PROBLEM

Set in real time and in memory, Singing Forest would be a farce were it not tragic. In the new Craig Lucas genre-bender that premiered at the Intiman Theatre and comes to the Long Wharf in January with costumes by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, sets by John McDermott, lights by Stephen Strawbridge, and sound by Stephen Legrand, people pretending to be who they aren't undergo extreme transformations. When significant people converge in her apartment, the protagonist hallucinates others from her past, requiring actors to change from contemporary to period clothes swiftly, and then to change back.

One actor transforms 12 times. In one scene, ten actors do quick changes simultaneously, emerging from places that include a trunk and the back of a coat rack. “Not only are you changing costumes but changing characters, which means changes in facial hair and comportment, too,” says David Garrison, who went from a man in 2000 to his grandfather in 1930 — apparently in 20 seconds.

So how do you create multiple costume changes on stage without disrupting the scene? Ward credits ingenious actors and dressers with helping her meet the challenge.

SOLUTION:

Ward considered the constraints. Actors would change in crowded spaces below and near the stage. And rip away pants. Velcro and snap fasteners would work for some costumes but not for those actors who would need to get back in swiftly.

Then Ward decided to design as if there weren't quick-change problems. And like the play's characters, who keep secrets and drive memories into the unconscious, Ward often hid alternating costumes in full view. “In many cases, the audience sees characters transform but doesn't realize it,” she says.

For 1938 and 1946 clothing, Ward used wool crepe and heavily textured wool fabric as well as vintage accessories. But hallucinatory scenes allowed her to create Fellini-like stylizations, including pink coats that helped solve some dressing nightmares. By overdressing people in coats, a fur stole, and other covers, she masked one costume with another. One actor “removes her glasses and bathrobe as if she's going to bed. She lets her hair down, changes her shoes, and she's in a full 1930's slip,” Ward says. “Even though we've seen this slip the whole time, we realize we're back in 1938.”

Garrison goes into a bathroom, and returns to the stage several times, each time in the same contemporary overcoat. “In the first run off, I change my shirt and tie. In the second, I change the jacket and pants, and in the third I do the facial hair and glasses,” says Garrison, who uses hand gestures and towel waving to distract audiences from the cuffs beneath the coat. “It was like a magic trick to fool the audience into thinking they're not seeing what they're seeing,” he adds. “They would be surprised to know the guy who's talking and doing pratfalls and slamming doors has a moustache and is wearing wool clothing underneath his coat. We were able to contrive an instantaneous change that took place over three minutes.”

With no time to run to a quick change area, changes took place just offstage. “If we'd moved three inches to the right, we'd be in full view,” says Garrison, who relied on dresser Patti Emmert to make sure he put on the right pants. “It would be fun to see the comedy behind the stage — a bit Noises Off.”

Emmert, who helped four actors through changes, found tracking costumes more daunting than changing them quickly. One actor goes under a blanket and reappears as someone else. Another jumps into a trunk and through a trap door to change under the stage. Stage manager Wendy Walker made sure lights ran under the deck and hooks were in exactly the right place, and she took time in techs to make sure everyone could change in real time, helping dressers and actors coordinate ways to pass accessories that could not be preset to one another.

If you've met a design or technical challenge and would like to share your solution, please write to this column at davi@comcast.net.