Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Virginia Woolf" Photos Are Here!

Once again we've brought in photographer Jon Gardiner to get some production photos at the final dress rehearsal of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - and these shots are pretty spectacular! Check them out below to get a sneak peek of this sizzling production.
Ray Dooley as George, Katie Paxton as Honey,
Julie Fishell as Martha and Brett Bolton as Nick

Katie Paxton and Brett Bolton

Brett Bolton and Ray Dooley

Julie Fishell and Brett Bolton

Ray Dooley and Julie Fishell

Photos by Jon Gardiner.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is now playing through December 18th.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Costumes of "Virginia Woolf"

When working on a period show, the costume shop often has to rely on finding vintage pieces or making similar garments themselves. But luckily for this production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the styles of the 1960s are making a comeback (probably due to the popularity of AMC's Mad Men).

"The fashions on the television screen have trickled into the mass market and it's now possible to go to the mall and buy slim tailored suits, skinny ties, and even hats and not have to rely completely on vintage pieces to obtain an authentic look," says costume designer Jade Bettin. "This is a very fortunate coincidence when one is trying to create costumes for a show like Virginia Woolf that is set in 1962."

But the design process still took some research. "Of course my immersion in the silhouette of the late 1950s and early 1960s went beyond Mad Men," Bettin says. "After my initial design meeting with [director] Wendy Goldberg and the other members of the design team, I collected a large amount of images that solidified my understanding of the details of the period."

1962 Brooks Brothers fashion illustration from Bettin's research

Bettin also had to work with - and at times against - the vibrant set design, which she previewed not long after that first design meeting. "I opened the email and saw - was that a bright patent red floor and ceiling?" she said, adding, "I think my initial thought was, well, I guess I'm not using green."

Though the set offered certain restrictions, it  also provided inspiration. "My journey to find the colors that work for each character and with this set has been a very interesting one," says Bettin, who chose saturated colors for the character Martha.

"In reading the play and focusing in on the character of Martha, I always got the sense that she didn't quite fit - that she was not content playing the role of 1950s housewife," she said. "So that saturation hints at her discontent and also ties her to the color of the floor and ceiling and one of the other most interesting pieces of the set for me - the abstract painting that is commented on in the dialogue."

Untitled 15-P by Edward Dugmore, a 1959 abstract painting that
inspired Bettin's design (source: www.abstract-art.com)

"The abstract paintings of this period are canvases filled with bold splashes of color that speak to raw emotion," Bettin says. "Sounds like Martha to me."

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Set Design of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

For Alexander Dodge, set designer for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the design process began with understanding the play's psychological and emotional tone.

"The atmosphere of the play is incredibly hot much of the time and frequently unbearably so," he said. "However, its volatility is absorbing and even bewitching."

From there, Dodge and director Wendy C. Goldberg approached the task of creating a feeling of confinement for the PlayMakers thrust environment.  "We wanted a space that felt oppressive and constricting without necessarily being completely literal and naturalistic," he said. "Though the play requires certain trappings of a period living room and the course of the evening happens in real time, the overall space could be metaphorical as well."

Rendering of Dodge's design
To accomplish this, they settled on a "metaphorical playing space" with more realistic, period-specific furniture pieces "to ground the reality." The use of books ties in with the characters' connections to academia. The glossy red floor and ceiling create the feeling of confinement desired by appearing to crush the wall of books.
An image that inspired Dodge's design
Dodge said, "One of Martha's first lines is 'what a dump' channeling Bette Davis. Presumably as George and Martha mess up one area of this big rambling colonial they move on to a cleaner area until the entire house is in the state we find it."

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens November 30th.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and the Pulitzer Prize

Entertaining? Definitely. Shocking? At times. Wholesome?

...maybe not.

There's a lot that can be said about Edward Albee's 1962 Broadway debut Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, winner of the 1963 Tony Award and initial winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. But when it came time to award the Pulitzer, the committee actually decided to override its original decision. Albee's play did not, they decided, portray a "wholesome" view of American life. Its sexual themes and language were not deemed "uplifting."

Edward Albee (source: www.achievement.org)

So what beat out Virginia Woolf?

Actually, nothing. The Committee didn't award a drama prize at all that year, despite critical acclaim. The decision grew even more controversial when half of the Committee's members resigned to show their support for Albee.

For more information, check out Edward Albee's biography. 

And if you think you can handle the scandal, then get ready for PlayMakers' production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, opening on November 30th.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Get on the Bus! - Don’t forget your luggage.

1961: The Freedom Riders have gathered from across America.  They are about to travel to the segregated and violent southern states to fight racial prejudice. What might they bring with them on such a trip?  A change of clothes? A few belongings for the road? In the first few days of rehearsal for Mike Wiley’s Parchman Hour, the story of the Riders and their struggle, the prop shop got a note asking for “about 12 suitcases”. We did a little research on clasp and lock types from the 1940’s through the early 60’s. Luckily Playmakers’ has an extensive stock of mid-century suitcases, so we rolled our stairs over to the loft and pulled down about 15 of the most interesting ones we could find. 

