Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dickens...A Librarian's Dream

Librarians think a lot about the “appeal factors” of books and authors. If you’ve ever asked a librarian, “so . . . what should I read next?”, we’re trained to ask exploratory questions to get you to identify what appeals to you about the books you enjoy. Then, we can lead you towards books with similar appeal factors. Wearing my librarian hat, I’ll identify some appeal factors that I find in Dickens’ work. In the spirit of full disclosure, however, let me state this right up front: I am an unabashed Dickens fan and, if you’re not one yet, I’m out to convert you . . .
1)     Humor: If you like a little humor in your fiction, you cannot beat Charles Dickens. In Nicholas Nickleby, you’ll find humor of all types – slapstick, caricature, dry wit and satire. I’m a sucker for one of Dickens’ frequent devices – the wonderful verbal tics he gives some of his characters. My favorite in Nicholas Nickleby is how Mr. Mantalini incorporates a certain mild oath into almost everything he says.

2)     Pathos: It would be a hard-hearted person who could remain unmoved by Dickens’ use of pathos. If you’re the type of reader who gets choked up at Beth’s death scene in Little Women, make sure your tissues are nearby when you get to chapter 58 of Nicholas Nickleby.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
3)     Description: Some people complain that Dickens is so loooong, so wordy. Well, perhaps. But what you get with those words! When I came upon this scene about what Nicholas sees when he looks around the sleeping room at the horrible Dotheboys Hall, my mind’s eye created such a vivid mental picture that I felt as if I was looking through a window:
“As [the boys] lay packed together, covered, for warmth’s sake, with their patched and ragged clothes, little could be distinguished but the sharp outlines of pale faces, over which the somber light shed the same dull heavy colour, with here and there a gaunt arm thrust forth; its thinness hidden by no covering, but fully exposed to view in all its shrunken ugliness.”
There may be a more succinct way to describe the scene, but I’ll trade the mental image Dickens provides for word count any day.
These are only three of the many appeal factors to be found in Dickens, and many more await. So use your library card and check out Dickens for yourself. You will be richly rewarded.
Marian “the Librarian” Fragola is the Humanities and Adult Programming Coordinator at Durham County Library. She received her Master in Library Science degree from UNC-CH in 2008. In addition to reading, she likes to hang out with her two terrier mutts, Li’l G and Honey, and her husband, Jeremy Arkin.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who Is This Nicholas Anyway?

While we will return to costumes in very short order, I thought it might be time to ask "who this Nicholas Nickleby is anyway?" Dramaturg Anthony Fichera has been gracious enough to provide a brief character analysis of not only Nicholas, but his sister Kate as well. In the coming weeks, Anthony will help us understand other characters that affect Nicholas' fate. 

Nicholas Nickleby:
Barely out of his teens at the beginning of the novel, Nicholas fulfills, to a maximal degree, the idea of “a gentleman.” For Dickens, “gentlemanliness” is no longer merely a question of economics, caste or heredity. It has become an almost internally-defined, conception of one’s relationship to the world, one’s actions in relation to other humans and to one’s self. “Delicacy” “Kindness” and “Tolerance” are his keynote behaviors. In all his dealings, Nicholas, to a fault, seems incapable of harshly pre-judging or condemning others (would that he had been a little more peremptory with Wackford and Mrs. Squeers, the novel might have ended happier and sooner for he and his family). His almost instantaneous benevolence towards Smike, his benign regard for Newman Noggs, his achingly perfect regard for the unhappy Madeline Bray, the forbearance shown with regards to the chaotic kindness for the Crummles’s troupe of vain, posturing thespians: the marks of a man not superior by reason of monies but by feeling and regard (qualities Dickens inherited from the 18th century and centralized in his characterization). If Nicholas has a fault, it is one commented upon in the book (and frequently by those who have exacerbated it) as his “rashness” or “temper” (had Dickens been capable of receiving communiqu├ęs from the late 20th century, he would have immediately rejected the notion that Nicholas suffers from “anger management issues). In fact, Nicholas suffers from the inability to behold cruelty, callousness or meanness without reacting to it. Nicholas’s anger is never inadvertently directed at the innocent, weak or helpless (imagine our horror were he to lash out at Smike). It is always aimed at that which has rightfully evoked it. So it beggars the question whether this is a “character flaw” in any accepted sense of the word: Nicholas’s “flaws” seem only to exist in the minds of the low, the vicious and the cruel. Without exception, good people in Nicholas Nickleby instantly recognize the good in Nicholas and he reciprocates their regard without hesitation. If one needed any further demonstration of this, one need only look to the idea of “gentlemanliness” as practiced by the novel’s resolute rotter Sir Mulberry Hawk, for whom economic and sexual predation, and aristocratic hooliganism are quotidian matters, or his acolyte, Lord Frederic Verisopht, whose evolutionary turn from corruption to redemption comes at such a cost (i.e., his life).

