Court Watson grew up in Chesapeake and studied acting with the Hurrah Players. In college Court studied scene design and costume design and graduated with a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA from New York University. Court founded his own company, Sehnsucht, Inc., in 2012 and has designed over fifty productions. He’s also a painter, and his works are full of transformative color and motion.
Now Court is back in town as set and costume designer for Virginia Opera’s upcoming production of Samson and Delilah. During our hour-long interview, Court impressed me as a young man who has reached the pinnacle of success but continually credits and praises the colleagues and mentors who’ve helped him succeed.
TW: Tell us what you do as a designer.
Court: We’re there to support the director’s vision and the performers’ storytelling. Everything we do is to keep the audience in the moment during the performance. It’s a bigger undertaking than people realize. I design the big picture, and then I partner with twenty crafts people and artists that make what’s actually going to be on stage. At the end of the day, the audience doesn’t see what my hand touched. They just see what I inspired this great team of really talented people to do.
TW: Do you consider elements of the performers’ personalities when developing their costumes?
Court: Absolutely. For Katharine Goeldner [who plays Delilah] I hope I picked her favorite color for her first dress. She has these fantastic publicity photos, and that impacted what the color of her first dress was going to be.
TW: What was it like working with costume designer William Ivey Long at North Carolina’s outdoor drama, The Lost Colony?
Court: My job the first summer was painting Native American backsides and scrubbing the toilets to get the makeup off. William grew up in North Carolina and has a connection with the Lost Colony, going back to the 1950s, and he designed the first Broadway show I ever saw. In this industry, our heroes are real people: living, breathing human beings with working studios in NYC. I share a studio with the genius Ann Hould-Ward. Every day going to work is an inspiration. There’s very much a mentoring relationship in this business, which goes back 100 years.
TW: What’s your favorite thing to do in your free time?
Court: I consider myself an artist, and you can’t turn that off. It’s a thunderstorm in your head. Everything in your life influences what your art is, and I draw and paint a lot in my spare time.
TW: What drew you to this profession?
Court: There’s this strange contract that the audience enters into when they walk into the theatre. They’re agreeing to participate in this artificial universe, and that always struck me as a kid. I felt like an outsider growing up at Western Branch, I was a bullied kid, and I found a community of people in the theatre that were open minded and supportive of me when I was nine years old and figuring out what all that was.
TW: You mentioned you were surprised your peers at VCU hadn’t seen as much theatre as you had.
Court: There’s a legitimate arts district in Norfolk. Someone from somewhere else—they don’t have all of that. I was exposed to so much that my peers weren’t, and I took it for granted. At the Governor School, I learned how to build a scale model and do costume sketches by the time I was 18.
TW: What inspired the name of your company?
Court: Sehnsucht [Zane zookt]. It means the search for sense, longing, yearning, or aspiration. It’s in nearly every German musical and opera. It’s a word pregnant with meaning. In musical theatre we say that there’s an “I Want” song. It’s where the leading man or lady tells you what they’re looking for in life, what their dream is, and sehnsucht sums all of that up in one very simple word.
TW: What’s the most challenging show you’ve done?
Court: I designed a production of The Sound of Music in Salzburg, where the story happened. There were people in the audience that know [the Von Trapps]. I wasn’t there in the 30s, and I can’t say what it was like when the Nazis invaded, but there were people in the audience who did. At opening night I gave Johannes von Trapp a backstage tour. He grabbed my hand and said no one had ever gotten it this right before, and that felt good. Six years later the show is still running there.
TW: If you could choose any story to design what would it be?
Court: I love Wagner and Mozart. I’d love a crack at Les Miserables, something that’s that iconic. When you close your eyes and you know what the original production looked like, having that ability to crack that nut in a different way in a different time for a different audience is an exciting opportunity.
Lisa Bowditch graduated from Old Dominion University with a Master’s in literature. Currently she teaches middle-school students with disabilities in Newport News. She likes hiking in isolated places and helping out at her family’s business, The Hornsby House Inn in Yorktown.