Suitcases with their original handles.

We cleaned them up and put them in rehearsal.  During rehearsal, we realized that the wiggle in the suitcase handles was hazardous. The actors had to perform a choreographed routine with the suitcases and the unwieldy pieces of luggage were suddenly death bludgeons. So we took back the ones we liked. Over the next few days our wonderful prop Work Study students removed the original handles with saws and cutters and other destructive tools.

Melinda Bendixen removing and original handle.
We chose plain metal drawer pulls as replacement handles because of their strength and durability. However they are ugly.

Yuman Wang attaching a new handle.

At this point we let the work studies loose on them with the instructions to “Make them work, make them look like they go with the suitcase.”  Taking the original handles as starting points, they painted some, covered a couple in colored gaffer’s tape or fabric, and even wrapped one in ribbon.

Suitcases with new and hold handles
--> We bolted the new handles on, reinforcing the older, flimsier suitcases, and voila! Dance worthy suitcase handles. No wiggling or whacking our actors. They can now use suitcases in a way they were never intended to be used! Ah, the magic of theater.

End of story! Of course not! So much of the action takes place front and center in this show (without the usual scene changes or off stage costume changes) word came down from rehearsal that a change of costume should be pre-dressed in the suitcases. We went back and “prettied up” the insides of the suitcases. We cleaned them out, let them air out, deodorized a couple, fixed some lining, and once again- Voila! Completed prop. Now we just check them every few days to make sure they’re structurally sound and that everything is holding up.

The Parchman Hour runs through Sunday, November 13

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Best of Both Worlds: Undergrads in "The Parchman Hour"

Many of the artists at PlayMakers have ties to UNC-Chapel Hill, but it's not often that a production features undergrad actors in the cast. However, open casting calls for The Parchman Hour brought undergraduates Jessica Sorgi and Allen Tedder to the PlayMakers stage - a fact the students are pretty excited about.

Jessica Sorgi
"I don’t know of any other schools where undergrads have the opportunity to work in a professional environment," says Jessica. "Being able to work on a professional production, while still having the security of an educational environment, is the best of both worlds."

Allen Tedder
Allen, who has been with the cast for both tours, admits that it can be difficult to balance school and work. "There were some challenges, especially on the tours and working at PlayMakers," he says. "I have had late nights and liters of coffee to try and keep my grades up. And missing spring break for the tour earlier in the year was well worth it, but it was still like not having a break."

Still, both undergraduates agree that the experience has taught them a lot. "I know now that I want to be an actor for the rest of my life - this run has confirmed that," says Allen. "I have also learned that in the world, there are countless unsung heroes (I've met them) that do not even seek the glory they rightly earn... just the satisfaction of being able to sleep at night, knowing that they did what they could for the genuine good of the whole."

Jessica, who said she was grateful for the opportunity to share the story of the Freedom Riders, added, "I hope that audiences not only learn more about the civil rights movement, but are also inspired to take action for what they believe in. I hope that they recognize how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go in the pursuit of freedom and equality."

The Parchman Hour runs until November 13th.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Photos of "The Parchman Hour'!

Every dress rehearsal (the night before our first public performance), we bring our favorite photographer Jon Gardiner into the theater to shoot production and press photos. He always gets great pictures that show off the excitement of the production. Check out some of his shots of The Parchman Hour below!

Dee Dee Batteast with the Ensemble

The Ensemble

Kashif Powell as Stokely Carmichael (foreground) and Doug Bynum as John Lewis, with the Ensemble

David Aron Damane as Pee Wee with the band and Ensemble

 The Ensemble

Photos by Jon Gardiner.

The Parchman Hour is running until November 13th.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Costuming the Freedom Riders, part 2

by Rachel Pollock, Costume Designer

A few posts ago, I made an update about the show opening tonight for which I have designed costumes, a world premiere of a new script by playwright and director Mike Wiley. The play, The Parchman Hour, takes place partly in Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm prison.

My prior post talked about how I came up with the costume design for the inmate characters doing hard time, whom we know from copious research images wore ragged, faded, black-and-white striped convict uniforms:
Design collage for the uniforms.

We needed to get fabric to make the uniforms in a very specific stripe dimension and fiber/weave, which we were able to do thanks to the wonderful services of Durham fabric printer Spoonflower. Thanks to modern technology, I can show you some video that the theatre produced as part of the press releases and supplementary media for this show, which is relevant to the project!

