Design Comes to Life

by Rachel Pollock

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

First: customized vest back fabric for Louis de Rougemont!

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

Scott Ripley as Louis de Rougemont

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aborigines Lauren Klingman, Kelsey Didion, and Josh Tobin

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

Jimmy Kieffer as Gunda

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

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

But, back to vest fabric stripes, eh?

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

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

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

Here’s what it says:

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

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