What's the best part of working in regional theatre? "Well, it gets me out of New York," declares costume designer David Zinn with a laugh. The peripatetic designer, who often works with NYC's hip downtown theatre group Target Margin, flew to the Northwest earlier this year to design costumes for Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of the play version of Chicago. The play, upon which the better-known musical is based, began in February and ran through October. Zinn designed Henry IV, Part I for the Festival last year, and says, "They must have liked me, because they brought me back."
Truth be told, says Zinn, it's not just the time away; there are the more important factors of community and resources. He says, "There's so much stuff going on at once. It's fun to go in and watch The Good Person of Setzuan and then go in and watch the dress rehearsal of Othello. It's great because everybody is working hard, and everybody's smart and interesting."
On Chicago, Zinn relied on the company's resources to build (or, where shoes were involved, paint) the various costumes of the period play (it's set in 1926). As a designer who claims to be "completely unskilled" in the art of building costumes ("I don't do a lick of it"), Zinn is highly appreciative of the staff at Oregon: "Oregon has been so good to me. Staff members on all levels of production have been wonderful. It's great to have the support and skill of the shop." Zinn lays out where the lace and trim should go on a garment, but leaves it to the staff to sew. He is therefore especially grateful for the staff's attention to detail in realizing his final creations.
And what costumes they are. Flashy and gaudy (purposely so) are the words that come to mind. Explains Zinn, "The entire play is about true artifice. It's all about the construction of this artificial image, which is what you get at the end when Roxie goes to court. She's gone from sleazy whore to a perfectly constructed angelic figure. That's why the play resonates for us today. It's so cynical in that it exposes how everybody, including the press, conspires to manipulate Roxie's image and make it palatable."
Chicago opens with Roxie Hart having just killed her lover. After her arrest, we see press person Mary Sunshine and lawyer Billy Flynn turn her into a virtuous figure. It is this tension between the surface and true self that most informed Zinn's concept. As he says, "It's all about subtext--the contrast and conflict between what you know she is and what you see her become."
The themes of the play were visually represented by Zinn, lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson, and scenic designer William Bloodgood. The basic idea, explains Zinn, was to begin with "intense, garish color" and gradually strip away the color until the end, when everything is black and white. "As Roxie strips away her real self, the colors all go away," Zinn says. The lighting too went from a warm to a cold palette, and Bloodgood designed black-and-white cutouts to represent the jury members--a move from flesh-and-blood characters to inanimate outlines with black-and-white clothes and features--with a newspaper (or tabloid) feel to them.
One way Zinn expressed Roxie's transformation was in what he terms "the journey of her hemlines and the journey of her wigs." The hemlines get longer (and her neckline higher); and her bright red wig transforms itself from short and unruly to neatly coifed, "impossibly long" hair with "kind of Princess Leia buns behind her ears."
Hair complements outfit in her second ensemble. As the play opens, Roxie wears a turquoise robe with negligee underneath (above). She then changes onstage--in front of the police officers who have been questioning her--into a bright (and short) red dress with a drop waist topped off by a leopard hat. Green shoes complete the look. For Roxie's third outfit, Zinn designed a black sheath dress with red tassels and 24" ombreing fringe (which goes from black to red) all around it. He placed an "enormous" red corsage on it, and gave Roxie black shoes with red heels to finish the look off. It has a beaded hip belt and embroidered characters on it.
Designed for the scene in which the imprisoned Roxie first meets Mary Sunshine, this ensemble is, from Roxie's point of view, "fantastically sophisticated," says Zinn. From Zinn's point of view, however, and one hopes the audience's, "It's like a bad Chinese restaurant."
By the end of the play, Roxie, dressed in a white drapey silk, appears as something of a "1920s angel."
As for Mary Sunshine, Zinn says, "She was the most fun because she was all about outfits. We decided that every time we see her, she's in a completely new one. And each outfit had a theme. First is her garden outfit, second is her sailor outfit, and third is her polka-dot outfit." Her garden outfit consists of a printed georgette and lightweight wool jacket--and ruffles that "bounce when she walks." Her belted sailor ensemble, which has a wool, drop-waisted 20s jacket, also has "little red, white, and blue stars."
Zinn acknowledges, "We went over the top with it," but claims he learned an important lesson: "Clothes can be funny." He also discovered that a certain restraint was, at times, required. Said sailor outfit initially had tassels on it as well, but "We found the tassels were too much."