Twelve-minute Behind the Scenes video:

There's a great section in the middle of the Behind the Scenes video, an interview with me and crafts artisan and second-year graduate student Adrienne Corral talking about some more of the processes we did on the Spoonflower fabric before the cut-and-sew portion of construction. The section starts around 6:25. It not only talks about the design concept behind the fabric production, but gives you a glimpse into our dye facility, as Adrienne walks the viewer through the laundry and dye processes she did to start with.
Then, lead draper and third-year graduate student Kaitlin Fara drafted patterns for the shirts and trousers, and supervised their construction with the help of two first hands (Claire Fleming and Leah Pelz) and a factory sewing cell of stitchers.

Once the five uniforms were complete, they went back to Adrienne for aging, distressing, and dirtying-up. She used a variety of dye mixtures, textile paints, and screenprinting inks to age the garments, applied with a combination of manual techniques (aka "finger painting"--smearing and scrunching the fabric with colorant smeared onto her gloved hands) and Preval sprayers. After application, she heat-set the effects using both our industrial heat press and a steam chamber, depending on the garment. (Bulky sections with buttons and several thicknesses couldn't go into the heat-press, which is kind of like an enormous straightening iron for hair, so they went into the steamer.)
Adrienne applies some finishing touches of filth to one of the shirts.

Grimed-up trousers on our dyeroom steel table awaiting heat-setting.

Two-minute trailer:

David Aron Damane wears one of the uniforms in the fight at 0:45.
Close-up pan on the band in them at 0:52.

Stage shot of David Aron Damane wearing one of the uniforms.
Also pictured: J. Alphonse Nicholson and the ensemble.

Note how the stage lights minimize all that grime treatment!

There was one other craft project that involved digital design and printing as well, and that was our reproductions of the logo pins that the Freedom Riders from the Coalition of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee wore on their lapels, to show their solidarity and support, much the same way such logo pins are worn now for political support of fans of a band or whatever. Adrienne took photos of some of the original pins that I provided her as research, and cleaned them up digitally so that they could be uploaded and produced by the company Wacky Buttons, who turned around our small quantity orders (15 of each design) in a matter of a couple days. Here are the masters Adrienne made:


This actually is a great illustration of how digital technologies and online media are changing the way designers can and must think about their shows. The camera operators who shot our trailer video got press shots at such close range that a design element which seems at first thought like an aesthetic conceit (making sure we had the lapel button designs that CORE and SNCC members wore on the rides) becomes differently visually relevant.
Before YouTube trailers for shows, maybe no one but the actors would have gotten a really good look at the pins. Maybe folks on the front row might have barely been able to see the SNCC clasped-hands image. The buttons might just go unnoticed by the majority of the audience so their actual design might not have been very important, but I watched the trailer on full-screen and man, you can really see a couple of them!

The pan shot of the band gets closer to these uniforms than any audience member ever would, so in both of these cases, it was not enough for me to approach the design of this show regarding its appearance at the middle distance, or from the back row, or the front row. There has long been a cliche about costumes and sets, and corners that get cut or illusions that get created: "Will they see it from the front row?" Working for a company that embraces new media, digital technologies, and social platforms for audience engagement is effectively breaking the fourth wall even further down. Something to consider!

Anyhow, that's the dirt (ha!) on the prison uniforms for this world premiere production, opening tonight! It's been an incredible journey. So far, i've sat previews in which people got up and danced, shouted standing ovations, and surviving Freedom Riders got up onstage at the finale. I cannot wait to see what Opening Night holds, and I bet the run is going to bring even more incredible, exciting surprises and energy. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is a game-changing, attitude-changing, life-changing play that will make you want to change your world for the better.

Monday, October 31, 2011

"The Expression of Experience"
by John Patrick

John Patrick is a vocal coach who has worked in film, theatre, and television. He served as the vocal coach for A Number with PlayMakers before working on The Parchman Hour.

The voice carries on it the expression of an experience. Each voice is different just like each person’s perspective is different. The human need for individualized expression is beautifully juxtaposed against the power found in solidarity in The Parchman Hour.

As vocal coach, my job is to support and guide the actors to vocal choices and discoveries that further reveal and communicate the present experiences of the given characters and story, all under the guidance of our esteemed director Mike Wiley. Oh, and to make sure the audience can understand what the actors are saying, lest the artistic choices be for naught.

The unique challenge of working on The Parchman Hour was the sheer amount of characters the audience has to be able to discern from one another. Each with a unique sound and dialect and sometimes one actor may play multiple characters. We live in exciting times with abundant resources for research in this capacity. Audio and video recordings of some of the voices of the actual Freedom Riders exist online. We also have a plethora of recordings of natives from all over the country so we can find dialects that sound indicative of very specific areas of Alabama, Mississippi, and New England where the vast majority of characters hail from. The actors heavily drew on these resources for inspiration in creating living and breathing vehicles for the voices of some historical and fictional characters.

