August 10, 2018 at 12:10 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Long-time N.Y. costume designer returns to native Pittsburgh
Robert Perdziola, gay news, Washington Blade

Robert Perdziola has returned to his native Pittsburgh despite not feeling he fit in there as a child. (Photo by Rosalie O’Conner; used with permission)

Aug. 14-Sept. 23
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington

After 33 years in New York City, out costume designer Robert Perdziola and his longtime partner packed up and moved to Perdziola’s native Pittsburgh.

“We left a two-bedroom co-op in Chelsea and now live in a 1906 Tudor revival home with seven fireplaces,” he says. “We found the house by accident and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I really enjoy mopping the floors and polishing the wood.”

Despite a fondness for hearth and home, Perdziola is often on the road, either designing costume and sets for the American Ballet Theatre in New York or working on operas in Europe. He also spends significant time here in Washington designing costumes for theater. Over the years, he’s won three Helen Hayes Awards for costume design and dressed stars like Dixie Carter and Elizabeth Ashley for Shakespeare Theatre Company productions. More recently he put D.C.’s Holly Twyford in a stunning scarlet gown for her memorable turn as Desiree Armfeldt in Signature Theatre’s “A Little Night Music.”

Perdziola, 57, is back in D.C. this summer designing costumes for Signature’s upcoming production of “Passion,” the Tony Award-winning one-act musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. Based on Ettore Scola’s film “Passione d’Amore” (adapted from the novel “Fosca” by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti), the 1860s Italy-set story revolves around handsome soldier Giorgio’s intense relationship with his colonel’s cousin, the homely, ill-yet-emotionally voracious, Fosca.

Natascia Diaz, who is starring as Fosca opposite Claybourne Elder’s Giorgio, says “(Perdziola) is divinely sensitive and astute. He’s very attuned to the person wearing his idea of what they should wear. While he gives a nod to the period, the clothes are not tethered to an uber realistic rendition. The production has a dreamlike quality. I wear two gowns through the show, it’s not a runway show. He keeps them as representational as possible while focusing on the forces at play in the story.”

WASHINGTON BLADE: You have a longtime working relationship with D.C. theater. Has it been gratifying?

PERDZIOLA: Yes, I love working here. Washington is loaded with type A people and they love to listen. It’s a smart audience and they pay attention. When a play is a big hit in Washington, you can still get tickets whereas a hit musical in New York is always sold out. In a town like D.C., I feel like the spoken word is more valued.

BLADE: Are you typically asked to design for a certain type of show?

PERDZIOLA: Yes. I haven’t done much of what’s considered modern. It doesn’t interest me that much. Not to say that I’m not in touch with the present. I’m very much in touch with the present. But when I can do things through a past prism, it’s more interesting to me. Many costume designers simply have a better knack for the present day and they do it super well. Those jobs aren’t offered to me usually. However, if I’m offered to do anything by Sondheim, I’ll probably do it. I love the music and the lyrics that much. I did my first Sondheim at Signature Theatre, “Follies,” and followed with “Into the Woods,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and “A Little Night Music.”

BLADE:  When did you first aspire to be a costume designer?

PERDZIOLA: I began drawing clothes as a child. But I grew up in Pittsburgh, a very blue-collar town loaded with sports, and I was very out of place. What I did was not something that little boys did. By the time I entered elementary and high school, I tried to bury the costume interest. In college things became different. I was part of a drama program and I was liberated. Later I went to New York and was even more liberated. When I applied to both Carnegie Mellon University’s art program and drama program, the drama program accepted me immediately. The fine arts program accepted me too, but they looked at my portfolio of Barbra Streisand and Liza Minelli portraits and said I needed to get in touch with reality. They suggested I draw my family. So that was the end of that. I entered the drama program.

BLADE: Any shows you’d like to do but haven’t yet?

PERDZIOLA: I really wanted to do “Gigi” at Signature. But it was promised to someone else.

BLADE: Beyond talent, what’s the secret to your great success? Energy?

PERDZIOLA: I take my work very personally. Sometimes it gets to me and I need to pull back and go running and work out my frustration. I’m a stickler for doing it right. Maybe that’s what brings me back to it. You do something and complete it, and then you think perhaps that wasn’t exact enough so you’re willing to enter the arena again and make the best thing you’ve ever done. Maybe it’s that sort of drive rather than just energy. These days, I know what I can handle. I can’t work past nine at night any more. I need to go home and see my dog and my partner. And cook. I must do the things that make me content.

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