From Mark Morris's 'Pacific' for the San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco BalletMartin Pakledinaz

Master Illusionist:
Martin Pakledinaz

Theatre & Drama alum designs costumes
for the best on Broadway and beyond

Costume design. It’s the first step in creating the look and feel of a character in its own space and time. It can transport the audience out of the world of reality and into a world of art and illusion. And Martin Pakledinaz (MFA ‘75) is one of the best in the field.

Still can’t place the name? The theatre world knows him well—if not personally, then through his work. You’ve seen his costumes on such leading ladies of Broadway as Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole, and Patti LuPone. In plays like Blithe Spirit, Summer and Smoke, Anna Christie. Musicals like Grease, Kiss Me, Kate and Thoroughly Modern Millie, the latter two garnering him Tony Awards.

He has created lyrical, breathable, fluid costumes for dance, most notably for Mark Morris, a frequent collaborator. For Seattle Opera’s monumentally ambitious staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, he created striking and complex constructions depicting characters from Norse and Teutonic mythology—in this instance, some 218 designs in all, employing 18 technicians.

A native of Sterling Heights, MI, Pakledinaz (pak leh DEE naz) grew up with an abiding love of theatre. “I love what performers do and I like being around them,” he says. When early dreams of becoming an actor were dashed—“I was best as an actor when I didn’t have to speak”—he was undeterred.

Martin showed up at the Department of Theatre & Drama in 1973, ready to pursue graduate work in costume design. “I was brought into the department by the incredible Zee Weisfeld,” he says. “I knew practically nothing about clothing, but we worked it out. She taught me a lot.”

So much so that by 1975 he was on his way to New York to begin his career. He cut his teeth doing sketches for Tony and Academy Award-winning costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge. A glance at his resume shows design credits steadily on the rise, picking up speed over the years.

Now one of the leading costume designers in America, Martin routinely juggles several projects at once. “I often split my days between costume shops,” he says. “The phone isn’t enough; you need to be there in person. Other projects might have me out fabric shopping or digging around in thrift stores. I might be emailing someone about one project, talking to another on the phone, and thinking about yet another in the cab ride.”

In 2000, composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa (BM ’87) called on Martin to design the costumes for his musical The Wild Party. “As a writer I’m hoping that all the designers working on a given show are telling the story I’m writing,” Lippa says. “With Martin that’s never an issue. Like a writer, he thinks of each character and their journey and then, as if by magic, they are wearing the right clothes. Brilliant!”

“I loved working on that show,” Marty recalls. “Andrew’s music, its humor and style, its sensuality, influenced my work. I could learn so much about a character just by listening to a song’s lyrics.”

His reputation for easy collaboration has certainly been an asset in his career. “I’ve had directors and choreographers who want to see everything, and I understand that,” Martin says. “Others trust me and require fewer meetings.”

That freedom, however, can be both exhilarating—and a little bit daunting. “You realize that your visuals impact the way the audience sees the piece,” he says. “In Mark Morris’s Pacific, for the San Francisco Ballet, the idea I brought to the table was to have both the men and women in full pants, skirts almost. It was beautiful, but created a totally different experience from seeing the dance in bare legs.”

In a televised interview before the Tony Awards ceremony in June, Pakledinaz was asked how it felt to work with such grandes dames of the theatre as Angela Lansbury and Christine Ebersole, stars of the nominated Blithe Spirit.

“It’s intimidating,” he said, “because the best designers have done all of those people. Christine Ebersole was last dressed by William Ivey Long. Hello! And Angela Lansbury did Sweeney Todd, she did Manchurian Candidate, she was MAME for god’s sake! No one has had more important clothes put on her. I feel lucky that somehow I’m in that club now.”

Whether the show is set in Elizabethan England or the Roaring Twenties, the work always begins with “research, research, research. I think a deep understanding of the period is the basis of so much design,” he says. “In Thoroughly Modern Millie, for example, I had to break away from the strict rules of straight 1920s skirts to accommodate the choreography. The final designs ended up working, though, because I had studied fashions from the 1920s and early 1930s, where bias cuts had come into play.”

Being cast as the boyfriend in Millie was the first big break for Gavin Creel (BFA ’94). “When Marty was fitting me in his stunningly designed, handmade, three-piece suits and tuxedos, he actually asked me what I thought and how I felt in them,” Creel marvels. “That immediately made the clothes feel like mine; like Jimmy’s. To a little U-M grad, starring in his first Broadway show, that openness and lack of ego made me feel so comfortable.”

Martin now teaches costume design to students at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. “You really need to want this life,” he admits. “It’s hard. Costume design is a selfish mistress; you have to make your own rules and order your life. But it is often amazingly rewarding. You meet people and work with them to find a character.”

Over the years, Michigan grads keep popping up, Martin says. “I almost never do a musical theatre piece without a grad from U-M,” he says. Along with Creel and others, he “dressed” Erin Dilly (BFA ’94) for The Boys from Syracuse.

“The costumes Marty created for me for Syracuse were among the most beautiful, inspired pieces I have ever worn,” says Tony-nominated actress Dilly. “He creates with such character specificity—I put on his dresses and became Lucianna. And he is just about the kindest and most respectful designer I have had the pleasure of working with.”

Martin Pakledinaz is truly a down-to-earth artist in a world of make believe.

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The Zelma Weisfeld Theatre Scholarship was established in 1988 by former students and colleagues to honor this professor emerita’s twenty-eight years of teaching and to support outstanding theatre students in costume design. To contribute, send your check, payable to the University of Michigan, to the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Office of Development, 2005 Baits Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2075.