But to simply do an impression of someone historic would not take into account the heart and soul that can only come when an actor identifies personally with the traits and perspective of a character. This marrying of external postures with internal life is a nuanced and exciting journey. We play and make mistakes until a choice is made that resonates deeply with the actor, the ensemble, and ultimately the audience. Then we know we have something powerful to share. Embracing diversity was one of the many tenants of the Civil Rights era so in finding the voice and body of these brave characters we must honor the diverse actors that inhabit them. The actor’s voice must be heard through the dialect and vocal rhythms of the character to celebrate the connection between the two.

The actors do ALL this work. It is my honor to guide and point towards possibilities that the actors already have inside themselves. They may need help shedding light on the sometimes dark and messy catacombs of the creative process, but in the end, the actors make the choice to breathe and dangerously reveal their unique expression of a moment filtered through the perspective of the character they inhabit for a time. How exciting! I am in awe of what actors do and I cannot wait to hear the voices of the Freedom Riders live on in a new generation in The Parchman Hour.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Behind-the-Scenes Video of "The Parchman Hour"

Check out our behind-the-scenes video for The Parchman Hour, featuring playwright-director Mike Wiley with members of the design and production team and the cast!

The Parchman Hour is now playing through November 13. Learn more here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"A Music Director's Perspective"
by Rozlyn Sorrell

Singer/actress Rozlyn Sorrell is a New York native who has performed in music, film, television and theatre in Los Angeles and currently operates Vocal Precision Studio in Raleigh. Rozlyn serves as the music director for The Parchman Hour.

As an educator, I feel this piece is very timely and relevant in the world in which we live today. The economic challenges we face as a nation have affected our educational school system and the way funds are spent. Our world of political correctness jeopardizes historical curriculum and the way texts are written. Their content is watered down and falsified with generalities preventing knowledge in its truest form. As creative arts programs struggle to stay alive, it is so very important that productions such as The Parchman Hour continue to be produced. Future generations will come to know and respect the poignant pen of Mike Wiley, as he is able to communicate the hard realities of a difficult and ugly past in a moving, provocative, honest and entertaining way.

What value, quality and dimension can I add to The Parchman Hour as music director? Ay, there’s the rub. It is my job to support Mike’s vision with musical nuances that accentuate the underlying theme and purpose of the project. It is my job to ensure it is achieved by pulling the qualities he seeks from each artistic cast member. Fortunately, the talented and hard-working cast of this production makes this task less daunting.

The music in this piece helps to soften the heavy blow of harsh dialogue and physical action, but does not eradicate it. It punctuates and emphasizes contradictions of political rhetoric, but does not shove it down your throat. Some music is pounded into the core of your being, while some subtler music just makes you think. You will cry one moment and, before you know it, find yourself clapping your hands, stomping your feet and even singing along. The power of a well-written work is the ability to cause one to experience a roller coaster of emotional confusion. Mike Wiley succeeds – yet again – in accomplishing this feat. It is with great joy that I am able to come along for the ride.

Monday, October 24, 2011

"A Remarkable Journey"
by Kashif Powell

Kashif Powell is a Triangle-based actor, and a Ph.D. student in Performance Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, making his PlayMakers debut as Stokely Carmichael in The Parchman Hour.

It has been such a privilege to work on The Parchman Hour. This project has taken me on a remarkable journey, teaching me profound lessons in courage and sacrifice along the way. One such lesson came this past May when I, along with other members of the cast and the director, Mike Wiley, attended the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides in Jackson, Mississippi.

As waves of Freedom Riders and their families began to flow in, the 15,000-seat auditorium felt like a teapot attempting to contain an ocean. The space ignited with hundreds of stories nearly fifty years old and histories that dated back much further. It still astonishes me that I was able to hear those stories first-hand; I sat next to Jesse Harris who vividly discussed the brutality he experienced while in Parchman and spoke with Joan Trumpauer Mulholland who rode from New Orleans to Jackson with my character, Stokely Carmichael.

The journeys of the Freedom Riders and the legacy of the Freedom Rides filled that space, and in doing so made its way into the hearts and souls of every person present. Now, this production and all those involved are charged with the responsibility of telling the stories of the Freedom Riders and bearing their legacy.

I believe that this play does just that. Like a wave at its summit, it is poised to wash over the audience and pull them right into the thick of the Freedom Rides. So bring your life jackets, because it’s gonna to a fun ride! And when it’s over, hopefully you will leave understanding what I came to understand in May - “freedom does not drop from the sky.” Instead it must be ardently fought for, and, once obtained, lived to its fullest extent. I sincerely thank the many Freedom Riders for not only changing the course of my history, but the path of my future as well. Enjoy the show!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Designing the world of
"The Parchman Hour"

When audiences enter the theater to see The Parchman Hour, their eyes will probably go straight to the life-sized bus onstage.

