Monday, December 6, 2010

Design Comes to Life

by Rachel Pollock

My mainstage design debut for PlayMakers Repertory Company, Shipwrecked!, is currently running this month. We had the final dress and photo call Tuesday night so some of the topics I wanted to write about that required a stage shot to fully illustrate are now up for posting.

First: customized vest back fabric for Louis de Rougemont!

At the top of the show, Louis enters in a high-button suit with a vest and ascot, like this:

Scott Ripley as Louis de Rougemont

We purchased his jacket and trousers, but the vest was patterned by draper Shanna I. Parks and constructed by first hand Samantha Coles Greaves. When shopping the fabrics, I found the vest front fabric quickly, but was a bit stumped on the back. Vests of the period typically have fine linen or polished cotton backs, but I wasn't finding anything locally that was appropriate. I didn't have time to get it shopped in NYC, but I did travel to some of the regional fabric treasure-troves.

I was specifically looking for a stripe, either coordinating or in a color range which could be dyed to coordinate. The play is performed on a particularly long thrust stage, which means that at any given time, a third of the audience is probably looking at an actor's back, and Louis pretty much carries this play. He's never offstage, and spends a fair amount of time without his jacket on--I didn't want people looking at a big plain flat expanse of solid color on the vest back. The concept of the costume designs is heavily dependent upon bold pattern.

At the Fabric Center of Walkertown NC (a strange warehouse-style store of mill ends, about an hour's drive from Chapel Hill), I found several striped linen and cotton shirtings, tickings, and other options. They were so cheap I bought enough of each to do the vest, and we set to experimenting.

First, Crafts Artisan and second year grad student Claire Fleming did some dye swatches, testing 2" x 3" swatches to see how they would change appearance when overdyed into the range of Louis's suiting and vest front fabrics. Several remained good contenders, but none retained the bold stripes I'd been hoping for. I realized it was something I was going to have to make happen myself.

First, I again turned to Spoonflower. I thought, perhaps having a striped fabric custom-printed would be the answer to my problem! They offer an organic cotton sateen that was a good weight and hand for the vest back, so I did a few textile designs and ordered swatches.

In the play, Louis recites Shakespeare a couple of times, once most prominently a speech of Prospero's from The Tempest, particularly apt as some of its themes dovetail quite closely with his own. In addition to standard stripes, I did one design in which the stripes were created with the text of Prospero's famous "We are such stuff as dreams are made on" speech. As soon as that idea hit me, I fell in love with it. I knew that I had to find a way to make Louis' vest back from "Tempest stripes," because, how excellent is that? That he'd play the show literally wearing Prospero's words upon his back? My digitally-rendered stripe design is viewable on Spoonflower at this link here.

These are the kind of little elements of a design that I LOVE putting in, whether anyone in the show consciously sees them or not. I know the actors can read them at least, if no one else can, and that's frankly enough--if everyone else only sees stripes, that's what I wanted them to see anyhow. And, some audience members will read this post and know the deeper significance of the stripes, and that too is excellent.

There are a couple of other specific instances of this that I can point out with the released press pictures, as well. For example:

Aborigines Lauren Klingman, Kelsey Didion, and Josh Tobin

Earlier in the script, Josh Tobin plays a pearl diver on Louis' seafaring expedition who is attacked and killed by a giant octopus. (Seriously, a giant tentacle comes out of the center vom and drags him away!) So, when deciding what pattern to paint upon his aborigine mask, i decided to go with an abstract tentacle motif.

Jimmy Kieffer as Gunda

In this scene, Jimmy Kieffer wears a feathered crown as Gunda, the leader of the aborigines. See that wavy black trim around the band, kind of like black waves? Later the play, Jimmy also plays Queen Victoria, and that black wave trim is used excessively all over her bodice and bustle train. Earlier, he was a pedestrian in 1869 London with a boutonniere on his frock coat lapel that featured two of those orange-tipped crown feathers.

I just really like the idea that graphical elements representing events and motifs of the play (waves, tentacles, feathers, etc.) exist to draw parallels between characters, actors, and to contribute to a cohesive whole. No one may consciously see them, analyze them and register what they mean, but they're there.

But, back to vest fabric stripes, eh?

