I am very excited to introduce Lydia Tanji, a costume designer for theater, film, and dance. She holds an MFA in Textile Arts and Performance Art from Lone Mountain College, now the University of San Francisco, and has designed for some of the nation’s most highly respected theaters including Berkeley Repertory Theatre, ACT, the Public Theater, Mark Taper Forum, and Guthrie Theater. Her costumes have also made it to the screen and have defined seminal Asian American films including The Joy Luck Club, Hot Summer Winds, DimSum, Thousand Pieces of Gold, and Life Tastes Good. Tanji is now pivoting in another direction and is currently producing a documentary ‘Trashed The Lost World of May’s Photo Studio’ a fascinating look at the photography of Leo and Isabella May Chan Lee who owned and operated a San Francisco’s Chinatown photo studio that documented the Bay Area’s Chinese American community.
- Describe a challenge that you face as a costume designer.
My current challenge is AGE and finding a second career. For 38 years, I’ve been a costume designer in theater, film, dance, performance pieces, and a stylist on commercials, industrials, and photo shoots. Now at 65, I need to segue into a second career – what that will be is an ongoing search.
2.What is your current focus?
I’ve also been producing a documentary ‘Trashed: The Lost World of May’s Photo Studio’, which is taking an inordinately long time because I’ve been putting my own money into making it. A breakthrough came when Emiko Omori agreed to direct, and Gayle Yamada came on board to executive produce. [Wylie Wong is content consultant] We now have a trailer and a website: www.trashedsf.com. There has never been a documentary on Chinese American photographers, and/or Cantonese opera in America. The photographs by May’s Studio are simply beautiful. Similar to James Van Der Zee’s photographs of the Harlem Renaissance, the May’s photographs are also important historically, and show the political, socio-economic, and cultural aspects of an immigrant population becoming American. With the current threats on immigration and deportation, our documentary is even more timely.
3.How did you decide to focus your design skills on costumes?
I’ve always loved costumes/clothing – as ways to express oneself – identity, culture, and social status. Costumes function as environments for the body and to protect the body from the outside elements/environment. The anthropological angle of ethnic textiles is particularly fascinating.
4.Any opinions on money matters and your work choices?
Yes, money is hard to come by in the costume design field, unless you’re in the top 10%. Film pays well, but there’s less time to prep, longer hours, and more stress. It’s more of a business, with more politics, egos, and tantrums to deal with. I prefer working in theater, but the fee is a fraction of what film, commercials, or industrials will pay. There’s more time to research, to collaborate with the director and other designers, and to enjoy the process of creating magic on stage, which is ephemeral.
5.Describe any environmental health concerns you might have.
Environmental/health issues are evolving in the theater scene. We still have to work with toxic sprays and dyes, but now the bigger theaters have ventilated spray booths, masks and gloves.