"The bus became the real tag for me as so much of this story and the story of the civil rights movement involves buses," says set designer McKay Coble, citing the story of Rosa Parks, the strategy of the Freedom Riders and the bus-burning incident at Anniston as examples. But there's more to the set than the bus.

The scale model of McKay Coble's set design
Coble also says she incorporated T.V. sets into the design to highlight the discrepancy between the "lighthearted and a little sexy" vsion of "a bright new world" broadcast on television and the grim problems actually occurring in the '60s.
"We are using a clip of a Greyhound commercial (and it is one of many travel logs) that show a journey that was supposed to be representative of the trips folks took on buses in 1961," Coble says. "I think the photos of the Greyhounds we see used for the Freedom rides - particularly the one at Anniston - tell a very different story."

As many television sets were still in black and white in 1961, Coble set the majority of the play in the color scheme. "The play starts out in color and we lose it once we get to the prison," she says, citing the achromatic prison uniforms seen in Parchman and the mug shots of the Freedom Riders as examples of the black and white design elements.

Coble says that the return of color at the end reminds audiences "that the movement was forward - still with a way to go, though." The use of color was also inspired by the artwork of Charlotta Janssen, whose work Coble discovering when researching the world of the play.

portrait of Rosa Parks by Charlotta Janssen

"She has created remarkable collage and painted portraits based on the mug shots of the Riders that have become so iconographic," Coble says. "It is rich and deep and passionate- makes complete sense to me."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Parchman in Context, Part 2

by Ashley Lucas, Dramaturg

Ashley Lucas is production dramaturg for The Parchman Hour by Mike Wiley. The text of this post contains the dramaturgical notes she wrote for the program of the play. This is Part 2 of a two-part essay -- click here to start with Part 1!


The bus rides themselves provided sufficient evidence of the Freedom Riders’ bravery and the depth of their belief in the Civil Rights Movement.  However, the Riders further proved their resiliency and their devotion to human rights by maintaining their strength, humor, and commitment to one another during the weeks they spent inside Parchman.  Few people have the will to sing about freedom while they are held captive, to engage in hunger strikes when they have already lost much of their physical strength, to hold fast to their ideals when almost no one can see them do it.  They faced Parchman and still believed in the dignity of all people.  The Parchman Hour does much to capture the sheer force of will of the Freedom Riders, and it raises up their songs and stubborn optimism in the face of terrible violence and irrevocable injustice.  They, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Cesar Chavez, imagined the freedom and equality they did not have and sought to create it with little more than their bodies and voices.

Though the Freedom Riders had a significant hand in the many great triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, neither they nor the many others who fought for freedom in the 1960s managed to eradicate racism, inequality, or the brutality of incarceration.  In 2008 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report about the “horrific conditions” at Parchman Farm.  HIV-positive prisoners began writing to the ACLU in 1998, explaining that:

they were living in squalor, categorically segregated from the rest of the prison population, and barred from all prison educational and vocational programs and jobs. They told us that they were dying like flies because prison doctors refused to give them the “cocktail” (the triple-drug combination therapy that since 1997 had begun to change HIV from an inevitably fatal disease to a treatable chronic illness). (Winter and Hanlon, “Parchman Farm Blues,” ACLU Website)

The ACLU investigation found that of the one hundred twenty men being held in segregation, eighty percent were black and most were convicted of nonviolent offenses.  Their report describes these men as being “warehoused in a virtual leper colony and left to die.”  ACLU lawyers spent nearly ten years in litigation before they felt that officials at Parchman were finally taking steps to change these conditions in 2007.  Life on the Farm doesn’t change much.

The courage of the Freedom Riders—and indeed Mike Wiley’s play—ought to push us out of our seats and into our own forms of protest.  We cannot merely marvel at what those in the Civil Rights Movement did for us; we must root out the injustices which surround us today, both those that are readily apparent and those which are deliberately hidden from us.  The United States incarcerates 2.3 million people today (one in every one hundred of its citizens) (US Bureau of Justice Website).  Our schools are now more segregated than they were in 1954 when the Brown decision was handed down (www.projectcensored.org).  In 2010, 17.2 million households in the U.S. did not have enough food to feed their families—a higher rate of hunger than we have seen in this country’s history (www.worldhunger.org).  If we admire the Freedom Riders, then we must seek to become them in new ways and in unexpected places.  We cannot be content to ignore the persistent legacies of racial inequality, but we must be creative—like the Freedom Riders—and imagine the bus before we can get on it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

So who were the Freedom Riders?

PlayMakers Repertory's upcoming show, The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the '61 Freedom Riders, focuses on the story of a brave and determined group of men and women who had a significant impact on the Civil Rights Movement. Here's some inspirational historical context to get you ready to see the show.

It started with the Nashville Student Group. Upon successfully desegregating lunch counters and movie theaters in their city, the band of college students decided to challenge the Jim Crow laws throughout the South by traveling the country on public buses.

