Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Into the [steampunk][ish] woods....

The main reason I was absent from my blog for so many months over the summer is that I was pouring all of my time and creative energies into directing and designing a local production of Into the Woods.  This production was really a dream project for me, and I was really lucky to recruit a creative team that was all-in when it came time to take the images out of my head and realize them in living 3-D.


I started collecting ideas for the design of Into the Woods months in advance, occasionally remembering to pin things to a Pinterest board. Initially, I was headed in a DisneyBound sort of a direction, and planned to costume all of the characters in off-the-rack street clothes that were inspired by their classic looks (whether Disney or not)....but somewhere along the way, my interest in steampunk really amped up, and I decided that as a design concept, it really worked with the show, thematically.

Steampunk is a fairly modern concept, really only dating back to the 1950s or '60s.  The word "steampunk" was first used in the late 1980's, as a play on "cyberpunk."  It basically refers to a future that never was; the future that we, today, imagine that the Victorians might have imagined, based on the technology available to them at that time (steam-powered, for the most part).  Confusing?  Don't overthink it.  It's just meant to be fun, and a excuse to wear corsets and top hats and make things with lots of gears.

Anyway, I started thinking about the characters and stories of Into the Woods, and how even though the stories have been around for hundreds of years, and even though we all have a picture in our heads of what the classic Little Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel looks like, they are timeless characters, timeless stories, timeless lessons to be learned.  Tolerance, understanding, love, parenting, self-discovery.....despite the fairy tale trappings, Into the Woods is a show that makes you think about what it's like to really live in the really real world.  So I just thought that by setting these characters into a world that never really was would let the audience focus on how these themes applied to their own lives today, rather than assigning them to a specific place and time that they don't relate to.

Did this concept translate?  Did the audience have any idea where my head was?  Did my cast, or even my creative team?  I'm not sure.  I'm sometimes not very good at explaining myself.  But I do know we had lots and lots of fun putting this show on the stage.

Obviously, I had to delegate a lot of the work on this show to my terrific costumer, Heather, and my amazing prop builder, Ginger, and deal with boring things like blocking and character development.  Hee.  But I did manage to claim some of the fun projects for myself, and spent many happy summer days at my kitchen table, sewing and hot gluing and generally attaching gears to things.

Anything can happen in the woods.
One of the ways I tried to put my own stamp on the production was through the addition of the ensemble.  I made this decision for several reasons.  There's a lot of business in Into the Woods that could point towards the use of special effects: flying birds, growing beanstalks, angry giants, that sort of thing.  Number one, I didn't have the budget or the technical savvy to pull off any sort of fancy illusions or stage trickery.  Number two, I've honestly grown a bit weary of special effects on stage.  To me, special effects belong in the movies.  At the theater, I want to see stagecraft.  I want to see the nuts and bolts, a bit.  I want to say, wow, that looked SO COOL, even though I can see exactly how they did it.  But to do that, I needed bodies on stage that weren't otherwise involved in the scene.  Which led me to number three, I really wanted (and needed) to include some kids in this production, and thought I could sprinkle them throughout the show sort of like pixies, or spirits of the woods.  It mostly worked.  I tried out a number of ideas with them, trying to incorporate them into the fabric of the narrative without detracting or distracting.  They were birds and a beanstalk and a giant, and that all was terrific. They were croaking frogs and hooting owls and chirping crickets in one spooky night scene, and really drove home the lyric "Careful the wish you make, wishes are children" with a well-timed entrance in the finale.  They were a bratty golden harp and a funny little hen, they were a terrified Hansel and Gretel, and three silly pigs.  Less effectively, they were Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a vignette that somehow never really came across, and a witch's familiar that needed more direction from me.  Anyway, I had a lot of fun putting together their costumes, almost exclusively from items gathered in one mad dash through a very well-stocked local thrift store.

One of my favorite ensemble costumes.  Totally thrift-stored, and then
accessorized with goggles, a pair of leather cuffs, and some
totally sweet, 20-year-old oxblood Doc Marten's that belong to his dad.

I just loved how this look came together on gorgeous little Rebecca.
The dress was originally cream-colored, but I dyed it to give her more of a woodsy look,
and stuck a tutu under it, just for fun. The vest was off-the-rack,
 but altered to fit her tiny self.  The belt really tied the whole thing together...
but this precious girl could have been in a burlap sack, seriously.
Too beautiful for her own good.  
This little one, such a funny duck.  She OWNED the aviator hat with goggles look,
and watching her stomp all over the stage (in Max's old Flynn Rider boots, no less!) with that
hen was one of the highlights of every performance, for me.  Layered tutus, because tutus, and a little
jacket I made from a woman's shirt.  A fun look for a funny girl.
Three Little Pigs
For my Three Little Pigs, I did not really want to put them in pig suits, you know?  The three tween girls who played the pigs wore their ensemble costumes, and we just added these tiny top hats.  Tiny top hats are actually pretty easy to make.  Cut two disks out of heavy cardboard, card stock, or chip board (which is what I used, as I had lots on hand).  One disk should be larger than the other, to make the base and brim of the hat.  I just traced two different sized bowls or something, don't overthink it.  Cut a long strip of cardboard to make the tall part of the hat, whatever size you want.  Make sure to cut it long enough to overlap, it's easier to keep it round. I used spray adhesive to cover the chip board with fabric, making sure to pull the fabric nice and smooth.  You need to cover both sides of the larger disk with fabric.  I used Satan's glue gun to attach the hat pieces to each other (and remove a layer of skin off my fingertips...but that's par for the course with me and that damn gun), and then used various bits of trim and ribbon to cover up the ugly bits.  If I were making the hats to be looked at up close, I would have taken a lot more care, but from the stage these looked just fine.  I made a frame for the ears out of heavy floral wire, and glued pink satin over top....again, not that pretty up close.

