Just me talking about costume-y kind of stuff
Weekend in Houston Part 3
The Catastrophic Theatre
Tamarie Cooper (along with Jason Nodler) is the driving force behind The Catastrophic Theatre, a venue that does edgy, new works. They're the Kitchen Dog of Houston. They are housed in the warehouse district right off the freeway, behind Spaghetti Warehouse. I have a tangential history with Tamarie Cooper which is why I knew this would be a great show and had to go see it. Let me explain.
Tamarie and Jason formed Catastrophic in 2007 after the collapse of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, their previous experimental theatre that lasted 15 years and featured Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper) as one of their founding members. It so happened that I had just moved back to Texas as my sister was finishing up her BA at U of H. We would drive down there and see her in a show every once in a while. Eventually she graduated and got involved with IBP, soon becoming a company member herself. One summer, she was cast in an original musical called Tamalalia 8 along with a bunch of other crazy people. The head crazy person was Tamarie Cooper who kept writing these nutty original musicals and they kept selling out every summer. So that's how I finally made it to Tamalalia X: The Greatest Hits Show, back in 2005. My sister, and the rest of Houston, was right. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen...ever! Tamarie was irreverent, making fun of everyone and everything, but most appealing to me were the numbers about the 1980's and The President's Physical Fitness test, which neither Tamarie nor yours truly could pass.
Fast forward ten years. Jim Parsons is out in Hollywood making a million dollars an episode as Sheldon Cooper and sending Catastrophic $50,000 a year. My sister's got her MFA and is working as an actress in Chicago. Tamarie is still producing her original quirky musicals every summer at Catastrophic. Catastrophic Theatre is still doing edgy, new plays with a twist: Tickets are always Pay What You Can. Their website says that no one should be denied access to theatre due to a lack of funds. So thank you Catastrophic Theatre for allowing everyone equal access to theatre, thank you Jim Parsons for helping them to do that, and thank you to Tamarie for being so funny every single year.
Here's an interview with Tamarie that was done back in 2013 when she was premiering her new musical, Tamarie's Old as Hell.
University of tamarie
Tamarie is about to send her daughter to Kindergarten and still doesn't have her BA. Welcome to The University of Tamarie! Her seventh grade guidance counselor is there to confront her about the 200+ credit hours she's accumulated but still doesn't have a degree. The gauntlet is thrown down and the challenge is accepted. Can Tamarie prove that she's learned something in all her years of being in and dropping out of college before the show's over? Does she have what it takes to make it through Kindergarten today? Will she choose Public School, Private School or Homeschool for her daughter? Can she take on the Texas Board of Education and win? Will she earn her degree and graduate? All these questions will be answered and more, usually while singing and dancing. The show runs until August 29, so make plans to go see it now. It is for mature audiences only, as Tamarie does explore subjects like keg parties, sexual experimentation, and drug use.
The technical elements of the show contributed greatly to the comedy. Scenic Design was by Ryan McGettigan. The set featured a Classical facade although skewed in perspective. There was a giant #2 pencil leaning against it on stage right and a giant red apple for teacher on stage left. There were alphabet blocks, some that lit up from the inside, scattered about the stage. The backdrop was a orange sky with blue sun rays shooting up from the horizon. I'm not sure if the metaphor was supposed to be the sun is setting on Tamarie's education, or it's the dawn of Tamarie's new day or Buckaroo Banzai blesses this play, but either way it was striking. On the stage right side were higher platforming and hanging from the grid was a giant flat screen TV that alternately projected a map of the US, a chalkboard, various photos, and short videos. The neatest trick was when Tamarie had to take a math test. She had chalk in her hand but was standing on the floor away from the screen. The screen was projecting the chalkboard image. As Tamarie drew in the air, her equation appeared on the chalkboard as she was writing it. Tim Thompson was responsible for the video design.
The costume design by Tamarie Cooper, Pam Pelligrino, and Kelly Switzer, was equally comedic. The 16 actors in the show seemed to change costumes for every number, while Tamarie mostly stayed in her uniform of navy blue dress with white polka dots that she wears in every Tamarie show. The first number, "The University of Tamarie" everyone wore the standard black graduation gown with mortar board. For the second number, "Welcome to Kindergarten" the cast changed into standard mode of dress with solid coloured polo-type shirts and khaki shorts for the boys and jumpers for the girls.
The next bit was the "Battle of the Schools" in which Private School, Public School, and Home School must compete against each other in the game of life to determine which one is the best. Tamarie and Ronnie Blane (as Troy McKenzie) wore red blazers like ESPN announcers to comment on the action. The Private school kids (2 boys and 1 girl) wore white dress shirts, ties, and navy blue blazers with khaki pants for the boys and a green and blue plaid skirt for the girl. The Public school kids (also 2 boys and a girl) wore non-uniform clothes with the girl being "pregnant" and wearing a red mini-dress over her 9 month pregnancy pad. The Home School kids (3 girls) wore identical denim long dresses over white T-shirts with Keds. All the girls had long blond frizzy wigs and silver cross necklaces.
For "Sex Education" Kyle Sturdivant, a very large and hairy man, played a female gym teacher in red lycra capri pants and a purple windbreaker with a silly blonde wig, a sweat band, and a whistle. The rest of the class was in red and white gym clothes. The Egg Baby that Tamarie had to take care of was Zach Leonard in a giant foam egg costume.
The "Lament of Useless Information" was perhaps the funniest costuming as Tamarie is urged to purge her brain of useless information to make more room for her education. All of the cast came out dressed as different things that Tamarie remembers: tap dancing, her Aunt Phyllis' recipes, 1970's TV theme songs, the Metric System, Haiku, cursive, and French. Tap Dancing was a boy and girl dressed in black and white sequined Chorus Line-esque costumes of top hats and tails. Aunt Phyllis' recipes was costumed like Sophia on the Golden Girls in a brightly coloured track suit with grey wig and carrying two pans full of food the whole number. The 1970's TV show theme songs were two guys and a girl in bell bottoms and Afros. Haiku was Kyle Sturdivant cross-dressing (again) as a Japanese woman in traditional kimono, obi, white makeup and black wig. Cursive was dressed in frilly Elizabethan doublet and pumpkin hose. French was in traditional Marcel Marceau black and white mime costume with a black moustache and red suspenders and beret. The Metric System was in a giant foam thermometer with 0 degrees Celsius and 100 degrees Celsius marked on it.