A group of Freedom Riders ready to depart. Source: www.forusa.org

On May 5th, 1961, the group of students, black and white, sat together on their first bus and ignored "white" and "colored" designations at their stops. Though the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in public facilities three years earlier, these acts were still considered criminal in the Deep South and the Freedom Riders became the victims of beatings by angry mobs along their route.

On Mother's Day, 1961, a mob in Anniston, Alabama, slashed their bus's tires and threw a firebomb inside. When the Riders tried to escape, they encountered the mob waiting outside the bus weilding lead pipes and baseball bats. Though an undercover agent intervened to precent imminent lynchings, the group was beaten a second time that day when they arrived in Birmingham. Soon afterward members from to CORE (the Committee of Racial Equality), SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference)joined the Freedom Rides.
The bombing of a Freedom Riders bus. Source: www.birminghamarchives.org

Police soon arrested 350 participants, filling Mississippi jails. Many of the Freedom Riders were transferred to the maximum-security prison at Parchman Farm near Jackson, Mississippi and endured humiliating and torturous conditions.

Upon their release the Riders continued their efforts, inspiring other movements to spring up to challenge segregation laws. Five months after the first ride, the Interstate Commerce Commission enacted a tougher law banning segregation in public facilities.

For more information, check out the Freedom Riders Foundation's website.

Friday, October 14, 2011

We Have a Bus!

by Laura Pates, Shop Lead on The Parchman Hour

Laura Pates is a first-year Technical Production MFA student who tracked down and transported a real 1960s bus into the Paul Green Theater to become part of the set for The Parchman Hour.

Laura Pates and production manager Michael Rolleri pose by the bus (before it was chopped up).

The interior of the bus
The bus is one of the main elements of Mckay's set design and references many incidents in the Civil Rights Movement. I was given the task of finding a 1950s-60s era city bus within our available budget and driving distance. I started by contacting every junk yard, scrap yard, wrecking company and bus company within a 2 hours radius of Chapel Hill. Through research and the help of some people I spoke to, I was put into contact with a man in Warsaw, NC who knew everybody and everything there is to know about buses in the country. He gave me the name of a man in Fayetteville who had exactly what we needed (among roughly 90 other buses he has behind his house). I then contacted him and arranged a time for us to drive to Fayetteville, find our bus, and arrange a deal.

The next step was the most interesting and definitely the most fun. Our entire crew took 3 trucks with 2 trailers and every tool we could think of to cut a 40' long bus literally in half. We sectioned it into about 7 pieces as we had to carry the pieces through woods and a maze of buses, out to our trucks. We brought the pieces back to the theatre and have begun reassembling the bus in our scene shop. It has been a long process and we ran into many obstacles, but the end product makes it more than worth the effort.

Disassembling the bus
Come check out the bus in our production of The Parchman Hour, running October 26 - November 13!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Parchman in Context, Part 1

by Ashley Lucas, Dramaturg

Ashley Lucas is production dramaturg for The Parchman Hour by Mike Wiley. The text of this post contains the dramaturgical notes she wrote for the program of the play. This is Part 1 of a two-part essay -- check back next week for Part 2!

Throughout the American South, Parchman Farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality, as well it should be.
-David M. Oshinsky
Since its establishment in 1901, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, has had a reputation for being one of the bloodiest and most dangerous prisons in the United States.  A former plantation owned by a family named Parchman, the prison’s legacy of farm labor and a mostly black prisoner population remain in place to this day.  Historically, most prisoners at Parchman have worked in the fields, tending the cotton by hand for ten hours a day, six days a week.   Though prisoners now grow vegetables rather than cotton, they still work the same fields that their enslaved ancestors once plowed.  In 2010, the incarcerated workers at Parchman spent 732,326 hours in agricultural labor (Mississippi Department of Corrections Website). Some things don’t change much over time, especially in prison, especially in the South.

Parchman’s notoriety as a place of terror long predates the arrival of the Freedom Riders in 1961.  After the end of the Civil War, much of the South—and Mississippi in particular—persisted without much infrastructure of any kind.  Devastated by the economic and human cost of the war, Mississippians of all racial backgrounds now faced not only the confusion of Reconstruction but also the new legal status of the 400,000 blacks in the state.  White legislators quickly drafted the first Jim Crow laws, and Parchman—the only maximum security men’s facility in Mississippi to this day—became the destination for a great many black men (and some women) who were put to work both on the farm and outside of it as part of the convict lease system.  Most of the major cities in the South were rebuilt during Reconstruction on the backs of prisoners working on chain gangs (a practice which continues today in Arizona).  Both in terms of their monetary worth and their health and safety, blacks had been more valuable as slaves than they were as prisoners.  A slave, like any other piece of livestock, needed to be kept in good working condition if a slave owner wanted to maximize his or her productivity.  A prisoner, however, ceased to be an asset and could be worked to death without any fiscal loss to the state.  The practice of laboring prisoners literally to death was so common that, “Not a single leased convict ever lived long enough to serve a sentence of ten years or more” (Oshinsky, p. 46).

