Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Tale of 2 Bonnets... or 2 Dozen

Just after "Pride and Prejudice" closed but before the end of the spring semester, PlayMakers' costume department met with designers Jan Chambers and Jade Bettin to strategize costume production on "Nicholas Nickleby." Jan had some initial costume renderings to share with us, and Jade presented an impressive (large, daunting) costume plot?basically a huge spreadsheet listing which actors play which characters in which scenes wearing which clothes.

For my part, I was already familiar with the scope of what we are about to take on?I have vivid memories of watching the Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Roger Rees with my parents in 1982, and the book has always been my favorite Charles Dickens novel. We had watched a film adaptation of the story one afternoon in the costume shop as well. Even so, I skimmed through the doorstop-sized scripts prior to the meeting, taking notes and formulating questions that might pertain to my role in the production.

And, by "role," I don't mean playing a part onstage! As crafts artisan for PRC, I have several distinct responsibilities: I dye and apply surface treatments to fabric for our costumers to make into garments, I rubberize shoe soles for actor safety onstage, I distress and age costumes to look worn or old, and I produce all the costume items which are NOT tailored garments: masks, jewelry, armor, period shoes, and hats.

If you are familiar with the Nickleby story, you already know where I fit into this production: some of the action takes place in a millinery shop (where they make fancy bonnets for wealthy ladies), and another bit follows a traveling theatre troupe. I don't know yet what that theatre troupe is going to look like, but one thing's for certain: there will be no scarcity of hats!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

And Now Bring on the Costumes...

While we'll be checking back in on McKay Coble's set on a regular basis, we're moving this week into the realm of costumes. First up will be costume crafts artisan Rachel Pollock. Check out her blog entry  Thursday morning as she delves into the world of Dickensian bonnets.

In coming weeks, we'll also hear from Costume Designer Jan Chambers and get a glimpse of the hundreds of costume sketches she's done so far!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Reveal At Last!!

You've been patiently waiting and here it is... The set model reveal! This video is actually Part 1 of a series. It's a complicated set, so check back over the coming weeks for additional videos demonstrating McKay Coble's amazing set model.

A warning - the camera starts out a little shaky. That's what a camera-woman with a wrist brace will get you! Tripods are an amazing invention!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Freud Meets Dickens

I know you've all been waiting for the big set model demonstration video, and believe me when I tell you - me too! Unfortunately, the technical gods (or demons) have decided it is not meant to be this week. It simply refuses to upload, so we're back to the drawing board for today!

However, all is not lost. Below you will find a fascinating piece from our dramaturg, Anthony Fichera on Dickensian psychology. For those unfamiliar with the role of a dramaturg, he or she is usually a theatre scholar who assists the director, designers and cast in understanding the elements of a text. Anthony offers invaluable insight into why certain characters might react the way they do, background on the playwright/author, etc. He also gives the script historical context, as he does here.


In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens's "psychology," his strategies for presenting human behavior, stands on the dividing line between the worlds of Austen, Richardson and other 18th Century authors and the world of the 19th century. The heart and the head war; in Dickens, the heart frequently comes out the winner.

Dickens took from the 18th century its growing insistence on the primacy of feeling, of emotion (the "sensibility" of Austen's "Sense and Sensibility"). The heart as an independent organ, literally or metaphorically, emerges from the shadow of both Elizabethan rhetorical convention (where feeling--all of it, from Othello's raging jealousy to Romeo's passionate love--is expressed in often complex, rhetorically saturated language) and the subsequent Restoration emphasis on sharply, logically constructed rational discourse of action and motivation, to find itself as a player in its own right. Through the 18th century, character in literature and drama becomes a mediation between reflection and emotion. By Dickens's time, one side of the argument is starting to predominate.

The defining characteristic of the central trio in Nicholas Nickleby (Nicholas, Kate and Mrs. Nickleby) is one of feeling. For Nicholas, his rash temper and impetuous gestures for and against the people around him, his sister's virtue-or-death stance and Mrs. Nickleby's stream-of-consciousness ramblings on seemingly unrelated topics lie the emergent melodrama's preference for idea of "pure" and "unreflected" emotional being. (The recognition of Nicholas and Smike--who surely, in Dotheboy Hall's atmosphere of damaged children is hardly unique--relates entirely to the 19th century melodrama's notion of the "voix du sang"--the "voice of the blood"--by which characters unknowingly related to one another nonetheless form deep, profound and often instantaneous connections. Readers of Pixerecourt's immensely influential "Coelina; or, The Child of Mystery" will certainly not be surprised by this moment!)

This trio is opposed, principally, by characters whose calculating, dispassionate and unappealing intellectualizing mark them as quintessentially "cold-hearted" characters. The grasping, scheming greed of Ralph Nickleby, the callousness of Mr. and Mrs. Squeers; the brutal, methodical predation of Sir Mulberry Hawk: the triumph of "thought" (qualities which, in earlier periods of English literature might be the accepted--and acceptable--markers of behavior have now become the indices of true villainy). (Though, honestly, can one really imagine a character such as Austen's Elizabeth Bennet having even the slightest difficulty identifying and dealing with the likes of Ralph Nickleby or Sir Mulberry?: such are the perils of the ideational limits of sentimental characterization in Dickens...)

The war of heart and head, of feeling and thought would, of course, continue throughout the 19th century. Complexities of behavior and "depth psychology" the growing distance between the stated and conscious desires of characters and their private, unacknowledged motivations find their expression in the novels of George Eliot, Henry James and the plays pf Ibsen and Chekhov and Strindberg (Hedda Gabbler and Miss Julie are particularly noteworthy examples of characters whose multiple and conflicting motivations nearly swamp the narratives they inhabit). It would be the purpose of 20th century writers such Stein, Joyce and Beckett to "kill the 19th century" by developing literary strategies which bypassed or completely undercut the kind of psychological underpinnings which Dickens and his ancestors/descendants worked so hard to create.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bring on the Model...

Set designer McKay Coble walks us through building the set model for Nicholas Nickleby.

Bare model: first we build a model of the theatre in which the set will stand.  This is what it looks like under all of the scenery you see at PlayMakers. 

Painting the floor:  I paint/stain individual board of differing widths to lay the floor of the set- each board is fitted and glues down separately.

Model floor:  I am using the original floor of the PRC repertory deck designed by Desmond Heeley many years ago.  It is not often used but the texture and color of the rough wood are just right for NN. 

Full model:  This is a “white” model where we work in neutral materials to get a feeling for the layout of the set and discuss uses for each space and movement patterns for actors and scenery.  There is not a lot of detail at this point as we will very likely make changes.  

Model detail:  We are starting to assign textures to areas in the space as well as particular scenes.  Details are getting more specific and measurements more accurate.  This model is in half inch scale- ¼ inch is the standard.  I am working in a larger scale because there will be so many moving parts on this set. 

Spiral stairs: each element of the set design must eventually be made in detail and the correct scale.  A really good model is in exact scale measurement and detail.  I tell my students that their models should be so accurate a shop could build the set from the model alone. 

Trap detail: planning on how we will use this and other stage machines that are built into our theatre. 

Workspace:  A very kind photograph that does not begin to capture the mess!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Get Ready, SET, Go - Scenic Designer McKay Coble's first sketches

First ideas I show the directors – my reactions to the script, the story, how it works in our space.

These are detail sketches of how parts of the set might work in the space.

Above: an idea for a bridge back to Nicholas and Kate's family home in the country. 

More detail sketches...

When we get this close to an idea we like, it is time to start working in 3-D. 

Check in next week for photos of the set model and its progression, as well as a video of the model presentation to the directors. Designer McKay Coble