"The Texas State Bored of Education" featured Kyle Sturdivant again, as The Chairman of the Bored, his only non-cross dressing role. The number featured all the women as 1980's housewives in solid color jewel toned suits with skirts, with bad Dallas big-haired wigs. The boys came out in period costume as our Country's founders: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Jesus. John Dunn played a scary Ted Cruz. For the finale everyone reprises the opening song, this time in silver sequined gowns.
The music was mostly original, although many familiar songs wafted in and out of the soundtrack, like the 1970's TV show theme songs from "The Lament of Useless Information" scene in which the band played theme songs from The Jeffersons, Three's Company, and Laverne and Shirley. The flashback to the keg party began with Duran Duran and meandered through other 1980's hits. The house band was really talented. With only three members: Chris Bakos, Miriam Daly, and Cathy Power, they managed to fill the house with music, each member playing a variety of instruments.
We went on a Pay What You Can evening: two tickets $20.
The Foreigner at The alley at U of H
The Foreigner was Larry Shue's last play. It had been running Off- Broadway for a year. when he was killed in a plane crash in 1985. If you haven't seen the play before, here's a brief character description/plot summary. The play is set in a fishing lodge in Northern Georgia. Betty is the sweet old widow lady who owns the lodge. Catherine, her preacher boyfriend David, and her mentally challenged brother Ellard are new in town and staying in the lodge. Owen is the redneck building inspector in town who's trying to condemn the lodge. The visitors to the lodge are Froggie, a British military demolitions expert, and his friend and former clerk Charlie, who is now an editor at a Science Fiction publishing house. The action of play begins when Froggie brings Charlie to Betty's lodge to stay for a few days while Froggie is at the base training our troops. Froggie is frightfully shy and no good at social situltions and wishes there were a way that he didn't have to talk to anyone while he's there. Froggie comes up with the plan to introduce Charlie as a foreigner who doesn't speak English. His plan backfires when his foreign status only makes Charlie more interesting to the lodgers rather than less so as they try to communicate with him and teach him words in English. Naturally Charlie overhears a few conversations that he shouldn't have since everyone talks openly around him secure in the knowledge that he doesn't umderstand a word they are saying. Charlie discovers that Owen and David are in cahoots to condemn the lodge so that they can buy it cheap and turn it into the KKK headquarters. Charlie manages to develop a personality, becoming a witty raconteur. He "learns" English from Ellard, endearing himself to the women folk. Together they foil Owen's nefarious plan, exposing David's involvement, Froggie blows up David's van, and the lodge is saved as well as the day.
The great thing about this show is how well it stands up to the passage of time, unlike The Nerd, which dates itself with Willum's service in Vietman, its lead characters' constant use of old-fashioned language, and even more dated references like Marjorie Main. The only thing that dates The Foreigner is Catherine's complaint about the out of date magazines in the lodge: "'Princess Diana gives birth to her first child, a boy, as yet unnamed' Oh no! Whatever will they name that boy?". Prince William was 3 when the play was first written. The fact that he's now 33, only serves to make the magazines more out of date but does nothing to damage the contemporary feel of the play. The South still has a problem with the KKK, there are still obnoxious rednecks, corrupt preachers, out of wedlock pregnancies, mentally challenged people, and the US still has a love of (and sometimes fear of) foreigners.
The acting was spot on, The tendency with lesser actors is to overplay comedy. The more subtle and serious an actor's performance in a comedy, the better. Jeffrey Bean, who played Charlie Baker, was clearly understated right until his character warms up to his circumstances and the fellow lodgers; then he completely gives himself over to the hilarity in the situation. It was like watching Sylvester McCoy in the role.
The attention to detail on the set was phenomenal. The fishing lodge was completely rustic. There's a hardwood floor covered by braided rugs, a huge stone fireplace with a cast iron stove in the hearth. Hand-hewn logs provide the skeleton for the roof. Wood paneling abounds, as does stuffed and mounted fish, antlers, a moose head strung with Christmas lights, and a bear skin. The set is strewn with knick-knacks, out of date magazines, board games, books, and of course, Betty's collection of souvenir spoons.
The costumes were nothing special, as they should be. There's no Creature of the Black Lagoon costume required for The Foreigner, like there is in The Nerd. Charlie, being British and shy, makes his first entrance in a lot of brown and grey with a tweedy jacket, a plaid sweater vest completely buttoned up, wool trousers, and a white dress shirt and brown tie, It's the mousiest of mousy costumes. He trades that outfit in for a grey bathrobe and light blue pajamas for the next scene. Once he finally begins to enjoy his foreign-ness he then dresses in another pair of brown trousers, but this time with a yellow dress shirt with rolled up sleeves, a sleeveless burgundy cardigan that he doesn't even bother to button, and best of all--no tie. He's finally loosened up and his costume reflects that. Betty wore various pants or jeans, with plaid men's shirts, and an apron. Froggie was in military camo. Catherine wears a variety of outfits that are both summery and show off her cute figure. Even though she's just found out she's pregnant, she's a long way from showing, so no special maternity clothes or pregnancy pads required. Ellard was in denim overalls, but clean, with a clean shirt. Owen, by comparison, had on dirty jeans, a plaid work shirt with the sleeves ripped off, a faded dirty baseball cap, and a western style belt with big silver buckle. David wears nice slacks, dress shirts, and sweaters or a blazer in every scene. I was thinking that it must be cool up in those rugged mountains of Northern Georgia, if David needs to wear those sweaters. The cabin doesn't look like it has air conditioning and there were no ceiling fans on the set. The characters tell you it's summer, but no one appears to be dying of the heat. So that's a little suspicious for this Texan, but I've never been to Georgia. I did look it up on a map, and sure enough the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee do stretch right across the border down into Georgia and that's where the Chattahoochee National Forest is located. So I'm sure there's probably a lovely spot right there by a lake that's nice and cool and green even in the heat of summer and David just might need to wear sweaters in every scene. So I've learned something about US geography that I didn't know before.
