Sunday, February 10, 2013

A blizzard, a business, a blouse and a Barbie

The show must go on, despite the fact that Blizzard Nemo has just dropped over a foot of snow on the city and our urban streets look like furniture in storage, draped in white. While the Rochesterians that I know romp, shovel, sled and huddle by fireplaces playing Uno, the cast and crew at Geva continue on. The brick building on Woodbury Blvd. is misleading in its size; there’s a ton of stuff going on in there. Two plays are currently in performance, which means Tues through Sun, 8 performances a week, the staff and crew are up and running. Theatre people better not be morning people, as the action is definitely in the PM hours for them. The Book Club Play, which I affectionately refer to as “my” play, is in rehearsal on the second floor. And that’s not all. I happen to know that the Comedy Improv folks are gearing up for a performance, and there’s an upcoming staged Play Reading in the works too. People are busy here!

I have become curious as to who is Geva Theatre Center, because the more I learn about it, the more I see its multiple functions. On the one hand, it is basically just like any company, made up of people, who work in several departments. Most of them work behind the scenes or behind computers, like in any company. The Geva website breaks down the business into six departments: Administrative, Finance, Marketing, Development, Artistic, and Production, not to mention the Board of Trustees with over 30 members. The first four departments sound like pretty basic business. Except at closer inspection, some unique job titles appear.

There is a House Services team, which handles the Front of House. For us simpletons, that means the ushers, lobby, and whatnot. Hmmm, I just might have to find out what Front of House encompasses, because it occurs to me that when I go to Geva, I spend my Front of House time in the Café with wine that I even get to bring to my seat. That is a bit more than making sure you have enough ushers for the evening. The Marketing Team, which also sounds pretty standard, includes a Box Office staff of seven. That number surprises me, so I’m guessing they do more than field my call exchanging a Subscriber ticket when my kid falls sick.  The staff listings from there get more artsy-fartsy. The Artistic Staff is broken down into Education, Literary and Associate Artists. Still somewhat familiar territory for me, as a person with a background in teaching kids, book publishing, and the serious work of play. Then I see listed the Comedy Improv Team, set off from the other artists. Why they must be like their own microbrewery. Wouldn’t their meetings be a hoot?!

Finally, the Production Staff. This is “theatre” as we think about it. These are the people most intimately involved in the production of “my” play, but in the case of Geva Theatre Center, they are involved in  each play Geva puts on, simultaneously, for this season as well as next season. The production staff roster reads like film credits. One can only guess what they might actually be responsible for, but the job titles alone are so cool, it’d be fun to have the job just to have the title! Head Draper, First Hand, Swing Electrician, Props Artisan, Scenic Carpenter. Bring it on! On the website, Production is divided into the Managers, Costumes, Lighting & Sound, Properties, Scenery, Scenic Art, and Stage Management. I revert totally into my easily-impressed persona. This is so cool! I never knew you could BE any of these things, and just imagine – these folks all live right here in Rochester. They aren’t the itinerant actors or contracted talent for a particular show. They are professionals in our midst. I spoke with the Costume Shop Manager Amanda Doherty and she confirmed it for me. “Yup, I have a full time job, with 4 weeks vacation and health benefits, a home with a yard and dogs, and every day I do what I love.” And we were all told that theatre geeks would never amount to anything!

I spent part of an afternoon in the Costume Shop, so please indulge me with more “OMG” moments. I had no idea this was just down the hall from the rehearsal room! It is a sewing room, fabric store, and artist studio all rolled into one. It’s a huge room, although I bet they wish they had more space as every inch of it is used. There are mock-up models hanging from the ceiling and projects spread out everywhere. I’m in awe; no one’s mother is going to tell them to clean up this mess. In fact, it’s remarkably not messy. It looks so organized. Being artistic and anal myself, I’m in heaven!

A dressmaker’s dummy is up on a table with a dark fabric pinned around the bust.  A seamstress is sewing on a machine at the front of the room. A shiny, orange animal skin (not fur, but skin! oh, and not real) is being cut into unitards for a fantastical character. A discussion ensues about which material to use for a set of wings. Wait, I think to myself, the show they are working on isn’t until May. What about “my” play? Then, I see a rack of street clothes. Instead of S, M and L, the rack is divided into character sets – Ana, Rob, Jen, Lily, Alex, Will.  I found it! And I pause. In this amazing space, this rack is out of place. It looks like it belongs in a store at Eastview Mall.

