Scary cuts are killing creativity in UK arts, says Oscar multiplier

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Oscar-winning English costume designer Sandy Powell, who will make film history this month when she accepts a prestigious Bafta fellowship, is “horrified” by the lack of experimental live productions being staged in Britain, she says.

Powell is one of the best talents in film, working regularly with Martin Scorsese, but now she fears that the connection between the successful theater scene and the commercial world of mass entertainment has been severed.

“It’s a desperate situation and it means we get formal forms of creativity. There’s not a lot of fringe theater work out there because old ways of funding have gone, and that’s how you’ve always learned the value of taking artistic risks,” she told Observer.

“When I was young, there were avant-garde shows in the city every week. It scares me that this happened. I don’t know what we can do. What I would say to the government is that working in the arts is a real job and, especially when times are tough, it’s the entertainment that people need,” she said.

Powell, 62, grew up in Brixton, south London, sewing outfits for her dolls and then studying at St Martin’s School of Art and Design. Early work with Derek Jarman led to collaborations with other pioneering directors, including Sally Potter, Neil Jordan, Todd Haynes and Yorgos Lanthimos, on acclaimed films such as Orlando, The crying game, Caroland The Best Manas well as Scorsese on a string of critical hits since 2002 Gangs of New York. She won the first of three Oscars for her designs for John Madden’s Shakespeare in love. The second and third statues were hers The Aviator and The Young Victoria.

With three additional Baftas to her name, Powell is the most famous and acclaimed costume designer since Edith Head, the woman whose elegant vision spearheaded Hollywood’s golden age. Powell traces her own stellar career to early experiences in fringe theatre. “Everything started with that. I was doing a lot of avant-garde and experimental design then, because there was some funding for these groups. I also do mainstream work now, but I keep up with that side of things to keep a balance. I like to take the risky projects.”

She quotes a telling quip from Scorsese, who often says he makes “big budget, art films”: “There’s a lot of theater in his work, and I definitely respond to that. He always knows what he wants, and is quick to respond to the options I present. I usually have a color palette in mind.”

Clothing was crucial to the scene in Scorsese’s epic drama The Irishman, where Stephen Graham’s character “disrespects” Al Pacino’s character by wearing a loud sleeved shirt and shorts, recalls Powell: “The script said he should wear shorts, so we looked at 50 types. You know when it’s right.”

Working with Haynes on Caroladapted from the 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith The Price of SaltPowell said she used “soft muted colors” to create a “sophisticated period atmosphere”.

She prides herself on diversity, unlike Head, a Paramount studio designer who, Powell suspects, “pretty much what she was told”. Instead, as a young fan of David Bowie, Powell was inspired by Lindsay Kemp, the great British dancer who worked with the singer.

“The most important thing is to adapt,” she said. “The misconception about film work is that it’s glamorous, but I’m not hanging around with actor friends. I deal with their insecurities on settlement, which is normal. They need to feel right to act, and they get nervous, just like I do. There’s always anxiety before a new project but I’m sticking to my guns.”

Powell was speaking to the Observer before the announcement that she was the first costume designer to be awarded a fellowship, a prestigious Bafta award awarded to Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean and Mike Leigh.

Bafta chief executive Jane Millichip praises Powell’s storytelling gift as much as her design skills: “Her costumes are disturbing in their beauty but they interpret the story brilliantly and provide the infrastructure for characters. For over thirty years, Sandy has raised awareness of the craft of costume design in film and provided a spotlight for designers in filmmaking.”

Given the current limited opportunities in fringe theatre, Powell’s advice to all aspiring young British costume designers is to say yes to everything: “You can find your feet there and develop your own taste .”

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