Costume Designer Melissa Simon-Hartman Talks … Once On This Island

Once On This Island opens Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s summer season.

Adapted from the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Trinidadian-American author Rosa Guy, award-winning musical Once On This Island has a cast including Gabrielle Brooks (Get Up Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical) and Olivier nominated actor, Lejaun Sheppherd (Come From Away). The story directed by the multi-award winning Ola Ince (Tina – The Tina Turner Musical), and described as one of ‘love, grief, faith and hope‘ follows peasant girl Ti Moune, a boy called Daniel, and a union that prejudice forbids. Set under the heat of the Caribbean sun and destruction of tropical storms, Ti Moune is forced to the wager with the Gods, to prove that love is more powerful than death.

We spoke to costume designer Melissa Simon-Hartman …

Please introduce yourself …

My name is Melissa Simon-Hartman and I am the costume designer for Once On This Island. I am originally from North West London born to Trinidadian and Ghanaian parents. 

Why Once On This Island?

When I saw the request come through from director Ola Ince I immediately knew it was something that I had to do.  The production is based on the book My Love, my love or, The Peasant Girl which is a beautiful novel by Trinidadian author Rosa Guy so the entire concept felt like home to me.

Tell us about your team …

I’ve been blessed to work with some supremely talented artists on this show, and what makes it even more special is that they are all dear friends of mine. I had the opportunity to introduce carnival design specialists into the world of theatre. Marelle Steblecki was my right-hand woman on the team, Ty McKenzie brought his wire bending and decorative skills to the table, and Barbara Nyarko the team ‘feeder’ (makes the best jollof in existence) offered invaluable overall help. To add to the mix we had over 50 years of combined theatre costume experience delivered by Chris Cahill and John Mannion on my team. 

Working with the stage space at Regent Street Open Air Theatre how do you approach the costuming, is there anything else you need to consider with it being outside?

Considerations have to be made for the unpredictable nature of British weather. Once On This Island is the first show of the Open Air Theatre’s 2023 season so the production is happening during a period when it can feel like winter one day and present signs of being in spring the next. You have to think beyond aesthetics and be intentional with fabric choices and finishes to withstand rain and unwelcome gale wind.

What does the story of Once On This Island mean to you personally?

It means another opportunity to creatively revive a much-loved story from my heritage to a new audience. The story itself raises uncomfortable discussions of colourism, and classism and although not new is still relevant today. 


Ensemble at Hotel Beauxhommes – Image Credit – Marc Brenner

Tell us about a challenging moment during this project that you had to dig deep to get through it?

Big costume moments being cut is always a challenge to process and accept as a designer due to knowing the level of work and time that goes into creating the pieces. However, part of the job is to prepare for change and experience a few heartbreaks for the sake of dramaturgy.

What best defines what you love about this project?

Waiting for Life is my favourite scene. I love the overall raw aesthetic of it and Asaka is one of my favourite characters. The Asaka costume embodies the true personality of actress Anelisa as well as the character she is playing. She was perfectly cast for this role.

Considering your career evolution, where does this project sit on your checklist?

I am still growing and slowly building a presence in Theatre. This is my second UK theatre production and sits highly on my creative checklist as I have always wanted to design for a musical. I am praying for the opportunity to work on an elaborate operatic production next as the fantastical world of opera intrigues me. 

What’s next?

Watch this space.

How do we keep up to date with you and your work?

The best place for updates is on Instagram @melissasimonhartman

Once On This Island runs until 10th June @ Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre


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