helping you to execute it. It frees up some brain space, that you can just create, and just look at things as a whole, to constantly just be having a conversation with the art that you’re trying to create, or the piece that you’re working on.”
Researching the Role
Already effusive, Ayite brightens up even more when asked about the role of research in her work. “That’s my favorite part,” she exclaims. “Depending on the show, if it’s a modern show I will look everywhere. I will look at people, I will take photographs, I’ll go online, I’ll watch videos. I think the research process is where you get to ask questions and you get to discover, because by the time I have my pen to the paper, I should have asked myself other questions—a bunch of questions to lead me to, ‘Oh, let me at least start with this sketch, or this idea.’ But the research is where you allow yourself to dream, and that’s the most important. So as much you look at research, even if it’s not directly related to the piece you’re working on, it allows your brain to imagine something that you wouldn’t have ever thought of, and that’s juicy. That’s the stuff I love. You’re reacting to it innately and it’s something that I think I have to trust—my gut. Whatever is happening on the inside carries me forward into figuring out what the piece is.”
Given the setting of School Girls in her native Ghana, it’s natural to wonder whether she was the expert on the country in the creative process. “I wouldn’t say I was the expert,” she made clear. “Ghana’s a whole country and has different tribes and cultures. But did I feel definitely responsibility to make sure I was being true and honest to what the script was asking for, and also my country? Yes.”
“But even then,” she continued, “it’s set in the ‘80s, and so I had to still do my research. I called my mom, I had her call her friends. ‘I need pictures. I need photographs.’ I think I did more research, to make sure what would it have been, to make sure that I was being true to the time period, and also to the characters on stage.”
With her career growing at a time when diversity and inclusion have been increasingly part of the conversation in America’s theaters, Ayite was emphatic about her responsibility to the emerging artists who are coming up in the next generation.
“I have been very fortunate that people saw me,” said Ayite, citing Ramos and O’Hara, as well as director Liesl Tommy and designer Paul Tazewell. “People actually seeing you, and saying, ‘Let’s give this person a chance, Let’s give them space to be.’ To be present, to show up, is so important.”
“For people who have made it past that initial stage, it’s also reaching back,” she continued. “I think a big thing that I’m looking at is how do I reach back to get someone else into the room too, because that’s what got me in here. Just one person saying, ‘Hey, I see her. I want to give her an opportunity’.”
“I think it shouldn’t just be on people of color to have to do that for themselves. I think it’s on all of us to do that. I think it’s on other artists, all theater artists, to really see. To see minorities and say, ‘You know, let’s give them a chance.’ They exist. They are there, and they can’t just be regulated to just black shows. That’s like, ‘No, I’m trained to design all types of shows’.”
However, she noted, “I definitely take immense pleasure and responsibility in telling stories that deal with people of color. Yes, I want to be in that room. I want to be that person that makes sure that the stories that deal with people of color are told in the right way, or told in a way that is beautiful, that has impact. I want to be that person.”
Asked about favorite projects to date, Ayite took a long pause before replying, “The Royale, which I did at Lincoln Center Theater with [director] Rachel Chavkin. Me being in love with it honestly has nothing to do with the design. It’s just the piece itself. Working on it, I was telling Rachel even two weeks into previews that I would still sit there, watch it and cry, because it dealt with a brother and sister relationship, and it also dealt with being African-American at the turn of the century, with visibility. That was a piece that touched my heart.”
She went on to add to her favorites list Bella: An American Tall Tale. It’s a musical,” she points out, “of this young woman going on a journey, finding herself. There’s comedy in there, and it’s exploratory. I enjoy that. It deals with a person of color, a black woman, who understands that she’s sexualized because of her body all the time, and how does she deal with that. How does she find herself? What does she do with fame?”
Given that her training was in scenic design, and some theatrical designers do both sets and costumes, will Ayite return to her scenic beginnings? She responded that it’s not necessarily ever far from her current process. “Even right now,” Ayite said, “when I meet with a director whom I work with a lot, Saheem Ali, he says, ‘Oh, you think like a set designer.’ I always still approach my work like a set designer. I’m still thinking of the body in the space. I’m still thinking of the silhouette in the space.”
“People have said to me, ‘Oh, sometimes your designs are quite sculptural.’ I think a designer’s a designer; everyone has their way that they enter the world of design or the thing that they’re trying to solve. So, I wouldn’t say that there’s one way of thinking. I love to have an idea of what the space is doing and what it looks like. Then, when I see a body in the space, I’m also reacting to it, because there’s a relationship there, between the space and what’s inhabiting it.”
“Have I focused heavily on costumes? Yes, because I realized that’s where my heart and love is, and because I have a heavier background on scenic design, and in scene painting. As a person, I need to be, ‘Oh, you know what? I need to focus on this thing that I don’t have as much experience in.’ I needed to push everything else away, and truly hone in on the skill sets I need for costumes.
“So maybe at some point, when I’m a little more settled. It also depends on the team. It’s not even just regulated to theater. I think of concerts. I think of production design. So, I think I definitely would, if it was the right project, I would do set and costumes. I’m fascinated by that, yeah, 100%.”