The show runs through August 9th, so if you are able to get down to Houston and see it, you should.
Here's the preview video:
Here's a very brief interview with the star of the show, Jeffrey Bean.
Total cost of the Event: Dennis Draper comped our tickets for the Sunday matinee.
Houston's Museum of Fine Art
We like to fit in as many museum trips and other attractions as we can. We went to the Museum of Fine Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Rothko Chapel, and went back to the Zoo and The Menil as well. We had a lot of time to kill before the shows.
The MFA's special exhibit was Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections.
From their website:
"See the spectacular treasures amassed by one of Europe’s longest-reigning dynasties. The major exhibition Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections showcases masterworks and rare objects from the collection of the Habsburg Dynasty—the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and other powerful rulers who commissioned extraordinary artworks now in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Largely composed of works that have never traveled outside of Austria, Habsburg Splendorexplores the dramatic rise and fall of the Habsburgs and their global empire, from their political ascendance in the late Middle Ages, to the height of their power in the 16th and 17th centuries, to the expansion of the dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries, and ultimately its end in the early 20th century at the conclusion of World War I.
The story unfolds through more than 90 works of art, including arms and armor, sculpture, Greek and Roman antiquities, court costumes, carriages, decorative-art objects, and paintings by masters such as Caravaggio, Correggio, Giorgione, Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian, and Velázquez.
Habsburg Splendor comes to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, after debuting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) in February 2015. Following the Houston presentation, the exhibition opens at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in October 2015."
Gallery of photos
The Museum allows photographs to be taken of any of their exhibits. I took a lot.
The museum has many artifacts from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. Here are just a few of the costume related items that we saw.
Total cost of the event: 2 tickets to see the Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections exhibit was $36 and it got us into the rest of the museum for free. the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Rothko Chapel, and The Menil were all free. We got into the Zoo free because we are members in Waco. Thanks Cameron Park Zoo for participating in the National Zoo and Aquarium membership exchange program.
From their website:
"Welcome to Harlem’s famed Cotton Club in this stylish, brassy musical celebration of Duke Ellington’s greatest musical hits. A full on-stage orchestra backs superb jazz vocalists, extraordinary tap dancers, dazzling Art Deco costumes, and unforgettable torch singers who bring classics like “Mood Indigo,” “Take the A Train,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” to vivid life in this grand Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Never before produced in Austin!"
Rob and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We had tickets on the extreme end of the front row on house left. The stage was at my eye level. I'm so short and the stage floor was so high, I had to sit up tall in my chair to see the dancers' feet touch the stage floor. The top of the show scenic elements were an Art Deco metal framework around the proscenium with sheer curtains behind, also painted with a Deco pattern and lit with varying colors on each side. Center stage had a flat flown in that functioned like an act curtain. It was painted with a grey scale Duke Ellington image. Once the show began, the Duke Ellington flat was flown out to reveal a bare downstage with a white piano at center. Behind and stage right of the piano was a curving staircase leading up to the platforms that housed the orchestra separated by a landing into brass on stage right and woodwinds, percussion, and strings on stage left. There was a giant swag curtain background that was lit as well. At the end of Act I, the Duke Ellington flat was flown back in for intermission. In Act II reproductions in grey scale of the Duke's album covers were flown in over the platforming. The stage floor was so glossy black that it was mirror-like. I wondered if it was slick as well and how the dancer's managed to keep their feet on it.
The music was great. My husband is a particular fan of Duke Ellington's music and being a drummer, knows a lot about Sonny Greer and Louie Bellson. Rob took issue with the kit being played by Arnie Yanez. Rob said there were too many pieces in the kit and if they could get a white piano just for the look of the thing, then they should have tried harder to put a period kit up there. He was especially offended by the Plexiglas screen that surrounded it. His point was that if you had a smaller kit and didn't hit so hard, you wouldn't need a drum aquarium to muffle the sound. The modern kit didn't offend me near as much as the drum aquarium did.
Even though it was a revue and there was no plot, that didn't matter. The incredible skill of the performers blew us away. The dancing is non-stop. At one point in the show a chorus member, Matthew Shields, who is also the dance captain of the show and the head of his own tap company, begins an all out, full throttle attack of tap dancing that just doesn't quit. When he finally comes to the conclusion of his solo with the sweat flying out over the audience on every spin, he gets a brief respite during the tumultuous applause only to be joined onstage by the rest of the chorus and they just keep on dancing. Any other production, he would have taken his bows and exited stage left. Not this guy, he stays onstage and keeps on dancing. It was a hurricane of time steps and he was at the center. I couldn't believe it.
Susan Branch Towne's Designs
Susan on Sophisticated Ladies
McLennan alum Justin Cox used to do props at Zach Scott so he was able to introduce me to Susan Branch Towne, the costume designer for the show. I asked her a whole bunch of questions and here is what I learned.
"I think our initial budget was $18,000 for materials and $7,000 for over-hire labor. I know we exceeded that, but I'm not sure by exactly how much. The only costume shop staff that is on salary are the shop manager, her assistant, and the wardrobe supervisor. All draping and stitching that happens beyond that is considered over-hire. To make the labor budget go further, I volunteered to make two pieces- the "Solitude" dance dress and the extra long peignoir for "In a Sentimental Mood." I am not on staff at Zach as either a resident designer or a draper, and only drape on shows I design. I job in by United Scenic Artists union contract as a designer.