Kate Nickleby:
“Be more natural Miss Nickleby,” insinuates Sir Mulberry Hawk in one of the more queasy incidents in the novel, the dinner party of Ralph Nickleby where he sets up his niece as the main course. Kate, of course, sees through this immediately. Purity and foolishness in Dickens are not equivalent states of being. Nicholas’s sister (her age is a bit hard to pin down but it seems to be her late teens) may be denied the scope for copious wandering and exploration of the world her bother is allowed (forced?) to experience, but she manages, in much more confining social circumstances, to be as much a gentlewoman as her brother is a gentleman. This, of course, means that she is kind, considerate and always mindful of other’s feelings. But lacking her brother’s “freedom” to explore her world, Kate is forced, almost moment by moment in the narrative to endure hardships and outright danger without compromising her sense of self (which is, as a “lady” constantly having to acknowledge humiliation and degradation without ever calling attention to the peril one’s status). So Kate’s progress in the play—right up to her actually saying “yes” to the very gentlemanly Frank Cheeryble—is a kind of social highwire act in which balance and negotiation are paramount. She seeks—many times without success—a series of “allies” who will recognize her peril and support her without the gross expediency of commenting on it. Only twice in the work does she actually call her attention to her wrongs in about the strongest possible terms she can “afford”: once to the clueless Julia Wittiterly (about, naturally Sir Mulberry) and once to her uncle Ralph (who’s villainy is such that he is deliberately violating acknowledged blood ties and abetting her humiliation by refusing, in essence, to aid her). So Mulberry’s taunt of “more natural” exposes both his lasciviousness and Kate’s essential perilous status: at once obligated to behave in light of family expectation, she is denied the emotional freedom of anger and just retribution available to her brother. The price exacted by gender is conspicuously on view with Kate.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Costumes Get a Polish

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at costumer designer Jan Chambers' most amazing first-round sketches. This week, we move into the finalized sketches. These are still black and white because many (certainly not all) of the costume pieces for this show are going to either be pulled from our enormous costume storage or rented, however they are much more detailed that the earlier sketches.

Before we get to the sketches though, I thought I would give you a tiny glimpse into our costume storage room. This is only the first row of a dozen or so. Further in, it's actually two stories. I'll work my way deeper into the room in the coming weeks, but it's one of the most impressive rooms I've ever been in. If you've never done it, PlayMakers offers backstage tours and you can see this for yourself. Just call the Box Office for more details.

And on to the sketches... Like many of Jan's first-round sketches, there are multiples on some of these to show that the same actor will be playing both characters (except on the boys' sketch).  

Here we see Mrs. Crummles and Mrs. Crummles as Lady Capulet

Here we see Master Crummles and and the same actor as Balthazar

Make sure to check in next week for more costume sketches and a sneak peak at costume pieces that have already been pulled. 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bespoke Millinery, Part One

How does a hat go from page to stage? Let's follow the progress of Miss LaCreevey's hat from design to reality!

First, as a milliner, i receive a costume design and some research from the costume designer. I also get a sheet with head measurements for the actors (or, i take them myself) so i know what size the hats need to be. If there will be wigs worn, i know to accommodate for that by making them a bit larger than the actor's unwigged head measurement.

Here is Costume Designer Jan Chambers' rendering for the character of Miss LaCreevey, who will be played by DeDe Corvinus. Look at this great hat!

In addition to the design rendering, Jan also gave me this research image of a portrait from the period:

When it comes to making this hat, physically, the question is: what does the back of it look like? Sometimes a designer will draw the hat from all angles, or provide a research image that answers the question, but  in this case, Jan had to do 95 renderings, and i feel like this is one of those times when we need to look at the "big picture" of collaborative process: I did my own research to find the answer.

This image is from a fashion magazine from the period, which is a great way to get back views for headwear, on the millinery focus pages. Look, there are TWO back views of hats of this style!

I knew from talking to Jan that she wanted the brim of this bonnet to be transparent fabric on a wire frame, like the one in the painting. For our first round of fittings, a mockup needs to be made, so we can look at it on Ms. Corvinus' head and fit it properly, check the scale of it compared to the costume itself, and generally decide how we want it to physically look. I created a draft of the wire frame structure and put it together from cheap craft wire and some inexpensive lace. The real bonnet will have a millinery wire foundation and nice quality fabric, but because a mockup might be drawn on, cut into, reformed, or destroyed in the process of a fitting, we make it out of lower-quality materials first.

Here is the mockup wire foundation, laying on top the "wire map" draft i used to shape it:

...and here it is with a lace cover and cloth cap:

Now, we have to wait until fittings are held for the second stage of the process, making the real version!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Of Course There Must Be Costumes

So you've seen the CHART (if not, see video Casting Process with Joe & Tom -June). Costume pieces for a show the size of Nicholas Nickleby number in the hundreds! 

Costume designer Jan Chambers started with the color palette below and began sketching only to end up with hundreds of sketches. I've worked in this building for almost 10 years, so you'd think that the level of talent around me wouldn't really surprise me anymore, but it always does. First McKay's model and now this amazing costume process!

These following are research images Jan and co-designer Jade Bettin pulled to get a feel for the period.

Below you can see only a child's handful of the initial "rough" sketches she did as a jumping off point. These were done before casting had even been completed, but notice that many of them are done based on how the 150 roles would be divided among 25 actors. When you see a series of sketches on one sheet, Jan often assumed that one actor would be playing all those roles and sketched accordingly.

In the coming weeks, as we follow the costume process, you'll hear from Jan directly in a video she was kind enough to do for us. She'll explain how she tackles a production this large and talk more about the hours upon hours of sketching. You'll also get to see some of the completed sketches and a sneak peek at some of the costume pieces that have already been pulled. Stay tuned!

Next week, we'll hear once again from one of our most popular bloggers, PlayMakers Crafts Artisan Rachel Pollock!