Zinn says finding the shoes "was kind of a nightmare, actually. The 20s is a shape everyone was doing about five years ago, but now no one is doing it. Now it's those big clunky heels." Shoes were pulled from stock and then painted. As for hats, Zinn laughs. "We just sort of 'wung' it. Since they have such a huge facility out there, we built all the hats."
The prison inmate who claims to be God's messenger is dressed in gray and given a wig of "horribly bleached fried hair." OSF is a repertory theatre, and Zinn notes that the actress performing this role played Desdemona on alternating nights. "That is another of the joys of working with a repertory company," Zinn says. "One night you see her as Desdemona, and she's in beautiful clothes; the next night she's completely unrecognizable."
Working on Chicago "was just hilarious," says Zinn. "There are costume designers, who say, 'Oh, it doesn't matter if they don't notice my work. If they don't notice, I've done my job well.' I'm not like that. If they don't notice my work on this show, they're completely out of their minds!"
This fall Zinn travels to Seattle for The Royal Family and Dear Liar at Intiman. Up next for Zinn at Oregon: The Man Who Came to Dinner, scheduled for winter 2000.
The first major play to be written about Hollywood, George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's gentle satire of the silent film era, Merton of the Movies, was recently produced as the final play of the Geffen Playhouse's 1998-1999 season in Los Angeles. "It seemed especially fitting to do it at the Geffen," says director John Rando, "which was also built during Hollywood's early heyday." Written in 1922, when Hollywood moviemaking was still in its infancy, the play was based on Harry Leon Wilson's novel, which was serialized in the then popular Saturday Evening Post.
"Plays from the 20s, 30s, and 40s are some of my favorites to do," says sound designer Jon Gottlieb. "And this one is full of neat music, fun gags, sort of vaudeville for the stage." Gottlieb, along with codesigners Daniel Ionazzi (lighting), Kent Dorsey (scenic), and Jonathan Bixby (costumes), researched the silent film era over a period of months to provide both authenticity and additional comic opportunities throughout the show.
"It's a nice character-building play, a funny sendup of the period," says Bixby, who credits director Rando with allowing him a "long leash and lots of rope to start with." Set in the late teens and early 20s, the players were "pre-Mary Pickford, many just bit characters," adds Bixby, "and different from the 1920s look most people are familiar with." With feathers, knickers, and riding pants, Bixby constructed an ongoing "fashion show" for the audience, which roared with laughter when Merton, the young wannabe actor, emerges from an office dressed in exaggerated cowboy regalia finished off with oversized film reels for spurs.
"Merton was the first show I've done where all my music purchases were conducted over the Internet," says Gottlieb. "I never set foot in a record store." Using a diverse collection of ragtime, jazz, and instrumental music, Gottlieb crafted a silent feature movie score for the play, having already determined with Rando the "key concepts of where the music should be."
The complicated scenic transitions on the small stage drove Gottlieb to make extensive use of wireless speaker systems in his design. "There were virtually no speakers in practical locations," says the designer with a sigh, "so we ended up using Electrosonic's RF transmitters paired with 30W, 6" battery-powered speakers manufactured by Sieler Design in California. On average, we got two weeks of use on a single set of batteries, which we all thought was pretty good."
Dorsey, asked about the challenge of designing scenery for Merton, sums it up in a few short words: "There's only three feet of wing space stage left and three working linesets--count them--three." Dorsey describes the show as a puzzle in which everything had to jockey around to fit back into the same space it began in. "The first three sets in the show are actually tightly nested," explains Dorsey, "and after that everything was constantly rearranged behind the scenes."
"For the studio, we wanted one big frame to put things in, not just one set piece rolling out," notes Dorsey. "I looked at silent films and researched a lot of photos, particularly wide shots in which crews are filming several scenes simultaneously. We just wanted to have two studio scenes in the show."
In the second studio scene, Dorsey created an enormous ocean-going ship, complete with comical cutout waves that slid back and forth to simulate the movement of water. With the addition of some well-placed spurts of water and strobe lightning effects, the dramatic background of the sea was complete, ready for hilarious filming by the cast. "The final result was something of a cross between Steamboat Willie and Titanic," laughs Dorsey.