The trouble I keep running up against--on this show and on others--with digital printing technology is that it is too unpredictable still in delivery turnaround to work with the regional theatre production schedule. Printers list a delivery window in which you will receive your stuff and when you get it in the early end of that window, it's great, but in this case, my swatch didn't arrive until a week later, and by that time we had to have moved on to layout and cutting. We'll make it work some day, either for a show where we have enough advance planning to work it out, or the technology's popularity and turnaround will catch up to our production schedule. Just not this time.

What I wound up doing to achieve my desired effect was taking the threadmarked vest back pieces and using fabric markers to write the text out in a predetermined stripe pattern. Here it is in process:

Vest front fabric at rear left, stripe sample swatch, and the piece mid-inscription.

Here's what it says:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And—like the baseless fabric of this vision —
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Opening night: Saturday! Hopefully i'll have time to write about how we dyed the ocean before then. :D

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Shipwrecked! in Pictures

Previews for Shipwrecked! have begun and Opening Night is only 2 days away! Here's a sneak peek at the production through photos. Shipwrecked! is on stage now through December 19 and is great fun for all ages. In the words of Louis de Rougemont... "Welcome to this temple of the imagination. This hallowed hall where stories are told."

Scott Ripley as Louis de Rougemont

Dee Dee Batteast & Jimmy Kieffer as Players

Scott Ripley as Louis & Derrick Ledbetter as a Player/Bruno the Dog

Scott Ripley as Louis de Rougemont

Jimmy Kieffer & Derrick Ledbetter as Players

Kelsey Didion, Lauren Klingman & Josh Tobin as Ensemble/Foley Artists

Derrick Ledbetter as  Player & Scott Ripley as Louis

Scott Ripley & Cast

Kelsey Didion, Lauren Klingman & Josh Tobin as Ensemble

Dee Dee Batteast as a Player & Scott Ripley as Louis

Cast of Shipwrecked!

Jimmy Kieffer as a Player

Dee Dee Batteast as a Player & Scott Ripley as Louis

Cast of Shipwrecked!

Scott Ripley as Louis & Jimmy Kieffer as a Player

Scott Ripley as Louis, Jimmy Kieffer, Derrick Ledbetter & Dee Dee Batteast as Players

All photos by Jon Gardiner

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


by director Tom Quaintance

It's about 1:00am - I'm sitting in the Paul Green Theatre after we just wrapped up our weekend of "ten out of twelve" tech rehearsals.  We go from noon to midnight with a dinner break each night from 5:00-7:00. Long days.  A common term to describe this time is "tech hell" - but it is my favorite part of rehearsals.  An army of amazing designers, talented technicians and phenomenal artisans are putting together the complex technical elements of the show.  I can't speak to how well the show is directed, but it is designed beautifully.

This is a particularly exciting show to tech.  SHIPWRECKED is chokerblock full of theatrical challenges.  We tell a story that ranges across decades and continents, from England to the Coral Sea.  The show is a tight 90 minutes, but it feels like we packed the tech of a much longer show into the confines of this story.  I love the old school theatre storytelling done with technical virtuosity; the shadow puppets, the Foley artists upstage creating the ambient sound effects of the show, the actors creating a storm by flinging their bodies across the stage, the list goes on and on.

This play could be done with three actors, a chair and a box of paper clips... this is not that production.  Donald Margulies, in his afterword of the play, says of the story of Louis de Rougemont: "In it I saw the potential for a purely theatrical play about the power of the imagination."  This production revels in that idea of pure theatricality.  We demand much of both the imagination of the audience and our own imagination as artists.  There is no conceit here that we are only going to tell this story using things Louis could have brought with him from the 19th century, or from a single box we drag on stage.  We are celebrating our storytelling power as theatre artists - and tech is where we get to see it all come together.

I can't wait for previews to start.  We've thus far been rehearsing without one of our most important characters.  Finally, on Wednesday, the audience arrives.

The cast of Shipwrecked! in the rehearsal hall before tech

The cast of Shipwrecked! in the rehearsal hall before tech

Director Tom Quaintance and cast members Jimmy Kieffer, Derek Ledbetter, Scott Ripley and Dee Dee Batteast

Stage Manager Sarah Smiley with Foley artists Josh Tobin, Lauren Klingman and Kelsey Didion

Some of the Foley instruments used on stage to provide the show's sound effects

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Aborigines of Shipwrecked!

I finally have all the images for a post I've been itching to write for weeks: aborigine masks for Shipwrecked!