Three Bears
For the Three Bears (that no one in the audience recognized),  I grabbed a variety of hats that were lying around, and simply made big round gear ears out of self-adhesive vinyl mounted to fun foam.  The derby was for Papa Bear, the fedora was for Mama Bear, and the newsboy cap was for Baby.

Wolf mask, in progress.  Gold-painted vinyl mounted on black fun foam.
One big revelation I had while costuming this show was self-adhesive vinyl.  I don't know why I've never discovered this product before, but it really fit the bill for my wolf mask.  I was wandering somewhat aimlessly through the craft store wishing I could find sheets of very thin metal when I found it.  I bought it on a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained whim, thinking I would try spray painting it with metallic paint....and it worked GREAT.  It was thin, flexible, light-weight, accepted paint very well, and the adhesive was strong enough to mount it to a base of fun foam.  I will definitely be using this product in the future.

Completed wolf mask.
Another idea I had during this project was to use snaps to look like rivets....I happen to have a TON of black plastic snaps (what?  THEY WERE ON SALE.) and I just glued them in place, then brushed a little gold paint over them to make them look like metal.  I returned to this idea a couple of weeks later for another project, which I will surely blog about soon.

I needed a lot of boots for this show.  A LOT.  And as it turned out, I needed a lot of brown boots for this show.  And apparently no one has brown boots.  So I did what I had to do, and turned some black boots brown.  I totally fell in love with how these boots turned out, and one of these days, when I have nothing else to do, I'm going to buy lots of thrift store shoes and play around with different colors.  It was simple, if messy (and somewhat stinky). Start with nail polish remover on a cloth, and rub it all over the leather to remove any top coat or finish that might be on the surface.  Then: bleach. Straight up bleach. Wear gloves if you like (I am sure you know already whether I bothered) and work outside (don't ask if I did).  It takes a bit of elbow grease, and if you can let them sit overnight or longer, the bleach will keep working long after you quit.  Once you're satisfied that you've removed as much black as you can, polish them up with some brown show polish.  The really great thing about doing this is you can get a really nice distressed finish, and you can control where and how much "wear" your shoes or boots have.

Probably should have gotten brown laces....
The golden harp costume was a collaborative effort, so I must give credit where credit is due.  I designed and built her little gold costume with every intention of attaching some sort of thingy to her back, with strings hanging down...you know, so that she looked like the woman on the front of a harp, right?  When I was almost done building the costume, Max, brilliant, imaginative boy that he is, said "You know what you need to do?  You need to have the strings hanging down from her arm, so that when she sticks her arm out, she can play herself." And so:

The Harp.  On the most magical night of performances, when Jack carried her out
under his arm and set her down on the stage, when she stuck her arm out and
showed the strings, the audience burst into spontaneous applause.  For the costume.

In addition to the ensemble, as it turned out, I costumed the Baker and the Baker's Wife myself.  One was almost completely built from scratch, and the other almost completely off the rack...but they ended up looking fairly made for each other.

The Baker's Wife and the Baker.
Ultimately, we didn't really go too far over-the-top steampunky, but enough, I think, that we presented a unified design concept that was appealing to a broad spectrum of audience.

I just signed on to costume a production of Shrek next summer, which I'm very excited about.  I hope I can remind myself to take more photos!  Thanks to Jeff for providing me with most of these.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed that night taking those photos (despite the horrifying snake) because it made me feel truly useful, like I could finally do something quasi-artistuic and it would help the cause. But also, it was a really fun night because of how much costumes mean to actors. I guess never having been one, I didn't completely realize it, but they are as much a part of their tools set in bringing a character to life as their lines and blocking nad inflection and tone and expressions and body language and all. I saw the kids AND the adults "put on their skins" almost and start to become another person.

    So much effort and thought and LOVE went into these things. They helped the actors not only become a character from into The Woods, they helped them become one of YOUR characters from YOUR Into The Woods. That's what made our production stand out. It was ours. Totally. All the bleached hands and burned fingers and destroyed stove tops went toward making something truly and uniquely magical for everyone. I am so proud to have played some part in the whole adventure. Thanks <3

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So, whaddya think?