Olivia Freear – dancer, artist and designer – comes from the glittering world of burlesque. Until now, she’s created sparkling one-off pieces for Adelaide Cabaret Festival, but in her first job as costume designer with the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Freear explores the muted tones of the natural Australian landscape.
The Gods of Strangers is set in Port Pirie in 1947. Billed as an “epic family drama” it draws on the real-life stories of Greek, Italian and Cypriot migrants in post-World War II Australia.
Freear’s extensive knowledge of vintage fashion was what originally landed her the role, although she concedes she wasn’t immediately certain her skills fit the requirements.
“I’m used to the world of sequins and feathers and glitter,” she says. “When [director] Geordie [Brookman] said, ‘We’d love to get you on board’ I was like, ‘Are you sure? [But] I’ve warmed to it very quickly.”
There won’t be a sequin in sight, but there’s no shortage of vibrancy in The Gods of Strangers wardrobe. A cast of six is adorned in colours drawn from the Australian outback. “Ochre, beautiful soft salmon pinks, sage greens, beautiful light blue,” Freear says. “I’m a very colour-orientated designer.”
When designing the costumes, Freear considered the histories of the characters. “The reality is that they wouldn't have had much,” she says. From fleeing war and persecution, many immigrants left family and homes behind – not to mention belongings like clothes – to start a new life in Australia.
“That really informed the design, because a lot of the looks, particularly from the older characters, actually come more from a 1930s style. Things that they would have mended and mended and mended, until they fall apart, and then they get used for something else, like rags or a pillowcase. Nothing was wasted.”
Freear also looked at old family photos of playwright Elena Carapetis, a Greek Cypriot descendant, whose own family history inspired much of the story. She was particularly inspired by images of old Greek men playing bocce. “They just wore things with a little more panache than their Australian counterparts did,” says Freear. “A little more colour, more styling.”
Costumes are sourced from a combination of vintage pieces and brand new makes, with the help of wardrobe consultant Enken Hagge. While vintage pieces may be true to the time, there are significant challenges with finding authentic ’30s and ’40s clothing that fits modern bodies.
“The clothes from that era are very small, so it’s rare that we can find things to fit. Someone we would say is a size 10 or 12 these days would have been called a large size back then,” says Hagge.
Brand-new costumes need to be broken down to appear lived-in, and for this, Hagge uses some surprising methods. “We have to wear them down with dye or with a cheese grater to give them an aged feeling so they look like they’ve had some life before they came off the sewing machine,” she says.
The Gods of Strangers will run for three weeks at the Dunstan Playhouse after opening in Port Pirie, where Carapetis’s family first set foot on Australian soil.
“I am so proud to be able to share some of this history now,” says Carapetis. “I doubt they ever imagined their humble lives would make the stage, but their stories rival any classic … I know audiences will recognise them and I hope their stories will resonate.”
The Gods of Strangers is on at the Dunstan Playhouse from November 14 to December 2.