In the play, the main character Louis de Rougemont at one point meets an initially-hostile tribe of aborigines. Because all the actors play many roles, they needed to be able to "become" aborigines immediately by taking up some simple prop or costume cue and creating the rest of the character through physicality. We settled on a theatrical version of actual aborigine masks.

An image of several aboriginal masks. I was drawn to the dot-paint technique which connects them to their textile designs as well, as you may recall from the batik mentioned previously.

This is a graphic i made to talk with Tom Quaintance, the director, about the scale of the masks. How big did we want to make them? The actual masks are the scale of option two, and that's how big we decided we should make ours as well.

A maquette made from a cardboard fabric-bolt tube to experiment with shape. I wanted to see whether a cylindric section would work for our basic mask structure, and decided from this maquette that yes, it would.

I scaled it up in oaktag and cut out this mockup, modeled here by second-year graduate student and crafts assistant Samantha Coles Greaves.

Here you see a paint sample on the maquette, next to a section of the actual size oaktag pattern.

First-year grad student and design assistant Adrienne Corral tests paint samples and dot-making techniques on sections of black foamcore. These helped me to decide what types of paints we should use and how we could best make the dot pattern.

We cut the basic mask shapes from a giant cardboard tube product sold for the purposes of making concrete pylons and bollards. These are about $8 each at hardware stores and each one made two mask foundations.

I suspected we might need a wire reinforcement to help with the stability of the lower portion of the mask, where it narrows and will ride at the actors' chest level. I figured that the mask might take some strain there when worn depending on the physical moves of the actors--bending, squatting, etc. Here you see a heavy gauge wire (straightened coathangers, really) ready for securing to the mask's lower edge.

Adrienne sews the wire on with a wide bias casing, much in the same way you might wire the edge of a buckram hat brim. She's using our industrial walking foot machine, though, which can stitch through 1/4" thick cardboard tube, among other things!

Next i added features--a nose from carved styrofoam, narrow cord for eyebrows, and built up the surface over them with layers of papier mache.

Adrienne coats the insides of the masks with layers of Sculpt-or-Coat.

The masks were then painted black with plain black acrylic paint.

What makes the best dots? Q-Tips! Easy, fast, throw them away when you're done. Here i'm painting patterns onto one of the masks.

There they are, three aborigine masks for our show! I love them!

Post by Costume Designer Rachel Pollock
Join us tomorrow for scenes from the rehearsal hall and later in the week... production photos!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Batik Part 2

The other day, I wrote about the first half of this story, namely, how the creative team and I came to the decision of what fabric pattern we were going to create, and how we were going to create it.

I left off with the choice of which sample fabric was going to be the one used in the show between two different base fabrics which had been batiked and two different digitally-printed fabrics from Spoonflower. I knew that the one to go with was the batik on a muslin ground, so here's what happened next...

Samantha considers the research and the sample in planning pattern layout.

First, we needed to scale up the frame on which the batik would happen. Crafts Artisan and second-year graduate student Samantha Coles Greaves measured our steel printing table and got some 2x4s cut to fit its perimeter for maximum surface area of the design. Then with the help of her assistant Adrienne Corral, they bolted the frame together, stretched a length of muslin and secured it to the frame with staple guns.

The muslin I purchase was PFD, which stands for "Prepared For Dyeing." This means it has no sizing or starch or other chemicals or finishes on the fabric which would impede the ability of the fibers to absorb dye. Fabrics which aren't sold as PFD will have sizes and starches and such in them and need to be laundered--sometimes multiple times--to remove those before they will dye well.

And, our muslin was larger than our frame by enough width that Samantha and Adrienne could staple it directly to the frame. If it were smaller or a delicate fabric or if we needed the dye treatment to go all the way to the edges, we'd have had to baste strips of framing fabric around it and use those to attach it to the frame.

We decided to use soy wax since it can be removed much easier than other kinds of batik wax--scrape off the excess then wash it in hot water cycles a few times, as opposed to boiling and skimming or ironing for days. We have a dedicated dyeshop microwave and melted the wax flakes (which you can buy in the candlemaking section at craft stores) in microwave safe containers. The wax dots are applied with a chubby round bristled brush.

Samantha Greaves applies the wax to the pristine muslin.

First, Samantha applied wax just to the white-dot portions of the design.

Red and brown fiber-reactive cold-process dye was applied to the areas
of the fabric where brown and red dots would go.

The full frame view at this stage of the process.

The frame and fabric got covered in plastic and left to sit overnight.