Dorsey also added practical touches that supported the script, such as two operable "studio" spotlights on raised wing stages, a faux electric batten equipped with an oversized row of authentic-looking arc lamps purchased from a Hollywood prop house, and even a set of old-fashioned graphic title cards, which were projected on the show curtain as the audience entered the theatre.
Ionazzi agrees with Dorsey that "by far the most difficult aspect of designing this show was the challenge of having six sets in such a small space. With the usual limited resources, and scenery ranging from relatively small unit sets to a full stage, maintaining quality was the hardest part. Fortunately, John Rando understood that the transitions were particularly difficult and provided us all with adequate tech time."
After reviewing research materials provided in part by Dorsey, Ionazzi discovered that filmmakers of the silent picture era frequently relied on natural daylight as an important source for the camera. Soundstages were frequently designed with broad expanses of skylight windows or oversized doors to capture daylight, similar in style to a modern-day greenhouse. Ionazzi employed washes of natural light from one side to sweep across the stage and recreate the authenticity of this style of film lighting during the first dramatic transition into the soundstage.
Ionazzi employed lighting effects to add humor at key moments during the production as well. The designer cleverly reproduced the flickering effect of a silent film projector during one comical "movie" fight scene onstage using an ETC Source Four equipped with a Diversitronics strobe cap and layered on top of several GAM TwinSpins.
"The designers, all of us, needed to learn how to end each scene to make it funny," notes Ionazzi, "which was usually timing, part stage management, the count on the light cues, everything. The show was really timed to get laughs consistently." Dorsey agrees, and adds with a chuckle, "Everybody was always in everybody's business."
A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), Seattle: Side Man Set design: Narelle Sissons Costume design: Paul Tazewell Lighting design: Peter West Sound design: Beth Berkeley Jazz consultant: Wayne Horovitz
American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), SF: The Threepenny Opera Set and costume design: Annie Smart Lighting design: Peter Maradudin Sound design: Garth Hemphill
Berkeley Rep, Berkeley, CA: The Life of Galileo Set design Douglas Stein Costume design: Meg Neville Lighting design: Chris Akerlind Sound design: James LeBrecht
Empty Space Theatre, Seattle: The Psychic Life of Savages Set design: John MacDonald Costume design: Jeannie Arnold Lighting design: Timothy Wratten Sound design: Ron Geier
Intiman Theatre, Seattle: The Royal Family Set design: Michael Ganio Costume design: David Zinn Lighting design: Mary Louise Geiger Sound design: Jim Raglund
La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, CA: Wonderland Set design: Rachel Hauck Costume design: Joyce Kim Lee Lighting design: Geoff Korf Sound design: Mark Bennett
Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, CA: Space Set design: James Schuette Costume design: Melinda Root Lighting design: Scott Zielinski Sound design/music: Michael Bodeen & Rob Milburn Projection design: Jan Hartley
Old Globe, San Diego, CA: The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Hostage Set design: Ralph Funicello (both) Costume design: Lewis Brown (Merry Wives); Anne Hould-Ward (The Hostage) Lighting design: Michael Gilliam (Merry Wives); David F. Segal (Hostage) Sound design: Jeff Ladman (both)
Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena, CA: Visiting Mr. Green Set and costume design: Gary Wissman Lighting design: Michael Zinman Sound design/music: Mitchell Greenhill
Portland Center Stage, Portland, OR: Hamlet Set design: Bill Forrester Costume design: David Kaye Mickelsen Lighting design: Peter Maradudin Sound design/music: Karl Mansfield Fight choreography: John Armour
San Jose Rep, San Jose, CA: Over the Tavern Set design: Todd Rosenthal Costume design: B. Modern Lighting design: Derek Duarte Sound design: Jeff Mocus
Seattle Rep, Seattle: The Game of Love and Chance Set design: Thomas Lynch Costume design: Martin Pakledinaz Lighting design: Peter Kaczorowski
South Coast Rep, Costa Mesa, CA: Mainstage: The Philanderer Second Stage: True West Set design: John Iacovelli (Philanderer); Michael Smith (True West) Costume design: Walker Hicklin (Philanderer); Alex Jaeger (True West) Lighting design: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz (True West); Tom Ruzika (Philanderer) Sound design: Max Kinburg (True West); Michael Roth (music and sound, Philanderer) Wig design: Carol F. Doran (Philanderer)