We started building in late May after the previous Zach show MOTHERS AND SONS opened. The 4 bird costumes were built by a draper I know in Des Moines, except for the headdresses which were made for us by companies in Miami and Thailand. Jennifer Holliday's red sequin dress and purple satin robe/dress were made by a draper here in Austin. The 4 plaid jumpers for "Cotton Tail" were made by another local draper. Chanel's "Perdido" wrap skirt and the 2 boys' tropical pants were made by the asst. shop manager. As I said earlier, I also made two pieces myself. The only rented pieces were from a previous production I designed of SOPHISTICATED LADIES at Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City several years ago. Those were both in "Beginning to See the Light," the gold velvet pantsuit and the red smoking jacket.
Very few costumes were pulled from stock, especially when sets of matching costumes were needed. Most other items were purchased on line or locally, and modified as needed. For instance, the ladies' black tailcoat vests for "Rockin' In Rhythm" were purchased, then embellished with rhinestones.
I am an Asst. Professor of Theatre at St. Ed's, a full time faculty position. Still, it is important that I keep my professional design career going. Besides the two shows I usually design as part of my load at St. Ed's, I do about 4 or 5 additional shows per year. This season, I designed one show for The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, two shows at Zach, one small piece for Ballet Austin, and am preparing a show for Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, NY. It's a challenge doing the out-of-town shows especially, but I either engage qualified guest instructors or conduct the classes remotely myself.
The budgets- particularly the materials budgets- at St. Ed's are much much smaller than what I get at Zach. (Zach has grown exponentially in the past few years with the opening of the Topfer Theatre.) As I said earlier, Zach uses over-hire drapers and stitchers of varying skill sets to create and alter the costumes. There is a limited number of people in town with draping and crafting skills, and they get booked up, so that is why we have sometimes had to engage technicians in places like Oregon, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Iowa for the more complicated projects.
To buy fabrics and trims for this show, I went to NYC where I lived for many years and have the best shopping experience. I was able to fold it into a little vacation and show-seeing trip for myself. A few fabrics were also purchased locally and on line.
About the shoes, we bought all the ladies' shoes, and some of the men's. The two most featured tappers had their own high-end shoes that they used in the show. Any AEA members who used their own shoes were paid a weekly rental fee for each pair."
SUSAN BRANCH TOWNE
From Zachary Scott Theatre's Pinterest site.
Total Cost of the Event: Two tickets were $25 each for a total of $50. We sat on the front row because those are the cheapest tickets. I would have liked to sit further back but we couldn't afford the $93 tickets for the center section or the $60 tickets for the side sections. But even on the front row in the cheap seats it was well worth the ticket price. It runs till August 23, so you have no excuse not to go and see it.
Kountry Girls at Theatre Three
Theatre Three is a two stage theatre stuck in the middle of a strip mall in Dallas. Their mainstage is an arena theatre with audience on all four sides of the stage. Theatre Too is located downstairs with the bathrooms and water fountains. Jac Adler, who founded Theatre Three, recently passed away. This is the last show that he was developing when he died.
This article in the Dallas Morning News talks about Jac Adler's legacy and his impact on the world premiere of Kountry Girls.
Since this is the World Premiere of a brand new musical, I'll give you a quick description of the action of the play. Kountry Girls is set in Mama's Kountry Cafe, which belongs to Katy, played by Christia Voss, and employs Katy's two daughters, Dee Dee, played by Alexis Nabors, and May, played by Kelly Silverthorn, as waitresses. Daddy is Butch, played by Sonny Franks, Junior is played by Ian Mead Moore. A Customer, played by Alan Pollard, enters the diner with luggage in hand (he just got off the bus) and is the catalyst for the daughters to take turns telling the story of the cafe and their family through folk music that is sometimes tinkered with in order to rewrite the lyrics to better suit the story. Even with re-written lyrics, the songs still seemed randomly chosen and not related to the story they were trying to tell. Unlike Mama Mia, in which ABBA tunes are successfully strung together to tell the story of a family, Kountry Girls suffers from lack of good storytelling and not much in the way of a plot. The songs not seeming to belong to the show is the first and foremost major problem with the show.
What plot there is revolves around Daddy's philandering ways, causing Mama to kick him to the curb, Mama having a hard time making ends meet, and one of the two daughters wanting to leave town but the other one wanting to stay and help Mama. Mama gets her old boyfriend, Clinton, back while Daddy gets a new girlfriend, Clinton's ex-wife Tiffany. Tiffany straightens Daddy out and Clinton makes Mama happier than she ever was with Daddy, and why you'd tell any of this to a complete stranger that just wants breakfast and a cup of coffee, I never did figure out. At times the audience is treated like we are also customers in the cafe and we are spoken to directly. At other times, we are clearly just an audience watching a play. Either there is a fourth wall or there isn't, you can't have it both ways. That is the other major problem with the show.
The best thing about the production was the amazing musical talent of its cast. Every single one of them played an instrument and sang. I was surprised to find out that of the nine actors, three of them were members of Actor's Equity (Mama, Daddy, and Clinton), and three more were candidates for membership (Dee Dee, May, and Customer). Throughout the show we were treated to serenades accompanied on guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, fiddle, tambourine, and cowbell, and even an improvised drum set made from an empty Samsonite suitcase and shakers disguised as vegetables. Again, the singing and playing were the best things about the show, these actors are clearly talented musicians as well.
Kountry Girls was presented on the arena stage. This presents its own unique set of challenges when designing the scenery and blocking the actors. The scenery was two booths and a couple of round tables sitting on a blue and white tile floor, with a counter at one end. The Formica- topped round tables were yellow, the booth tables were blue. Above the counter was a large Mama's Kountry Cafe sign detailing the daily specials. On the tables were menus and sunflowers in vases. I liked the set design a lot. It was very successful in showing me small-town, family-owned and operated diner. Also, it didn't block any sightlines which is tricky in an arena stage. The costumes were not successful. Just because these people are country and working in a diner does not mean that you just let them wear whatever. The best part of the costume design were the aprons that May and Dee Dee wore. They were made from yellow bandanas and were the cutest things. They totally brought out the color of the sunflowers on each table. The girls "worked" the cafe in tennis shoes, but in Act 2 change into cowboy boots for no apparent reason.
We saw it on closing weekend, so you won't be able to see it too, but there is a video below that will give you a taste of the show.
