Archive for June, 2012

Kat Hermes (Don Adriano de Armado) on Creating the Costume Design

One of the most common questions I get as a costumer for Pigeon Creek is why, if we are an original practices company, we don’t perform all of our plays in Renaissance dress. It is for the same reason that we don’t play Renaissance music before the show and at intermission; we aren’t seeking to exactly replicate the Early Modern London theater experience, we are emulating the performance conditions for which the play was originally written. This may seem like a fine distinction, but it is an important one. We are not historical re-enactors, and we are not trying to present the plays as living history. We are actors performing a script as the author intended it to be performed (inasmuch as we can glean the author’s intentions over the gulf of 400 years or so).

How does that translate for performing Shakespeare in jeans? Just as the musicians of Shakespeare’s company would have opened and closed the show with the popular music of the day, his actors would have performed in what was, for them, modern dress. The theater conventions of that time had no problem with anachronism, either in the text of the play or the design of the production Whether the setting was medieval Scotland or ancient Rome, Shakespeare’s company performed in doublets and hose. This allowed the audience to “read” the costumes (getting information about a character’s age, status, religion and nationality) as easily as they did the clothing they saw around them everyday. This is not to say that the actors simply wore their street clothes onstage, however. Costumes were one of the biggest expenditures of an early modern theater company, and a major source of visual spectacle in world without electric sound and lighting effects. In addition to the “base” modern costumes the actors wore, they would have added pieces to suggest character and or setting (such as togas for Roman plays).

This style of “eclectic” or “period non-specific” costuming is one that I as a designer am particularly interested in, particularly in the way that juxtaposing modern and period costumes can make the period elements of the costumes seem deconstructed and the modern elements unfinished, which seems particularly apt for a play like Love’s Labour’s Lost.

When looking for a period to work with, I knew I didn’t want to use the Renaissance, since we just used fully-realized Renaissance costumes in our spring production of Romeo and Juliet. I had to find another period in which this play would make sense. With its comedy of manners, emphasis on witty dialogue over plot, and strong commedia dell’arte influences, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a play that seems to anticipate the farcical comedies of the 18th and 19th centuries. I decided to locate the play somewhere between the 1790s and 1810s. Rather than focus on detailed historical accuracy, however, I wanted costume pieces that evoked the feel of that era while conveying character more strongly than period.

When designing for an ensemble directed production like this one, I tend to start with a general idea of the look I want for each character and then sit back and let what the actors are doing in rehearsal influence the final product I end up with. In this production, the actors quickly began to establish three distinct worlds; the formal, highly mannered world of the ladies of France, the more natural and laid-back court of the King of Navarre, and the cartoonishly physicalized world of the lower class characters, who’s comedic subplot is a distorted mirror of the main plot. So the costumes for the ladies of France are the most firmly located in the late 18th/early 19th century, the men of Navarre have one foot in and one foot out out of the period, and the lower classes have no distinct temporal location.

In addition to making sure the costumes fit into and helped establish the worlds the actors were creating, I also wanted them to help the audience keep track of sets of characters who belong together. So each of the ladies of France is dressed in the same color as her lord, the page Mote’s costume is a miniature reflection of his master Armado’s, the peasants (Costard, Jaquenetta and the Forester) all wear leather, and Nathaniel and Holofernes wear matching 18th century-style wigs.

Finally, there is the part of costume design that I have the most fun with: using the costumes to illuminate themes and motifs in the text, all those literary ideas that are fun to discuss in English class but difficult to play as an actor in a production. I won’t give away all of my subliminal costume messages in this blog, I’ll give you one hint to think about when you come and see the production: I used color to link characters who are thematically connected as well as those connected by plot.

Zachary Johnson (Costard) on his experiences “playing the fool.”

I have never played a fool, let alone a natural fool. As a beginning actor, I sometimes have trouble connecting with and fully understanding roles. I have never blamed directors for challenging me with priests and the like, but I would like now to thank Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company for giving me a role that I totally get! Well, not quite yet. I’m close, though. I’ll get him totally by the time we open, I promise.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m having a ton of fun playing Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Almost too much fun. Alright, I admit it; I’ve adopted some of his qualities into my everyday personality. I describe Costard as a lovably vulgar, idiotic, hobo-clown. As one might infer, the adoption of such qualities can be taxing on my personal life. However, I still do it (Hah! I wrote “do it”) for the craft.

Costard, the Forester and Constable Anthony Dull bring the completely uneducated man’s perspective to the play. Costard, comically, understands about half the words in any given conversation. This complicates things, because Costard always manages to confidently toss in his own halfpenny farthing’s worth back into the conversations, no matter which body part he mistakes any given word to mean.

This is my third Shakespeare show, and the second I have done with Pigeon Creek. What amazes me is the amount that I have learned with each new character. From acting with thrust staging to learning to play the concertina, I’ve learned much more than I had ever expected to doing Shakespeare. I’m not done, though. Do you know how many characters Bill’s got? I plan to actually obtain that information, but I’m going to do it Costard’s way: one thing at a time. For now, I’ve got to focus on having a broken shin, getting paid by two yahoos who won’t speak plain English, and learning how to play a tiny accordion for a country wench. Come watch Love’s Labour’s Lost!

Brooke Heintz (Maria / Jaquenetta) on the acting challenges of doubling.

One of the unique experiences offered by Pigeon Creek is the opportunity to work with the original practice of doubling, which presents the exciting challenge of creating characters who are visually and vocally distinct. After all, simply changing costume isn’t enough. Sometimes a character can change their costume in the process of the play (whether from day to day, scene to scene, or to go into disguise). In order to make certain that the audience can follow along with the plot and enjoy each unique character, it falls to the actor to put in a lot of work!

