Costume designer Dominique Hill draws together rigid, fluid in ‘Animals Out of Paper’

Dominique Hill believes in angel numbers and signs from the universe. The costume designer for Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of Animals Out of Paper has a sign outside her house with two arrows pointing in opposite directions, symbolizing being at a crossroads. 

Like Ilana, the central character in Animals Out of Paper, Hill finds herself at a time of transition. Hill has reached a point in her career where she said she can be more selective about the projects she takes on.

Georgia Pressley / staff photographer Chautauqua Theater Company Guest Actor Breezy Leigh and CTC Conservatory Actor Seth Gunawardena rehearse for the company’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper.

“I’m at that space where I’m like, ‘OK, well, this sounds like an interesting project. Do I want to do it? Is it with people that I love? Is it in a space that says something? Will I make an impact? Can I inspire?’ ” Hill said. “It’s about trying to see exactly how I can make my footprint as wide as possible with my legacy and with my own journey as an individual.” 

Ilana’s transitional state also involves her artistry. She is a master origamist, folding paper with astounding precision, but her personal life is falling apart around her, rendering her creatively trapped. 

As a brilliant artist at the top of her field, Ilana strives for perfection, but finds herself embroiled in chaos, coping with a divorce and the loss of her dog. Andy, a high school teacher who adores Ilana’s work, and his student Suresh, a teenager struggling to handle the loss of his mother, enter Ilana’s life. The play, by Rajiv Joseph, examines the relationships of hurting and healing that ensue between the characters and continues its CTC run at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5 in Bratton Theater.

Hill finds Animals Out of Paper to be an inspiring and impactful project. She said that director Lamar Perry trusts his designers and creates a truly collaborative space. Perry cast Ilana as a Black woman for the first time ever in the play’s history, a choice that Hill said adds another layer to the story. 

“It’s powerful watching this woman own the space and make mistakes and be unapologetic about that, and give herself grace that a lot of times we don’t really give ourselves,” Hill said. “Especially if we become, not a master at something, there’s expectations to be unbreakable.”

Hill strives to combat her own perfectionistic tendencies. She was a design fellow with CTC in 2015 and sees her return as a full-circle moment. During the fellowship, she learned to discipline her impulses and trust her instincts. The experience aligned with Hill’s learning style — she needs to be submerged in a brisk, thorough and hands-on environment.

“You’re thrown into this really intense summer course on how to assist and design, so you don’t really have time to get it right,” Hill said, “especially if you consider yourself a perfectionist as an artisan. You have to just say, ‘This is the right decision, and I’m convinced that this is going to work out.’ ”

Georgia Pressley / staff photographer CTC Guest Actors Luis Vega and Leigh perform in the final dress rehearsal, in outfits created by CTC Costume Designer Dominique Hill. Animals Out of Paper continues its run at 4 p.m. today in Bratton Theater.

The aesthetics that Hill is drawn to are extreme ends of the spectrum: the crispness of minimalism, the audacity of the avant-garde, and the place where those opposites meet. Perry’s vision gels with Hill’s interest in drawing opposing elements together.

“From the jump, Lamar was like, ‘I want Ilana to be beautiful on stage,’ ” Hill said. “ ‘I want her to radiate. I want her to be an Olivia Pope version of messy.’ So it’s not really messy, right? It’s, like, decadent messy.”

Ilana’s costumes blend decadent allure, sumptuous silks in fluid motion, with sharp angles in a nod to both her perfectionism and her art form. Hill wanted to materialize Ilana’s emotional journey in her clothes, folding and unfolding captured in fabric. 

“I love playing with the eyes,” Hill said. “So in every show that I work on, something is off-kilter, and it might not be super-noticeable, but it’s always there to combat my own notion of perfection.”

While Ilana, in striving to mend the pieces of her life, exudes frantic energy, Andy is very still. He watches his surroundings from afar, and holds them at a distance in his struggle to connect. To Hill, he represents aged wood, and his clothing color palette reflects that. Meanwhile, Suresh is simultaneously youthful and bereaved.

“Suresh is younger, so he has bursts of energy,” Hill said. “But his energy is coming from a place of healing, so his color palette looks a little bit more muted.”

Hill described the space of the play as transfixing and nourishing.

“As soon as you step in, the space is completely transformed,” Hill said. “Everything, all the design elements and the direction, is just like one giant pot of that soup that makes you feel really good when you’re under the weather.”

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The author Ellen E. Mintzer

Ellen E. Mintzer is the theater beat reporter for The Chautauquan Daily this summer. She recently earned her Master of Arts in arts journalism and communications from Syracuse University. As a freelance arts and culture journalist, she’s written reviews and features about theater, opera, dance, film and more. Ellen loves weird niche comedy, psychological horror and provocative contemporary theater. (A Strange Loop is the best work of art she saw this year.) She is absolutely thrilled to be spending her summer in Chautauqua and covering its theatrical offerings and beyond.