Next to all the other creative work going on in this room, I think to myself sadly, “my” play must be the boring play to work on. The characters wear contemporary pants and shirts, with maybe a scarf or a hat. A few costume changes during the play, but the characters hardly leave the stage so there isn’t time or need to do full changes really. Big whoop to collect middle-class, contemporary outfits for a cast of hip 30-something year olds. The actors can probably just pull stuff from their own closets. Bummer. Then, I hear what the Shop Manager is saying to me. I snap out of my disappointment. “The transformations that happen for the actors don’t all happen on the outside, and during the fittings, I talk with the actors about who will have style changes that mirror their personal growth and whose clothing tastes will stay fairly consistent.” Wow! She’s into this show. She shows me some examples and I get it. I’m nodding my head like a naïve schoolgirl.

I learn a few other scintillating facts. Contractually, if a garment touches the skin, there must be two identical pieces available so that on a 2-performance day, the actor never has to wear a sweaty shirt. Result: Amanda has to buy duplicates of every final selection. And she does shop at Eastview, among other places. Another fact: There is a totally separate crew called Wardrobe that run the costumes during performances, assisting the actors, getting laundry done, and making repairs. And, I understand why. Amanda has been working on this show for quite awhile, balancing it with costumes for Next To Normal and Steve Jobs which went up recently, and the rest of the season which is upcoming. This includes Midsummer Night’s Dream, the huge costume show they are already sewing for. She has also been asked to budget out a variety of shows for next season, and some of them won’t even be produced once they tally the costs and various arrangements. She totally needs to hand off costumes to Wardrobe.

We talked for awhile about the whole costuming cycle. In brief (and hopefully fairly accurately although I know each show has its own quirks), the process begins once a director and costume designer have been selected for a show. They talk over their vision and impressions of the characters and time period of the play. Then the designer presents sketches and collages of images, refining the vision further. In a contemporary play as this one, I imagine it being a conversation of are we going Old Navy or Lord & Taylor? Low brow or high brow? Sneakers or Florsheims? Then the designer and shop manager talk. It’s the vision-into-reality conversation. For instance, how do you show individuality amongst a group of similarly successful professionals? Specific clothing pieces are described, and issues like time allotted for a wardrobe change are factored in. As Amanda and her shop take over, they stick to the vision and continue to consider all the issues. What looks good on the actual actor? Can the jeans in Act I be used in Act II? What other suit coat could stylish Will wear as his character relaxes yet remains fashion conscious? Can Ana squirm around the floor in her rage scene wearing that blouse?

Amanda attempts to meld everyone’s ideas into something coherent and tangible. What the character looks like is a function of many people’s ideas: the designer’s, the director’s and the actor’s themselves. For instance, an actress has her own sense of a character and it’s important she wears clothing that matches the way she has developed that persona. The trick is that since rehearsal began a couple weeks ago, an actress learns more about their character and evolves in how she plays it.  Especially in this play, each character’s persona has been shifting. Damn human tendency toward personal growth and revelation! Hmmm, trying on the hat of Amanda, I think about Lily’s clothing. Maybe she wouldn’t wear the sexier shirt so early in the play, and maybe she and Alex could have a slightly matching look as they morph into a couple. Of course, if I were Amanda and the actress and director concurred with these ideas, I would now have to run to the store again. Return what isn’t working, look for a different color button-down, 2 of them in the right size, and also go back to using the silk scarf.  It must make a costume shop crazy! Remember they are also cutting animal skins and projecting budgets. Who wants to run to Eastview to pick up a blouse? Well, in the case of the Geva costume shop, I think all this just makes them energetically engaged, full of good humor, and on their feet. Who said contemporary shows make for a boring costume project? Oh, that was me.

I learned that not all theaters have the luxury of a full costume shop with shop manager ready and able to work with the costume designer. I also learned that Amanda in fact designs a couple shows a year too. She told me she has a triple undergrad degree and then a graduate degree in costume design. That must be why she spoke so knowledgeably about classical Greek vs Elizabethan vs peasant styles for Shakespearean plays. I keep meeting multi-talented people in this theatre. I couldn’t hide my awe so I asked her, “How did you know you wanted to become a costume designer?? I didn’t know such a thing existed.”

“Barbies,” she replied. “It all started with Barbies, and my grandmother. She sewed any dress I could draw, and I drew a lot in those days. She’d go down to the basement and sew up my creations. In high school I convinced them to let me make the costumes instead of the parents. I was hooked.”

Yes!! Playing with toys. In my profession as museum educator at the National Museum of Play, that’s something I know about. Woo-hoo! Once again, playing inspires learning and becomes vocation. My work here is done for the day.

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