The Inspiration behind the costumes of Kentucky
Q&A with costume designer Lena Sands

by Patricia Tumang (PR/Marketing Manager, East West Players)

headshots-150301-39Lena Sands is the costume designer for the West Coast premiere of Kentucky at East West Players (November 16 – December 10, 2016), which is directed by Deena Selenow and written by Leah Nanako Winkler.

During our interview, Lena shared about her calling as a costume designer and her influences in styling the diverse characters of Kentucky.

What was your costume design process for Kentucky?


[Kentucky director] and I had a very strong feeling from the beginning that this play should feel like a real wedding. This meant planning the show as a wedding – for example, choosing wedding colors. Because it’s a wedding, the people change a lot! They have a different outfit for each wedding event, just like you would in real life.

For contemporary plays I always do research on Instagram. Kentucky fashion blogger @misskortneylane became a real inspiration for me. I became a little obsessed. She particularly had photos of her and her friends getting ready for their weddings. In a few photos, they’re wearing pinks, yellow, cream, and mint. That color palette was perfect for a scene in Kentucky where the bridal party is decorating the church. The colors make me think of a pastry shop, baked goods, and frosting. The colors red, white, and blue also became a touchstone because this is a very American play.

Also, early on, I started looking at the work of artist Melissa Haims. I had seen her work in Philadelphia a few years ago. She creates sculptures out of crochet pieces and quilts. I looked to incorporate these handcrafted textures wherever I could. I shared this with Sara, the set designer, too, and she incorporated the textures of quilting into her design.


“Kentucky” costume design rendering. © 2016 Lena Sands. All rights reserved.

Do you have a favorite look?

I really like Sylvie, the cat. She and the grandma embody a collage aesthetic, and I’m a collage artist so I love that! Both characters are foils in some manner. The actresses who play them also play two other roles, so the different modes of character distinguish them in each role. Using collage came about because Deena said the cat “can be something silly, like it could wear oven mitts”. From there, I began cutting up images of household items and putting them together in my sketches to see how they would make a cat. Our cat Sylvie is created from the oven mitts Deena mentioned, and also Pringles cans and salad tongs. You’ll see why Pringles are important in our production when you watch the show.

How closely did you work with the cast members on their costumes?

In a process like this, it’s hard to work with the cast members on their costumes because by the time we get to the first rehearsal, we, the design team, have thought about things for so long that it’s become defined. The rehearsal process is so quick – only three weeks – and it takes a lot of time to collaborate with cast members. But I’m responding to the energies of the cast when watching rehearsal. The grandma character was going to wear high heels, and we’re changing it to have her wear flats because she moves so beautifully. Often you do away with things that feel necessary in the sketch because now the actor is expressing that through movement.

Can you tell me more about your renderings?

I had this vision of making a long drawing of the characters next to each other, in which you can see the relationships. That is the most important aspect of this play. The most significant thing about renderings is that they’re a tool for the director and cast to envision where the production is going.


“Kentucky” costume design rendering. © 2016 Lena Sands. All rights reserved.

How did you get into costume design?

I’ve began costume designing at a very young age. I started in high school. We had this student -written and -directed interclass competition called SING! The whole school would get involved, and I became the costume director in my sophomore year. The only way to make sure that the 100+ costumes for the chorus and all the dances were built – and we built everything – was to get a crew dedicated to the work. So I created a system of design by democracy. Anyone could submit a design for the characters, and we would vote on them as a group. I would submit as well, but even more it was my job to translate those ideas from paper to a garment and to make sure it all got done. I loved the community that artistic collaboration created.

What’s it like for you to work on an East West Players’ production?

East West Players has been an incredible place to work. I really appreciate the equity and inclusiveness for which EWP strives. When I first looked at the audition notices, I was so impressed at the language. EWP looks for actors who identify or feel they can play a gender or race. We should see more of that in the theater. They have some great resources for costumes, and that has helped me along. Even though it’s my first time working with EWP, it’s my third time working with Deena. It’s great to be building upon the language that we’ve developed over the past year in collaborating.

Lena Sands is a costume designer, puppet artist, and scenographer for live performance, installation, and film. Her work supports the unsettling of dramatic space and the wringing out of shared cultural routines. Her designs have performed at venues including REDCAT, Los Angeles Theater Center, and Son of Semele in Los Angeles; Juilliard, the Women’s Interart Center, and the Irish Art Center in New York; the Nantucket Film Festival; Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; and with Critical Mass Theater Company, The Equus Projects, Watts Village Theater Company, and Cornerstone Theater Company. Lena received her MFA in Design for Performance from California Institute of the Arts.