Here's a preview video that gives you some still photographs of moments in the show set against the folk music soundtrack.
Total cost of the Event:
Two tickets to the Sunday matinee: $72 not worth that kind of money.
Texas Shakespeare Festival
From their website:
"In April 1984, the idea for the Texas Shakespeare Festival was developed: to establish a professional summer theatre for East Texas based in Kilgore that would be housed in the Van Cliburn Auditorium; to create a company with a name that would have broad appeal to professional theatre artists, employing high caliber actors, designers and directors from throughout the nation; to offer professional actors and theatre students the luxury of working on plays from the world’s storehouse of dramatic literary masterpieces; and to create a regional play about the East Texas oilfield discovery to be produced as a cultural historical memento of our unique and colorful heritage.
Two years later, in June 1986, the Texas Shakespeare Festival opened its inaugural season as Kilgore College’s contribution to the Texas Sesquicentennial celebration with performances of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Daisy Bradford 3 by Gifford Wingate. Each of the fifteen performances played to capacity houses, and the college assured the community that there would be a second season."
Which is why for their 30th anniversary season they are producing Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
We went for the Fourth of July weekend holidays. We missed seeing any fireworks and that disappointed Rob. For future reference, Kilgore doesn't do fireworks; you have to drive to Tyler to see them. However, the shows more than made up for it. The festival is held in a lovely theatre on the Kilgore campus that they share with the Kilgore College Theatre Dept. It recently had renovations including new seats and it's got the best air conditioning anywhere in Texas. In fact, it gets so cold in the theatre that the ushers will wander around offering blankets to patrons. We took advantage of the blankets for every show. If you're going to be in Texas, in July, the best place to be is somewhere with really good air conditioning; it's a bonus that you get really good theatre as well.
There is a wonderful themed garden just outside with a walking guide sheet available at the gate. It's planted with flowers and other plants that are mentioned in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. There is even a topiary bear from A Winter's Tale.
The lobby has a wonderful display that I kept coming back to, of costumes from previous productions as well as the set models from the current season. Naturally all of the company members photos are posted with what shows the actors are in, or as a group with what technical position they hold.
The grounds and Lobby display
Danny Brown's official title is Audience's Service Supervisor, but he'was so much more than that. He was our tour guide and answered all our questions. The tour doesn't usually include their off-site facility but because I told him I was a costume designer and was particularly interested in seeing the costume shop, he not only took us there, but tracked down the shop manager, Nick Jones, who answered all the questions that Danny could not. Their off-site facility is fairly new. It houses the costume shop and storage space, rehearsal space, a black box theatre, and a kitchen/green room where the company members can hang out and get a bite to eat on their well-deserved meal breaks.
They have a wonderful shop with lots of open space, plenty of cutting tables and machines and a very well-organized costume storage room. This year they have two professional designers that design two shows each. Colleen Muscha, the faculty costume designer from Florida State University, designed Twelfth Night and The Nerd, and Jeff Sturdivant designed A Midsummer Night's Dream and Man of La Mancha. Jeff is a New York based designer, currently working on his MFA at Temple University. The children's show, The Princess and the Players is designed by Ellen Danforth, an MFA candidate at University of Illinois-Urbana Champagne.
From talking to Nick I learned that the designers begin conferencing with the directors in February. For this particular season, both designers wanted to put one of their shows in the Empire period. The board of directors felt that that would be too similar, so one designer was asked to change his concept. The two shows were Twelfth Night and Midsummer. Jeff had to change his concept, but more about that later. The designers' budgets were $3000 for both Shakespeare's and Man of La Mancha. The Nerd budget was $1200. That's a total costume budget of $10,200 for four shows. This does not include the associate productions that open later on in the season, after the mainstage plays are up and running.
The associate plays have a budget of $1000 which has to cover the build for the children's show, The Princess and the Players, The Belle of Amherst, a one woman show about Emily Dickinson, that is staged in the black box, the Chinese show, and the company talent show. The Chinese show is put on by a group of Chinese students that come every year to take classes from the company members in Shakespeare. They write and direct their own version of a Shakespeare play that gets one performances later on in the season. The company talent show is just a chance for the company members (all of them, not just the actors) to showcase their other abilities for a one night only entertainment. Of course most of the money goes toward costumes for the children's show. The Belle of Amherst one has one costume and it's the same one they used last year. The Chinese show pulls from stock as do the company members for their talent show.
The shop gets the sketches in March from the designers. There is only a Hancock's locally, so if they have to make a run to Dallas for fabric that must be done before the build period starts in June. The shop employs 13 costume technicians. Most of them teach at universities from all over the country; and all of them have MFAs in Costume Technology. They have one non-MFA and she is a Junior working as an Intern this year. Each of the four mainstage shows gets 5 days of build time in the shop. They rotate shows each week. Fittings usually happen starting Wednesday of that week. Fittings are very tightly scheduled by the stage manager because the actors actually rehearse all four shows every two days on a rotating basis. Everyone works from 9-12:30, gets lunch, works 2-5:30, then gets dinner, then works 7-10:30. So there are three rehearsal periods in one day but all four shows get rehearsed in the course of two days. Every actor usually is only cast in 3 of the 4 shows. Some actors are only in 2 of the 4, so scheduling can be a nightmare. Once a costume is ready for a fitting, that actor might not be available at all on that Wednesday if he is called for three rehearsals. All of the costumes must be completed by the end of the week, because the shop staff must go on to the next show. The first set of costumes are put aside on a rack, and the next show must be started. It's a grueling schedule which is why they get Saturday and Sunday off during the build. Once the run begins, it's slightly better, because they are only building costumes for the Children's show, as well as maintaining the costumes for the mainstage shows.
A bit about the scenery
The Kilgore College theatre department's scene shop is a tiny hallway-like room that is immediately backstage. It is so small it is only used as a green room for the actors during the show. All the scenery for the festival is built outside on the square between buildings. This is the first year they have had a tent to build under and only due to the excessive amount of rain Texas got this May/June. Let me repeat that: They build all of the scenery, outside, in the summer, in Texas, all day till 10:30 at night, five days a week, and they've been doing it this way for 30 years. These are some dedicated people.
