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:

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.