‘On Broadway’: La Jolla Historical Society exhibit salutes costume designer Judith Dolan


Judith Dolan is the innovative mind behind the theatrical costumes created for early 1900s English women and Italian free spirits in “A Room with a View,” Victorian circuses in “Candide,” and the fashion evolution from the 1920s to the 1950s and eccentric wedding dresses in “Lovemusik.”

To provide a rare behind-the-scenes look at the process of costume design, the latest La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) exhibition will shine the spotlight on Dolan, a UC San Diego theater and dance professor of 20 years and a Tony Award-winner, calling it “Judith Dolan: On Broadway.”

It will be on view with free admission, Sept. 23 to Jan. 21, 2018 at La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage. The show features Dolan’s collages and sketches from nine productions (and maybe an actual costume or two), as well as a historical retrospective on performing arts in La Jolla.

The productions under Dolan’s belt include: “Candide” (1997 Broadway, 1982 and 2017 on NYC Opera), “Fool” (2017 Houston), “Lovemusik” (2007 Broadway), “Macbeth” (1993 Houston), “Parade” (1998 Broadway), “Paradise Found” (2010 London), “A Room with a View” (2012 Old Globe Theatre), “Travesties” (2003 Massachusetts, 2005 Connecticut, 2014 New York) and “The Winter’s Tale” (2014 The Old Globe Theatre).

“She has been one of these behind-the-scene type artists, working in La Jolla doing very high level work,” said LJHS executive director Heath Fox. “Her creative process works like this: When she gets a play assignment, she starts with historical resources and develops collages and ideas, and then she does her own hand-drawings and sketches. We hope that this exhibit will be of interest to people who are regular audiences of the performing arts in San Diego. It’s a look into theater that many people don’t get a chance to see.”

Of her creative process, Dolan told La Jolla Light: “I always feel the job of a designer is to visualize the text and tell a story without words. But I work very directly from the plays. I express my ideas through collage, so if an image pops into my head or is found in my research — even if I can’t explain it — I’ll arrange it in a composition. I try to bring out the music of the text. All plays have a musicality to them.”

A collage that inspired costumes for the comedy, ‘Travesties’ (Courtesy)
(C2013 Philipp Scholz Ritterman /)

When it comes to historical research, Dolan said some costumes are “more straightforward” than others because they come from actual periods of time and places, others use historical entities and combine them in unique ways.

Dolan designed costumes for three different productions of “Candide” in three different decades (1982, 1997 and 2017), and she won a Tony Award for her 1997 work. “At the exhibit, you’ll see my renderings from the different years and, for the first time, from this year, which have been redesigned. Costumes are never stable. They have to adapt to time, culture and audience,” she said.

Sketches and images from “Macbeth” were included, Dolan said, because the production was “so outside the box” and produced at a little theater in Texas. “You’re not always allowed to go that far with costume design, but when you get to work with a small, edgy theater, I enjoy exercising those off-the-wall muscles,” she said. “What is shown (in this exhibit) is beautiful and interesting, and there are a lot of different productions, so there is something for everyone.”

She added that she’s “excited” and “humbled” by the exhibit and believes the arrangement has “an elegance to it.”

Judith Dolan (Courtesy)

Prior to his time at the Historical Society, Fox was assistant dean of arts & humanities at UC San Diego. In that role, he worked with Dolan on the dean’s staff. “When I started here, I knew of her work and I saw in that, the potential for a very interesting exhibition, and it’s certainly shaping up to be that,” he said.

Accompanying the Dolan work is a look at the evolution of performing arts in La Jolla, dating back as far as the 1890s, using information and images from LJHS archives.

“Before World War I, local citizens formed their own theater groups and put on plays and brought in musical performances. Then, of course, there were organizations that developed. Many did not last long, but some evolved into the entities we know in La Jolla today, including La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Music Society, and La Jolla Symphony & Chorus,” Fox said. “There is a long history of performing arts in this community.”

IF YOU GO: “Judith Dolan: On Broadway” opens with a reception for members of the La Jolla Historical Society and guests, 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 22, which Dolan will attend. The exhibit will be on display Sept. 23-Jan. 21, 2018 at Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St. Hours: noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. Free admission. (858) 459-5335.