The set models were on display in the lobby. There are pictures below. I tried to get photos of the actual sets as well to compare. The only set I didn't get a photo of was Twelfth Night. If you look at the model you can see big white slatted screens that are closed up on either side of the stage. Those screens were closed at the top of the show and were the background for Theseus' residence, so that they were also closed for the end of the play as well, when "Pyramus and Thisbe" is performed before the King.
I caught Carson Craig, the Assistant Technical Director, in the hallway at one point and asked him questions about their build process and budget. Carson told me that their scenic budget for the five shows is $13,000.
The sets this year were designed by just one designer, Fred Duer, which Carson said has simplified both the builds and the change overs a lot.
The scene shop is staffed with 14 people who are responsible for the build. During change overs, the props, lighting, sound, and stage management staff all pitch in, which brings their crew up to 31 people. Each change over is accomplished in 90 minutes, which happens twice a day every day except Mondays which are dark. Carson mentioned the challenges of having a trap door in three of the four set designs. The Nerd is the only set that didn't make use of the downstage trap. In fact, there are two trap doors in Midsummer, the downstage trap and an upstage trap. The downstage trap opens out, while the upstage trap opens in. Carson said it was quite a challenge to rig the "open in" trap to stay shut with actors jumping up and down on it and Titania sleeping on it.
After The Nerd we stayed for the "change over" where the matinee set is struck and replaced by the set for the evening performance, which was Twelfth Night. The change over is narrated by one of the scenic crew so that non-theatre people would understand what was happening. There were a maximum of nine platforms on stage for the largest set; the largest two of them stay on stage for all four show. As the set is taken apart, the pieces are carried out and put on a semi trailer to be stored until the next time that show is performed. All the platforming is faced with different paint treatments specific to each show and then screwed onto the platforms as the are set in place. Every screw must be accounted for each time they do this. We watched for the first hour as they took The Nerd platforms off and replaced them with the Twelfth Night scenery. As each line of platforms disappeared, the overhead electric would fly in and technicians would change out the gels. They only have four moving lights at his point. Below are some photos of The Nerd set going away.
Man of la mancha
This was the first show that we saw, as a matinee. it was a great show. The costumes were designed by Jeff Sturdivant. Direction by Lenny Banovez. This is the one that made Rob "feel feelings" and cry. The set design was very impressive. Besides being designed to look dank, moldy, cold, and unforgiving, there was a fire pit, a cistern, a trap door, and a working drawbridge. When Miguel Cervantes enters the prison, he is led down the drawbridge by his guards. The giant piece of erector set looking metal was lowered into the space with all the attendant clanking and groaning sounds you could possibly imagine that old rusty chains would make. The drawbridge is used three times in the show and every time it moved it was the star attraction. Carson talked a lot about how they decided to build it so that it would be safe for the actors, including the testing he personally did on it after it was all welded together; by "testing" Carson meant "jumping up and down on". He figured if he couldn't break it, then it was safe.
The actress who played Dulcinea, Caitlyn Hargrove, was also the choreographer. She did a wonderful job with the dancing bits, especially with the gypsies. Lee Ernst, the director of The Nerd, was the fight choreographer, and Micah Goodding, who played Duke, was the fight captain. The "dance fighting" bits were exceptional. Ever since West Side Story showed two street gangs dancing around each other with switchblades, "dance fighting" has become a thing. Michael Jackson used dance fighting in "Beat It" and "Bad". This production's dance fighting was better.
In terms of costumes, everyone was in tatters just like you'd imagine. Jeff used a dark color palette and everything was overdyed, distressed, stained, and faded. I wish I had a photo to show you of the Knight of Mirrors costume. It was marvelous. The thing that impressed my husband the most was right at the beginning where Cervantes transforms into Don Quixote using only what's in his trunk in a very short amount of time while he's delivering dialogue. Of course, having seen three different versions of this show before now, I know that it's scripted that way. That the trunk has a mirror in the lid with a tray for his makeup and beard; his breastplate and helmet are in there too. All the actor has to do is make an attempt at old age makeup, grey his hair, and glue on a beard while saying some lines. The actor playing Sancho Panza helps him with his breastplate, he puts on his helmet, and then is handed his lance and sword, and he's done. But for Rob, the transformation was magical.
Rob got to chat with Caitlyn H. (Helena) at the Midsummer panel the next day and was amazed to discover that she had also played Dulcinea. When he told me I couldn't believe it either and I'm a costume designer. It's my job to transform actors into someone else. Of all people, I should have been able to see through the makeup and hair and recognize her from the earlier show, but I didn't. That's how good it was. Not only did the makeup/hair designs completely change her appearance, the actress herself became another person entirely. She was that good. She told Rob that she was thinking to herself before the performance of La Mancha, that "I don't have to sing this role for another four days, I'm going to sing it as hard as I can." And she did. Her performance was completely off the hook. Then she told Rob, "Afterwards I remembered, oh yeah, I still have to do Midsummer tonight." It was a good thing that Dulcinea spoke in a lower register and gruff-voiced while Helena spoke in an upper register and sweet-voiced. Another reason I didn't recognize her at all.
A midsummer night's dream
Directed by Steve Tague. Costumes by Jeff Sturdivant. After the show, we got to talk to two of the actors, Goran Norquist who played Bottom, and Fred Geyer who played Demetrius. It was both their first season with the Festival. They are the ones who told me what the actors' rehearsal schedule was like.
The next day we got to attend a post show panel discussion with some of the actors as well as the Assistant Technical Director, Carson Craig. The Associate Artistic Director, Meagan Sullivan, led the discussion. Meagan is also a member of Actors' Equity Association.