These kinds of dyes (Procion-type dyes) yield vibrant, dark colors on cotton fabrics, react with the fiber at room temperature, and are extremely washfast. They are safe to use (with nitrile gloves) in liquid form, and process fairly easily. In mixing them from dry form though, they are dangerous as particulates, being very easily airborne and shouldn't be inhaled. Samantha mixed ours into solution using an enclosed mixing box and particulate respiratory protection in our well-ventilated dye facility. If you use these dyes, it's safest to mix them into solution under these kind of circumstances (as opposed to, say, mixing them out in the open in a tiny room with your bare hands and sniffing around in the container of dry dyestuff or something).

The dyes need time to process--the longer the process time, the brighter the color yield if you have mixed your recipe right--and they need a moist environment in which to do it. Hence, the covering of the frame with plastic overnight. The dye facility has three huge (like 4' x 6') windows which face the setting sun, so Samantha and Adrienne drew the blinds as well to minimize evaporation from sun exposure/heat.

Adrienne and Samantha apply the next round of wax dots to the brown and red areas.

At this point, the process was repeated--mix the black dye solution safely, apply it to the wax dotted fabric, cover with plastic and wait overnight. Then the wax was scraped, the fabric washed several times in hot cycles and it was the moment of truth: how did it turn out?

My hand against the pattern for scale.

Design rendering for how the fabrics will be worn by the Players.

I think I mentioned previously that this show has three Players who perform a wide range of roles, changing character sometimes instantly and in full view of the audience. So, the feasibility of elaborate costume changes is minimal--they will have base costumes in neutral colors, plain trousers and tops that can be utilized to create character themselves (rolled up pant cuffs for sailors, for example, rolled shirt-sleeves for a barkeep) and added-on pieces to augment that. A flat cap for a newsboy, an apron for a mother cooking breakfast, etc. So, this rendering illustrates the fabric Samantha and Adrienne have made and how it is worn by the actors to "become" the characters of Yamba and her father Gunda. (Yamba has a baby brother, Bobo, who will be a doll dressed in the same fabric.)

I should note that, we are able to do this kind of work because we have such timely and clear communication among our design team, and because we started early enough with everything I wrote about yesterday to be at a point now that Samantha and Adrienne and I can spend three afternoons batiking one length of fabric. This kind of element of a show would not be possible if it were something the design team came up with two days before opening night, just because of the combination of active work time and passive dye-processing time.

This is something we talk about in all of my crafts classes--that there's almost nothing a skilled artisan can't do with the right amount of time, resources and skill. I teach the skills, and I expose them to and educate them about the resources and media. I can't, however, teach them how to bend time--that's the one constant factor which no theatre company can surmount if they fall short. So, learning about time-management, labor planning and process planning like this project has demonstrated is an invaluable part of our graduate program and our work as artists and artisans and professionals.

I'm so proud of my students on this project, in which I pretty much had to step away from my "usual" role as crafts artisan, function in the role of the designer and consultant and just let them run with it. They did such beautiful work, and I can't wait to see this fabric onstage, wrapped around our excellent cast members and flying as a sail above the ship they'll build every night, right there on our stage.

–Rachel E. Pollock, Shipwrecked! Costume Designer

Monday, November 15, 2010

Batik Part 1

I'm designing costumes for PlayMakers Repertory Company's upcoming production of Donald Margulies' Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. This play affords a huge range of design challenges, not just within specific departments but collaboratively among all the elements of production.

One project we've already begun work on is the generation of some batik fabric yardage for the characters of Yamba, Gunda and Bobo, a family of aborigines who are shipwrecked on the same island as the play's protagonist, Louis de Rougemont. These characters will be wearing lengths of fabric as wrapped/tied costume items (Yamba with a sarong-style wrap and her old father, Gunda, with a shawl-style wrap), which they later remove to create sails for a ship they build onstage.

So, the look of these fabrics is extremely important, not only to myself as the costume designer, but also to the set designer (Robin Vest), who'll be incorporating them as "ship sails", and obviously to the director, Tom Quaintance, who'll be seeing them and using them in multiple contexts.

I began the process by researching what indigenous Australian aborigine fabrics look like. If you Google "aboriginal fabrics," you'll get a good idea what the common graphical theme is - pattern creation using dots! Very pointillist, yet abstract. I discovered that a company called M&S Textiles issues a line of cotton fabrics with aboriginal art prints, and this online vendor has .jpgs of the whole line. I then found a local fabric store, Thimble Pleasures, which carried the M&S line, so i dropped by to check out the scale of the prints.