In this production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, I play only two distinct roles: but in terms of characterization, they are about as black and white as they come. The groundwork of creating opposing character types lies in finding their points of difference, and with Maria (the high-born friend of the Princess of France) and Jaquenetta (the wanton country milkmaid), some of those points are obvious right off the bat. The fun (and work) comes in translating the differences between someone of high status and low, someone of modest breeding and sexual liberty, into physical mannerisms that can be replicated scene to scene, night to night.

Posture is where I tend to start. This connects to the idea of using “body centers” in order to adjust your carriage almost subconsciously, as well as to alter where your character ‘leads’ from both physically and in terms of presence. Maria leads with her shoulders and upper chest – not in terms of sticking her breasts out (which is really more of a Jaquenetta trait… ) but a strong upper spine and confident shoulder frame to elevate a proper head. I decided on a shoulder center, because of Maria’s pride in lineage, in her connection to the princess, and her desire to emotionally be available to the Princess as well. Just thinking about using this as a center adjusts the way I stand, walk, sit, etc… (especially when contrasted to using a lower body center for Jaquenetta.)

With Jaquenetta, I focus on the hips, not only because her character is so grounded in her sexual confidence, but also as a connection to her womb, because of the implication that she’s pregnant during her scenes (whether she knows it or not). With Jaquenetta, I can adopt more of a fluidity of movement, free to adopt ’saucier’ postures without being so caught up in appearing proper or prim, and also because the character simply has not been trained to move or stand with any particular carriage.

Vocal distinctions are also a huge physical clue to the audience that you’re dealing with a very different character, and it’s something that’s personally a really large challenge for me. Adopting accents or modifying the voice can be a frustrating exercise in my experience because of my difficulty in keeping them consistent. To combat this, I end up having to focus on details of the vocal distinctions and work upwards from there. Step by step. It takes me a lot of work drilling these vocal changes. I tend to work with levels of enunciating, using different registers (higher or lower), working with specific vowel or consonant sounds, and dealing with the differences in characters who speak in mostly prose (Jaquenetta) versus those who incorporate meter and rhyme (Maria). All of that just to bring a character to the stage in order to start acting!

Of course, these are just top layers of working with characters on an exterior level! Playing with character relationships and interactions, as well as individual motivations and what matters to a character help shade in those distinctions too. Finding points of opposition helps me to create that split as clearly as possible, for both myself and the audience. It’s a long process, and it never ends.

This summer, PCSC has started a new means of gathering the inside scoop of our actors in their processes. In addition to the normal blog entries you read on here, there will also be a series of questions posed to our actors. Enjoy.

This week: Sarah Tryon (Katherine / Dull) and Chelsea Kaye (Mote / Mercade) are on the docket for Love’s Labour’s Lost.

*****

How do you typically go about preparing a Shakespearean character?

Sarah: I don’t really have a “typically” at this point with Shakespeare. Up until this point, I’ve only played one other Shakespearean character with more than 3 lines. What I’ve been doing is really looking to the text for clues about my character to inform me on how they speak, their relationship with the other characters, etc.

Chelsea: Reading, research and more research! I read the play over several times and do a lot of textual break-downs.

What, thus far, in rehearsal has been helpful?

Sarah: I’ve really liked the feedback I’ve gotten from the other cast mates. This is an ensemble directed production, so we all have a voice about what we think works about each other’s performances. I’ve really appreciated having a cast of very talented and experience actors to throw ideas at me. This is especially true for our workshop days (thus far we’ve had two with Katherine Mayberry, Executive Director), which have helped me become more educated about Shakespeare’s style. This is also my first time doing a show with thrust staging, so getting everyone’s assistance has been very helpful.

Chelsea: The workshops (which have consisted of thrust stage blocking, textual work, character games and all of the subtext work.) Some of my theatrical background lies in improv, so the ability to break down the complicated and witty lines that Mote has and to be able to say on the spot what he’s really thinking to Don Armado has been super helpful.

What do you like to do for fun outside of theatre?

Sarah: I like to do a lot of “boring” things like reading and running. My favorite literary genre is historical fiction. I’m also a huge horse fanatic and wish I could ride more often. I also have my tv shows. I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones on HBO and Mad Men.

Chelsea: Fun outside of theater? Blasphemy, say I! No, really, I do fill my time outside of rehearsals with many joyful activities. I just forget what those activities are right now.

What is your day job? What do you want to BE your day job?

Sarah: I’m working at the Crooked Goose in Standale as a waitress, but I’m also a full-time student at Grand Valley State University. Ideally, I’d love to be a working actor.

Chelsea: My day job is working as a program secretary for a local non-profit agency. What do I want to be my day job? Oh boy… I can’t think of anything real specific, though being a masked crime-fighter/vigilante sounds pretty cool. Maybe the official banana peeler for the Chiquita Banana lady? Host of Whose Line Is It Anyway in Italy? Professional Cyclist and Guacamole Maker? These all sound good to me.

What do you plan to do after this show?

Sarah: After this show, I’ll be working a lot and taking summer classes before heading into my senior year at Grand Valley. I’ll also be part of the Grand Valley Shakespeare Festival’s touring production, Bard to Go.

Chelsea: Give thanks to God for this wonderful experience and pray that He provides another! I’ll probably continue my adventures in cooking, camping, reading, script writing, sleeping, volunteering at church, and playing with my house-bunny, Bam Bam. Oh, I remembered my outside activities!