Even those not placed on the chain gangs risked death each day at Parchman.  The field laborers at Parchman are still patrolled by guards on horseback carrying rifles.  Guards punished prisoners with such severe beatings that many died from the lashes of a leather whip known as Black Annie.  Prison administrators and guards also employed the biggest and toughest prisoners to strong arm their peers into submission, even offering guns to some of them to shoot anyone who tried to escape while working in the fields.  The severity of the conditions at Parchman prompted a lawsuit in 1972 in which the Honorable William C. Keady declared the prison “an affront ‘to modern standards of decency.’”   He ruled for an immediate end to many disciplinary practices at Parchman, including,
beating, shooting, administering milk of magnesia, or stripping inmates of their clothes, turning fans on inmates while they are naked and wet, depriving inmates of mattresses, hygienic materials and/or adequate food, handcuffing or otherwise binding inmates to fences, bars, or other fixtures, using a cattle prod to keep inmates standing or moving, or forcing inmates to stand, sit or lie on crates, stumps or otherwise maintain awkward positions for prolonged periods. (Gates v. Collier)
Death and pain—and the fear of those things—remain part of the atmosphere of most prisons, but the vast seclusion of the 18,000 acres of this former plantation, regional efforts to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War, and the inherent racism of the U.S. criminal justice system enabled a culture of perpetual violence to rule Parchman even more strongly than many other prisons in this country.

Mike Wiley’s new play, The Parchman Hour, gives audiences a glimpse of this prison in 1961 when a group of black and white civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders served thirty-nine days on the infamous farm after being arrested in Jackson, Mississippi.  On May 4, 1961, the first Freedom Ride set out from Washington, DC, carrying thirteen men and women on Trailways and Greyhound buses.  These travelers meant to assert the basic right for whites and blacks to sit with one another on a bus, anywhere in the United States.  Their peaceable action met with intense hostility from segregationists.   By the time the Freedom Riders reached Jackson, Mississippi, they had already faced many beatings and murderous mobs.  Under such circumstances, one might be tempted to assume that they were likely to be safer in prison than on these ill-fated buses, but the protestors knew Parchman’s reputation well and had every reason to fear for their lives when they were brought to the legendary farm.  Their ride for freedom ended in incarceration.


This is Part 1 of a two-part essay by Ashley Lucas. Check back next week for Part 2!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Costuming the Freedom Riders, part 1

by Rachel Pollock, Costume Designer

I'm currently designing costumes for a very exciting project, the professional world premiere of The Parchman Hour, a new play written and directed by Mike Wiley.

The play chronicles the stories and songs of the Freedom Riders, a group composed mostly of college students who, during the summer of 1961, challenged segregation in the southern US by riding Greyhound and Trailways buses into the Deep South and refusing to observe segregated waiting rooms, restrooms, terminal lunch counter seating, and bus seating.

They met with violent resistance--one bus was firebombed and several of the Riders were beaten so badly they had to be hospitalized. They were not deterred, however, and more busloads of them kept coming--eventually over 300 people in all. Ultimately the state of Mississippi began incarcerating them in the notorious Parchman Farm Penitentiary, where they endured cruel abuse but kept their spirits up with songs and a nightly "vaudeville show," in which they would trade off reciting poetry, delivering speeches and sermons, telling jokes, calling out their contributions to everyone down the row on their cellblock.

In our production, there are several performers (one actor and four musicians) who are costumed as long-term Parchman inmates--men who are not part of the Freedom Riders group, but who instead are part of the Parchman gen-pop, hardened criminals and chain-gang workers who toil in Parchman's fields day in and day out. The uniforms worn by those prisoner characters are the subject of this post.

In researching what the uniforms looked like, I was specifically looking for photographs of prisoners making music, since the majority of our performers costumed in this way will be prominently featured onstage providing the music for the show.


I initially found some photos of prison bands, inmates who toured providing music for public events. These images weren't ultimately useful for my research though, beyond novelty. For one thing, all the images i found of prison bands of the era depicted only white prisoners (no surprise, given the segregation and prejudice of the time), and the majority of men serving long sentences in Parchman were black men.

And, our characters haven't been "polished up for the public." They aren't wearing stage-wear uniforms of clean, new fabric. Our guys are inmates playing music for themselves and those with whom they are incarcerated. They need to look like they just came in from the work detail and have sat down to unwind.

Photobucket Photobucket
These men found time to play music despite incarceration. Our band represents these men.

This photo from the early 20th century shows a Parchman work detail returning. Note the variation in sun-fading of the stripes from one man's trousers to another.

This photo depicts Parchman prisoners in 1948 out on detail as music scholar Alan Lomax records their work songs.

