A Conversation with Valérie Thérèse Bart, Costume Designer of "Poor Yella Rednecks"

Beth Fhaner
 | Mar 11, 2019
Valerie Bart

​Costume Designer Valérie Thérèse Bart.

Huong Costume Rendering

​Bart's costume rendering for the character of Huong.

Playwright Costume Design

​Bart's costume rendering for the Playwright.

Quang Costume Rendering

​Bart's costume rendering for the character of Quang.

Tong Costume Rendering

​Bart's costume rendering for the character of Tong.

Born in France to Vietnamese refugee parents, Valérie Thérèse Bart’s family eventually made their way to the U.S. in the 1990s. For Bart, costume designer for the world premiere of Qui Nguyen's Poor Yella Rednecks, the play’s immigrant story has allowed her to feel a deeply personal connection to the material. Because Bart comes from a multi-ethic/multicultural background and sees the world as such, she aims to create work that is collaborative and truly diverse.

Bart’s initial experiences with live theatre involved working at the costume shop of a community college. Later, armed with a BA in ​theatre ​arts from UCLA and a MFA in design from Yale University, School of Drama, Bart’s work on costume/scenic design has been showcased at various theatres around the country. In our Q&A, learn more about Bart and her all-inclusive way of telling stories.

What was your design inspiration for the Poor Yella Rednecks costumes?

My family went through what playwright Qui Nguyen’s family went through with some slight variations. So I was able to turn to family photographs, interview my mother and a couple aunts for their perspective to get very realistic, first-hand research. It was such a fascinating exercise, in deep diving into my own culture—to learn new things and discover details about these pictures that I have been looking at my whole life.

Additionally, because Poor Yella Rednecks explores Vietnamese identity in a very American landscape, I also used a lot of American pop culture and fashion images to round out my research.

What are the best parts and the biggest challenges​ about working on this show?

The best part has been to feel a very deep and personal connection to this project and have my family actually relate to work I’m doing. I come from a very non-artistic family and the fact that they are just as ecstatic as I am and that the show is happening so close to them, makes for a very sweet homecoming to Orange County.

There are a few challenges—all the actors are wearing body mics, which makes costume quick changes and wearing hats​ and wigs an extra element to watch for​—there are over 50 looks in the show, all worn between five actors, so backstage will be a constant marathon.

What inspired you to delve into a career of costume design?

There are many things I was interested in growing up that have paved the way to costume design—I grew up reading comic books and watching cartoons and anime and would draw and doodle everything I saw. At one point, I wanted to be a comic book artist. I’ve also always loved music and movement and I believe had things been different for our family, I might’ve been a professional dancer.

I set out to study fashion design because I wanted the ability to create and express outwardly. That eventually led me to working as a technician at the costume shop at my community college as a survival job and discovering theatre for the first time. I instantly loved it because it combined all the things I love about the arts—movement, sound and the ability to tell a story visually.

What are some of your favorite productions that you’ve designed costumes for?

I was fortunate enough to have designed Denver Center’s Vietgone production last fall. It was my first experience with delving into my own culture and heritage and it was an incredible journey to make with the creative team, cast and crew. A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Actors Theater of Louisville was another recent favorite production. It’s a really great analysis on the complex layers of feminism and what it means to be a woman of that period in conjunction with our modern times.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in their career?

Be ambitious and resilient. Go for the things you want and set goals, but know that the journey there will often trip you up and knock you down, so learn to get up and keep trying. It’s not enough to have talent; one must have marketing knowledge and people skills. In order for people to hire you, they need to know about your experience, so you have to tell them that you exist and get your name out there. Socialize, shake hands and meet people as much as you can, even if you are a shy introvert, which many people in theatre will admit they are. Theatre is a very small world and it’s often about connections. But these connections can turn into very meaningful collaborations and friendships, which result in some great productions that look and feel like a cohesive world.

Tell us about your long association with SCR.

My very first professional regional job out of community college was as a stitcher ​in SCR's Costume Shop for Much Ado About Nothing many years ago. I must’ve done a good job because I kept getting hired back and eventually worked my way up to first-hand, crafts assistance and head of crafts on a project-by-project basis.

I went off to earn my BA in theatre from UCLA, came back and worked up the courage to notify ​Costume ​Shop ​Manager Amy Hutto that what I really wanted to do was design and that she should hire me as an assistant to gain experience. Eventually, she gave me opportunities to assist designers such as Angela Balogh Calin, Alex Jaeger and Ilona Somogyi. Ilona planted the seed of graduate school and, when I received the ​call that I had gotten into the Yale School of Drama, I was here ​in the ​Costume Shop.

So, SCR had been with me from the very beginning and saw me through many milestones up to the point when I relocated back East. Walking through the old corridors and rooms brings back many warm memories and I’m grateful to the few people in the Costume Shop who had been there and believed in me—Amy Hutto, Laurie Donati, Catherine Esera and Erik Laurence.

Learn more about Poor Yella Rednecks and buy tickets.