The most interesting thing to come out of the discussion about Midsummer, is that Jeff's first idea had been to set the costumes in the 1970's. He was told that at this Shakespeare festival, the audience expects period costumes and the 1970's wouldn't do at all. After Jeff's idea of designing in Empire period got shot down so that Twelfth Night would be the only show with Empire costumes. Jeff and Steve, the director, seemed to have a bit of a problem figuring out where to set the time and place. For a long time, it was going to be in the Australian Outback. So much so that the scenic designer, Fred Duer, designed a Boab tree for the central piece in the forest set and the scene shop had already built it , when Steve decided to change the placement to a Louisiana Bayou in WW2, just days before the costume build began. It was obvious from watching the show that there was no unity among design elements.
The set had a giant Australian tree smack dab in the middle of it and was then surrounded by an attempt at Louisiana swampland. The music was Zydeco, the mortals wore WW2 era clothing with Theseus in a military uniform. Yes, Theseus has been at war, but with Hippolyta, whom he has conquered and brought back as a trophy. I'm pretty sure the Amazons weren't fighting for the Axis powers in WW2. Hermia and Helena were very natty in their Dior New Look dress and Katherine Hepburn pants; Helena's Victory Roll hairdo was a nice touch. Demetrius and Lysander were also pretty snazzy in their suits, but the whole thing didn't make any sense. The faeries were the most confusing. Yes, Puck and the chorus of faeries were appropriately floral and leafy, but no wings. Titania was in a long blue and purple wig with what could have passed for an Evening gown on the red carpet today. Oberon's costume was much more confusing, in a cape and wig of feathers, with shiny MC Hammer pants, beads and a cross around his neck. The faeries are Pagan, pre-Christian, that's the whole point of them. Oberon should be the last character to wear a cross around his neck. Unless Jeff and Steve were trying to make some sort of voodoo statement and if that was the idea, it didn't read.
Having just done this show I was underwhelmed by the costume choices; the fairies didn't even have wings. But that's what happens when the concept doesn't arrive fully formed in the design team's heads and they are desperately trying to come up with something under an impending deadline. There was no Changeling Boy, although they had asked for one and The Nerd required a boy actor. They were told it was impossible to get the child actor from The Nerd to come in for additional rehearsals for Midsummer since he lived a hour away and his mother had to drive him in every day. The actors' playing the Lovers revealed in the talk back that Steve changed their big fight scene blocking three times and the final version wasn't set in stone until tech week. However, even with all these late decisions and changes made to the tech and blocking, it was still the best acted and directed MIdsummer I've ever seen. I've told you about the drawbacks, now let me tell you about the virtues of the production.
First and foremost the script was uncut. Every single word was spoken. I've never seen another Midsummer where the text was left complete. Having all the words makes the prior relationship between Helena and Hermia much more complex and profound when magic tampers with their friendship. The faeries' magic is much darker in this version. The way the director showed us Titania manipulating Bottom to stay with her using magic when he clearly was afraid of her and wanted to leave brings a whole other dimension to the faerie world that most productions don't give you. To the Elizabethans, the fae were not to be trusted and not in the way that mischievous children might not be trusted by adults, but in the way that loan sharks are not your friend. Oberon uses the same dark magic on Titania to get her to give up her Changeling Boy when she clearly has no intention of ever letting him go and she has no memory of it. Oberon controls Puck's actions with magic as well. These are clearly very powerful creatures who have no interest in mankind's benefit. They are not altruistic, they only do what pleases them at the moment.
Another aspect of the darker magic in the forest was its effect on the Lovers. As they got deeper into the forest, they became more childish, and as they reverted to a more primal "natural" state, they started to shed bits of their adult skin--their clothes. The took off and left behind all of the outward signifiers of adult logic, reason, and status. The suit jackets were the first to go, purses were lost, hats, thrown off, everything that buttoned up, undone and discarded, until they were left in their soft white cotton boxers, undershirts, briefs, and A-shirts, tap pants, braissiers, and slips. Hair was a mess, snood gone, Victory roll defeated. Just naked, sweaty children having a good old temper tantrum amongst themselves, and then too tired to carry on, they collapsed on the ground to get their nap out.
Another element that worked really well was the scenes with the Rude Mechanicals. I loved their costume choices, all in working attire, overalls, and the like with aprons, and heavy work boots, and hats. Steve made it clear that the other men truly loved Bottom even if he was a bit of an egotist and they were truly scared when he was "changed". A running gag was whenever Snug would arrive late to rehearsal, which was every time, he would bring food to the other guys. Normally, the show within the show of "Pyramus and Thisbe" gets cut quite a bit because it drags on for so long, also the impulse for the actor playing Bottom is to really ham it up and this makes not for a groaning audience, but for an angry one. In the hands of these professional actors--Goran Nordquist as Bottom, Micah Goodding as Peter Quince, Jeff Raab as Starveling, Henry Ayres-Brown as Snout, Billy Reed as Flute, and Peter Hargrave as Snug--the audience only wanted more of them. They were honestly funny, honestly frightened, and honestly just trying to put on the best play they could for their King.
The Nerd was directed by Lee Ernst and costume designed by Colleen Muscha, both of whom have a connection with playwright Larry Shue. Larry Shue was a company member at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre back in the 1980's. Ernst met him at the hotel that company members stayed in and they became friends. Ernst was there for the original production of The Nerd in which Larry Shue played Willum, and Colleen Muscha designed the costumes. Later Ernst also became a company member of MRT and went on to play Willum in the 1996 revival of The Nerd. Nick told me that Colleen had wanted to do The Nerd one more time, and that is why she came to Texas this summer.
