Rafaella Rabinovich’s designs from Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily directed by William B. Davis at the Jericho Arts Centre. (photo by Steven Hooper)
Rafaella Rabinovich always knew that she wanted to be a theatrical designer, and she became one – and a successful one at that, without many detours or hiccups.
“When I was 12, my father gave me a camera,” she said. “I photographed lots of shows and I knew I wanted to frame the stage myself.”
After graduating from a high school for the arts in Israel and the mandatory army service, she enrolled in the set and costume design program at Rakefet Levy Design School for the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv. Upon finishing the program in 2010, she came to British Columbia. Today, she is a respected local set and costume designer, doing what she loves and living in a place she adores.
Of course, nothing was as easy or simple as it seems from a brief review of her resumé. “I wanted to make sets. I didn’t care about costumes,” she admitted, “but the design school where I studied only offered a combined program, so I took both. Now, I do more costumes than sets; it’s easier for me as a woman, but I still love doing sets.”
When she first came to British Columbia, she didn’t plan on staying. It helped that she was born in Canada and had Canadian citizenship. “I did have a Canadian passport so I wanted to look around and then travel to Africa,” she recalled. “I loved it here so I stayed. I still haven’t gotten to Africa, but it’s in my plans.”
To justify staying, she applied for a job, with Cirque du Soleil, no less. “I didn’t expect to be hired,” she said laughing, “but they got back to me. I ended up doing two jobs for them. After adding that to my resumé, it was easier to look for design jobs here. In the beginning, I worked as a waitress a lot. Now, I sustain myself with theatrical designs. I feel lucky.”
Unlike many costume designers, she doesn’t wish and never did wish to work in fashion. “I interned with a fashion firm and I learned a lot from them, but fashion doesn’t make my heart sing the way theatre does.”
She enjoys the variety her chosen profession offers, and she doesn’t shy from the smallest jobs. Circus and movies, commercials and theatre – they are all significant to her. From a couple costumes for a display at Science World to the set and costumes for the cast of 27 for her latest production, Fiddler on the Roof at Abbotsford’s Gallery 7, she has done it all. In the five years since she settled in Canada, she has worked on about 20 projects and, she is actively seeking more.
Rabinovich said she relishes every aspect of her work, from research to the final audience applause.
When she does her research for a show, she reads a lot. “For historical shows, classical paintings are great references. And, of course, I do a lot of research online,” she said. “I also read the plays. I need to know the story, the characters. We might have two stories set at the same time, but if the stories are different, the costumes and sets are different too. Think Oliver Twist and Napoleonic France: about the same time, but different places and different stories, different characters. I always need to know the character. Who she is, why she is wearing this hat, this dress. The costume has to complement her personality.”
One of Rabinovich’s past projects was a play that took place at the end of the 19th century, the same time period as Fiddler. “For that project, we wanted the costumes to be true to the times. But for Fiddler, I chose Marc Chagall as my inspiration.”
At times, she has collaborated with a director in her artistic decisions. “If he has a vision of the show, I would respect it,” she said. “He might say: ‘I want it sad’ or ‘It should be happy,’ and I would accommodate his suggestions in my designs.”
The sources of the costume materials and sets she creates vary greatly. Some pieces she buys in thrift or regular stores, others she designs from scratch or rents. “I’m not a seamstress but I know how to sew. Sometimes, if the project is on a low budget, I can sew the costumes myself, but usually, I have a seamstress. I know which vintage store in B.C. would be likely to have a fur coat of a certain color or a special type of curtains.”
She makes all her designs by hand, not on computer like some of her contemporaries. “I’m old- fashioned,” she joked. “I like feeling the fabrics, the textures.” She also likes incorporating lighting into her designs.
Each project she works on presents a different challenge, she explained, but all of them embrace their own rewards. “Seeing your vision come to life, take shape on stage, is wonderful. When you hit the right note, when you think, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ its feels good. And of course I love it when the audience applauds, when the actors wearing my costumes are happy. I’m behind the stage, invisible to the public, and I like it that way, but I’m part of it. They applaud my costumes, too.”
Gallery 7 Theatre’s performance of Fiddler on the Roof is on stage March 13- 21 at the Abbotsford Arts Centre. For more information, visit gallery7theatre.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].