Design collage for Pee Wee and the Band. These images became the basis for our conception of what our inmates' uniforms would look like.

I looked into what might be available in terms of pre-made prison-striped garments, but options consist of mostly flimsy cartoonish Halloween costumes, or actual modern-day black-and-white striped prison uniforms, which are now mostly made from ultra-durable polyester fabrics. (Not all modern prisoners have the television-cliche orange jumpsuits.) If you've ever tried to break down or "fade" polyester, you know what an uphill and ultimately losing battle that would mean for the crafts artisan on this show! And, you can't put bright white stripes onstage without adversely affecting the lighting, but you also can't easily tech down a white polyester to a creamier or greyer shade of pale.

I knew that if i wanted to wind up with a group of uniforms that might believably be worn by men serving hard time at Parchman Farm in 1961, we had to explore other options which would afford us more control over our final costumes.

Thankfully, it is entirely feasible in this day and age to simply design your own fabric to whatever specifications you need, and have it digitally printed in your exact yardage requirement. So, this is where the internationally-known, local, print-on-demand fabric production company Spoonflower comes in!

I created a file in Photoshop of a 2" stripe, already aged and faded to a certain degree, and uploaded it to their site. First, we ordered fat quarters in two of their fabrics--cotton twill and linen/cotton canvas--to test the print, the scale of the stripe, and to compare the hand of the fabric. We also did laundry tests on these sample pieces to see how the hand would change as the costumes were worn and laundered.

This image shows the cotton twill sample on the left, and the linen/cotton canvas sample on the right. We decided to use the cotton twill, since as the most sturdy weave it would be the most long-wearing for uniforms, and I loved how it reacted to the laundry processing-- slight changes in hand and ink retention.

The samples were washed with soda ash on a high-agitation cycle to help break them in, so they wouldn't look so freshly printed. An unwashed sample is on the right.

We did a set of dye tests at this point, to see what kinds of grime, staining, and yellowing we could incorporate as well. Above are several swatch tests of different washes of dye recipes.

Our shop manager, Adam Dill, contacted the folks at Spoonflower to let them know what we were going to be doing with their fabric and establish a line of communication in case there were any issues or concerns that arose on either end. They were really helpful, and completely on-board about our production timeline and the unusual nature of this project. Then, we ordered 31 yards of the final stripe design in cotton twill.

To give you an idea of the timing and planning of this at this stage of the game, we placed our fabric order two weeks before we wanted to have it in-house. Spoonflower's website lists a turnaround time of 6-7 days from order to shipping, with two more days required for larger quantities like our order. We wanted to make sure there was some wiggle-room. This means that as the designer, Mike and i began talking about these costumes and I started my research literally months ago, back in May and June, and the whole process of ordering the samples and doing the laundry tests happened back in August.

We knew, too, that once the fabric arrived, that there needed to be a week built into the schedule for the stuff to get double-processed (laundry loads, then dye washes). So, the planning for using a digital print has to be really on-point with all areas of production and design--you can't decide to do this on a whim!

Since I am serving as the costume designer on this show, I am not working in my usual capacity as Crafts Artisan. Rather, when i design for the mainstage at Playmakers, it affords one of our graduate students the opportunity to serve as production crafts artisan on a show. That student handles all the responsibilities which would usually be mine--processing dye requests, aging costumes, rubberizing shoes, making or altering or refurbishing hats, etc. I serve in a mentorship capacity, answering questions about specific processes or pointing them toward particular equipment or media or making sure we have extra hands to get the work done if needed, but the day-to-day running of the crafts sub-departmment during Playmakers work hours is left to them. They determine their workflow and ask for undergraduate or overhire help as they see fit, and ensure the crafts get done on time and up to par, as i would. I suppose if we did not have a graduate student who expressed interest in crafts, we might overhire a production crafts artisan, but so far it has been something our grads do pursue with enthusiasm.

The first batch, post-dye-treatment! It looks old and dirty and sweaty, and it's not even a garment yet! Success!

Production Crafts Artisan Adrienne Corral began processing the fabric in batches of six yards each through our 60-gal dye vat. It takes about two hours for her to do one length of the fabric, and is physically demanding work. Imagine suiting up in neoprene scuba gear, rowing a dinghy for fifteen minutes, and then carrying two flour sacks through a sauna. That's kind of what dyeing cotton twill yardage in a 60-gal vat is like, once you've got the neoprene apron and gauntlets and splashproof goggles on, and the bath's up to a boil!

For reference, here's another shot with the original freshly-printed unwashed  sample swatch on the right, compared to our ready-to-cut pre-faded  gross old prison uniform stripe! Great job, Adrienne!

In the next installment, we'll look at how this fabric yardage turns into costumes, and what else happens to them before they make their appearance onstage in Mike Wiley's incredible new play!