“America’s Got Talent”

August 5, 2016

Anna Wyckoff

Imagine you have two brains, four hands, and enough positivity to coax the shyest vocalist from any town USA into a costume that she doesn’t quite think she can handle. This is any Monday for Costume Designers Daniela Gschwendtner and Steven Lee. The dynamic duo garnered an Emmy nom this year for their rhinestone studded efforts on Dancing with the Stars, and still manage to design America’s Got Talent like it was their only gig. Gschwendtner and Lee’s work partnership has outlasted many a marriage, and their nearly twenty-year friendship is a lifetime in Hollywood years. The charming pair completes each other’s sentences and attributes their success to a strong work ethic coupled with good energy and a sense of fun. They feel that together, they can tackle anything.

America’s Got Talent is an epic show whose contestants hail from all over the country. Each week Gschwendtner and Lee dress twelve acts ranging from magicians to contortionists, circus acts to dance groups—unpredictability is the only certainty. “We had one act which was a hundred choir kids,” says Lee. Gschwendtner adds, “Even with solo artists, there are always dancers and musicians behind them. This week, the singer had 20 accompanying artists. The producers always want to fill the stage.”

The producers have a concept for each contestant, and want to give them a professional polish. The pair has about 4 days of prep to transform homespun acts into refined looking performers who would be at home in Vegas or on a large stage. The concepts are complex. A series of sword swallowers were treated with a 1950s theme, and knife throwers were recently given a Game of Thrones/Huntsman vibe. “It’s all interesting,” says Gschwendtner. Lee elaborates, “It is half shopped, half built, then it has to be fireproofed. Acts come with an entourage of well-wishing family and friends, who all have an opinion.” Gschwendtner and Lee concede that negotiation and diplomacy are almost as important as the design. “They are just not used to it,” Lee says, “It is a full audition of America, so you get people who are not used to being produced. They are so used to just saying, ‘I’m just a singer at a local bar.’ Certain stories are touching. They may not have a lot of funds, and we can say, “We are producing you, we are branding you. You have to have this look to stand out from other genres, you are actually becoming a certain character. What image do you want America to see you as?” Gschwendtner adds, “We want to make sure they are comfortable and confident to perform in the costumes, but also we need to push them to the level that production wants to reach.”

Covering all body types and all genres, Gschwendtner and Lee agree, “The trickiest ones are the magicians. You feel responsible if they can’t do their tricks, because all these things fit into their costumes…you don’t want to mess up their act.” “But sometimes they have never done the trick before,” adds Gschwendtner. “Then we feel like the magicians,” quips Lee.

America’s Got Talent airs Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8/7central on NBC.


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