By Jillian McGehee | Photography by Dero Sanford | Sketches by Rafael Castanera
If you attended Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s recent production of “The Little Mermaid” – or any show – you no doubt applaud the artistry of the costumes; designed and created under the watchful eye of Rafael Castanera. The claws for the musical’s character, Sebastian (a crab), were not a first for Rafael. “My claim to fame is that scene from ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ where Rupert Everett sings ‘I Say a Little Prayer for You.’ I created those lobster claws that the waiters are wearing. I knew they would come in handy someday!”
Rafael moved to Little Rock 15 years ago as the production manager at The Rep. Since then, his costumes continue to bring characters to life on the stage with mystic and grandeur. Before making Little Rock his home, he lived in New York City, managing a costume design and fabrication shop and later as a freelance project coordinator. He worked with prominent businesses such as Victoria’s Secret and Ralph Lauren Polo and built the famous angel wings associated with the women’s store. He even created a prototype with step-by-step instructions for individual stores to create the wings. “So, if you want a pair of angel wings, just call me,” he adds.
Honoring its 40th anniversary season,The Rep’s signature fundraiser Saints & Sinners celebrates the milestone with a birthday party of sorts. Rafael, of course, leads the design team for the event, which showcases a live show specially arranged for the evening. Proceeds support bigger and bolder seasons for The Rep. “Going with the birthday theme, I thought elegance,” he says, noting, “and what’s more elegant than black and white?” He says this year’s show features some new attractions and illusions. “We’re in the business of make-believe so it only makes sense that we create that magic for our biggest fundraiser of the year.”
Rafael has been interested in creating “magic” since he was a teenager. At age 16, he was directing his own productions, and he started designing the costumes for these productions because he couldn’t find someone as passionate as he was about the process. His mom would sew the costumes.
In New York, Rafael says he felt his work was taking him away from theatre. “I was doing really great stuff and it was very lucrative, but this job came up and it was the right time for me to try something new,” he says. “Bob Hupp and Mike McCurdy were willing to take the chance on someone who could do the job, but who hadn’t had the title before. It was my opportunity to take a chance on myself. I expected to be here two years, and here I am 15 seasons later.”
IN THE LIMELIGHT:
To your New York friends: “At The Rep, our quality is outstanding. We can rival what’s happening off-Broadway, or even on Broadway. There’s an intimacy to our space that is very alluring.”
A most remarkable costume design: “The world premiere of ‘Treasure Island’ was so artistically fulfilling. To work with a Broadway designer and not feel intimated – but to feel respected – was incredible.”
Philosophy to live by: “Today is a new day to get it right.”