I have a particular fondness for The Nerd because I played Tansy in the production we did at Texas A&M back in the late 1980's. It was hilarious back then, and time has not altered its hilarity one jot. The play was contemporary when it was written in 1981, about a Vietnam vet who is visited by the soldier that saved his life 15 years ago. When we staged the show, a mere 6 or 7 years after it was written, we smoked like fiends in that show. Smoking is a scripted activity for most of the characters, but especially for Axel. Attitudes have changed considerably in the last 35 years and it was apparent in this staging. The only smoking that was going on in the performance was perfunctory and only as demanded by the "chimney" bit in Act 2. Colleen's costume designs were exactly as expected. There is no need to tamper with perfection. Rick's costume was exactly as scripted: white, short-sleeved dress shirt, with black tie, pocket protector with numerous pens, black heavy framed glasses taped together, pants hemmed too short, with mismatched brown and blue socks, and hair slicked down into a side-part with what must have been Brylcreem. Just imagine Robert Carradine's Lewis Scholnick in Revenge of the Nerds, which came out 3 years after Larry Shue's play, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if the entire idea for the movie had been stolen lock, stock and barrel from Milwaukee Rep. And, of course, Rick makes his first entrance in a Creature from the Black Lagoon costume (because he thinks Willum's birthday party is also a Halloween costume party) that I had completely forgotten about.
Directed by Deb Alley. Costumes by Colleen Muscha. Original music by Andrew J. Tarr. The acting was superb. This was the show that made me feel feelings and cry because the music was so beautiful. Twelfth Night was the overall best show of the festival. The costume design was brilliant, the set design was elegant, the original music was just perfect. The music was the real star of the show. I wish they would have released it on a CD. I would have bought it.
There are many songs in this play, "I am Slain by a Fair Cruel Maid" "O Mistress Mine" "Come Away, Come Away, Death" "For the Rain, it Raineth every Day" are just a few of them. In general, the majority of the music gets cut from the production, usually because the company doesn't have anyone to write it, or the actors don't have the requisite musical ability to perform it. In this production, not only were no words cut, no songs were cut either. In fact I believe that this production added music to the script. Jeff Raab, as Feste, sang and accompanied himself on guitar throughout the show, as did Henry Ayres-Brown (Curio) and Nathan Salstone (Musician). Viola as Cesario sings to Orlando, Orlando sings to himself, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria sing with Fabian and Feste. In fact everyone sings at one point or another except Malvolio who hates all this noisy racket that keeps him awake at night.
Contrary to Malvolio's opinion, the music was just gorgeous, I really can't say that enough. In fact, the music is so important to the theme of the play that I found someone else who agreed with me and wrote a blog about the production he? saw at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. The blogger's name is Stewartry. You should read it too.
One last word about the costumes. I've already told you that the show was set in the Regency period. It worked well. Olivia wore a black pelisse over her purple gown. As long as she was in mourning for her brother and father and was steadfastly refusing Orsino's proposal, she kept the black pelisse on. As soon as she becomes infatuated with Cesario and makes the conscious decision to pursue "him", she sheds the black mourning attire and we see her in the lovely lavender gown that she stays in the rest of the show. Orsino begins the show in an elegant silk robe over his light blue tailcoat, striped waistcoat, and white fall-front pants. "Cesario" and Sebastian wear matching uniforms of lavender jacket, striped waistcoat, and blue fall-front pants. with a blue hat. Every part of their uniforms were trimmed with piping in the alternate color plus black, to a very comedic effect. Feste was in an orange/green/gold color palette, with striped fall front pants and a patchwork waistcoat. Sir Toby and Maria were also in orange, orange being the funniest of all colors on stage. The costumes may not have been the star of the show like the music was, but they certainly enhanced the stars' performances.
Total cost of the Event
Two tickets to all 4 shows: $180 (if you buy tickets to all 4 you pay for 3 and get the fourth one for free.)
Hotel: $96.87 for one night
The Garden, Panels, and watching the change over was free; the hospitality was priceless. The actors and techies were more than willing to talk to audience members after the show and Danny was the sweetest host ever. Rob got a hug from Caitlyn Hargrave (Helena, Dulcinea, and Maria) after Twelfth Night when he told her how much he liked the show and enjoyed all three of her performances. We are so excited about this festival that we are already making plans to come back next year.
THe mystery of irma vepp
We went to Seattle to see my mom and Joe, but they asked what we wanted to do while we were there and I said, see a play. I picked The Mystery of Irma Vepp which was being done by the Key City Theatre in Port Townsend. Joe graciously got us a pair of tickets and a night in the lovely Swan Hotel which was right next door. We did a lot of sight-seeing while we were there. The show was hilarious. Irma Vepp is one of those nightmare shows for costume designers, because just like Greater Tuna, the two actors portray numerous characters and everything has to be designed to go on and come off in a mere ten seconds or less. The poor actors have it worse than the designer because they have to run from cue to cue throwing clothes as they go to make their next entrance on time. Of course I'm in the audience rooting for the dressers every step of the way. The staff at Key City were so accommodating. We got to see the facility that afternoon and chat with the artistic director, the stage manager, the publicist and the costume designer. Port Townsend really supports its artists, and not just the theatre artists. The whole town is filled with painters, jewelry designers, potters, musicians. It's got a great community spirit.
Total Cost of the Event: Joe paid for our tickets in advance, but it ended up being a Pay What You Can evening.
Experience music project museum
We went for the Star Wars exhibit. We were amazed by the rest of their regular exhibits. They have on permanent display three galleries devoted to the Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror genre, galleries devoted to both Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, and a gallery devoted to the history of the electric guitar. The other traveling exhibit was devoted to the animation genius of Chuck Jones. We saw them all. The only gallery we didn't bother with was the one devoted to the Seattle Seahawks. The museum itself was an awesomely designed piece of architecture.
The Star WArs gallery
THe Sci Fi gallery
The HOrror Gallery
THe Fantasy Gallery
The Jimi Hendrix Gallery
The Nirvana Gallery
It was bigger than the photos reflect. There was a whole other area just on other punk bands and bands that were around at the same time.
The Chuck JOnes Exhibit
They also had videos running of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and What's Opera, Doc.
The Guitar Gallery
Right outside is a giant tornado sculpture of guitars. It took two photos and I didn't even get the whole thing in the frame. Rob was very impressed by this exhibit. I was impressed by Eddie Van Halen's guitar from 1984. It was the only one I recognized without having to read the card.
Total cost of the Event: 3 tickets to the EMP museum $90. 3 ferry tickets: $15 (getting there was a free ride, getting back across cost money), Taxi ride to the museum and back to the ferry: $40.