It was immediately clear that the scale was far too small for theatre--the dots in the commercially-available prints are around 1/8" to 1/4" in diameter--onstage, those would blend together in the eye of the audience, and create a very different visual than the scale I had initially envisioned, with the dots being more like the size of an adult fingerprint. I realized that we were likely going to need to create this fabric ourselves. Still, I shared the links of the M&S thumbnails with the production team so we could talk about pattern and color with concrete visuals. This is the print to which we all felt most drawn.

So, my next step was to investigate the possibilities for digitally-printed fabric. I consulted some colleagues at the NC State College of Textiles as to the current leaders in print-on-demand fabric. The cool thing about the companies utilizing this technology is that you can create a print design and choose from a whole range of fabrics on which it might be printed--everything from canvas to charmeuse, and a whole range of fibers. (One of our graduate students is having some charmeuse custom printed for her historical reproduction thesis project, which I can't wait to see the results of!)

I knew I needed a cotton with a fairly soft hand. I looked at some custom digitally printed samples from KarmaKraft, First2Print and Spoonflower, and decided to give Spoonflower's cotton lawn a shot.

Spoonflower does their printing locally, right up the road in Mebane, NC, and they got me their sample fabrics quicker than any other company I contacted. This is not at all a criticism of the speed or competency of the other companies--it's simply an example of how speed is often the primary factor in theatrical production. The fast turnaround of orders and processes is why Spoonflower became the option I chose. KarmaKraft is based in Raleigh and also quite close, but they conduct a lot of their printing in China and were out of their sample swatch sets when I inquired.  However, they did send them and have a lot of great options, so it's likely that, should we need digitally printed fabrics for some future production, they will remain a good contender.

I then created two print designs using Photoshop:

  • Yamba One, in which the pattern is made from crisp-edged "polkadot" style dots
  • Yamba Two, in which the dots have more brushy, irregular edges
I suspected though, that there would be issues with these digitally-printed fabrics that would make them less than optimal for our stage purposes--namely, the "flatness" of the printed colors under stage lights, the opacity of the fabric (so, the front and back would be starkly different when the fabrics are "flown" onstage as flags and sails), and the gridlike regularity that tiling of a print design would create. As I was working on the digital designs, I realized that if we had the ability to spend more time on the creation of the art and the money to utilize a printing service that would afford a larger repeat for the design, perhaps digital printing would still be a great option. In this case though, I decided to see whether my crafts artisan, second year graduate student Samantha Coles Greaves, could generate a couple batik samples as well. I bought two types of fabric for potential in-house batiking at the local JoAnn Fabrics: a bolt of Egyptian cotton and a bolt of dyer's muslin. (I figured, even if we didn't use either of them at all on this show, those are great stock fabrics to have around a costume shop for mockups and other uses.) Samantha then created two samples of batik inspired by our chosen aboriginal print.

Samantha used a compass to create a guide for the large circle elements. The research image above right influenced her pattern generation.

In batik, you layer wax application with dye application to create patterns. This is the sample on muslin, stretched in an embroidery frame. I'll write a lot more about the technical steps in the batik process in Part Two.

Here's the Egyptian cotton sample, stretched on a small stretcher frame.

You can see in the images of the two samples the different dot shapes created by different applicators--Samantha made dots in a variety of ways, using a round sponge, a wine cork, a dauber, her gloved fingertip and a round-tipped bristle brush. I felt that the brush gave the best result in terms of yielding a dot pattern that was both organic and controlled. The sponge and cork were too uniform, and the fingertip and dauber were too messy. At this point in the process, I was convinced that the Egyptian cotton was going to be my choice--the colors looked great on it. Meanwhile, the swatches of Spoonflower fabric I ordered arrived in the mail! Samantha removed the wax and washed the samples, and it was time to compare...
Wow, look at those four different fabrics! Let's break it down, what's what. Photobucket 
They're all so different-looking! One in particular though was clearly the one for Shipwrecked... Photobucket 
Here I am with the finished yardage!

I'll be writing a second part to this process in a day or two, documenting exactly how we went from a tiny 9" x 17" sample of batik, to the huge three-yard chunk you see in the above photo. For now though, I hope you've enjoyed reading about the first part of this journey, literally halfway around the textile world and back again!

–Rachel E. Pollock, Costume Designer