The dress forms in the costume shop are crucial tools in developing a costume pattern.
Once the show has been cast, we check the dress forms in stock and match them to the actors’ measurements. Seldom do they match perfectly, so we often do some shape-shifting by adding batting, quilted fabric, and spandex to pad out the forms.
Using muslin, we sculpt the shapes of the costumes over the form to build the costume silhouette, and then use that shape to create the pattern for the actual costumes.
For Joe Turner's Come and Gone, two girls have been cast for the role of Zonia Loomis. These girls are little, and our smallest dress form is a women's size 6. We can always make our dress forms bigger by padding out, but we can't make them smaller...unless the prop shop ladies give us a wonderful gift--a foam dress form.
In this case, Janet Conery became our resident Michelangelo--but instead of a hammer and chisel, she used an electric carving knife. She started by drawing a topographical map of the areas she wanted to remove directly onto the form. Then, demonstrating Michelangelo's approach to carving (he conceived of a figure being imprisoned in the block, and freed the form by removing the excess stone), Janet sliced and diced the form to release the little girl within the woman. Seldom has weight loss been this easy!
After sizing the dress form down, Janet made a spandex cover and taped the neckline, waistline, center front, center back, and side seams with twill tape.
Thanks to the prop shop, and a little creative carving, we now have a little girl's dress form--allowing Janet to begin draping the dresses and jumpers for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Top: Janet marks where she will remove material from the foam dress form. Second photo: Janet carves the form to match the girls' measurements. Middle left: Fitting a spandex cover over the top of the foam form. Middle right: The finished dress form. Bottom: Muslin mock-up of Zonia's dress.
You may have already noticed that we've extended our run of Yellowjackets by a week. In response to extremely powerful buzz (sorry) and -- more to the point -- strong demand for tickets, the show will now play through October 19. Woo-hoo! Sounds like butts in seats and money in the bank, right? Well, that's not necessarily the case at all. The decision to extend a popular show is complex.
Before we can consider an extension, we have to clear our first hurdle: cast and crew availability. With a cast of 11, we have to clear 11 schedules with upward of 11 agents. With this show, we see that Lance Gardner, who plays Rashid and James, is unavailable for our typical 2pm Sunday matinee curtain. He's already working with another theatre – go Lance! So any matinee we schedule has to begin at 3pm, enabling Lance to get to the theatre… with minutes to spare. And a 3pm matinee start time means we have to put off our typical Sunday 7pm curtain until 7:30pm. That's what's reflected on our calendar for closing day, Sunday, October 19. Finding everyone else ready, willing, and able, we're good to go…
Provided we have time for load-out and load-in. After the show closes, the stage crew has to dismantle the set, sometimes storing it in case we decide to tour the show, or loan or rent the set to another theatre wanting to produce the play. If we're not storing it, we're recycling and re-using as much of the material as possible. Then we have to load in and build the set for the next show, in this case Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights, which begins previews November 14. Usually the crew rebuilds the stage from the bottom, creating a new floor for every show. Thankfully, our production department managed to rejigger their schedule to make this happen. They're all about flexibility. (We even have a Berkeley Rep "flexibility embrace," but that's another blog post entirely.)
The second hurdle we have to clear is the cost of running the show. And with 11 actors and a multi-person run crew, Yellowjackets is pretty pricey. Plus there are costs for an additional week of marketing, upward of $10,000. And front of house costs for the house manager and concessionaires. And air conditioning! Do we have enough performance programs or do we have to reprint? We think we have enough. (We invite our patrons to take their programs home, and we urge those who don't wish to keep them to turn them in for re-use.)
Anyway, as a nonprofit, we're not driven by the need to produce surpluses. But neither do we subscribe to the old nonprofit adage, "You’ve got to spend money to lose money." Minimally, we want to break even. You may ask, why go through all the trouble of extending the show -- the time, the energy, the risk -- just to break even? Easy. Sharing the experience of live theatre is what we're about. If we can attract enough guests into the theatre to cover our extension costs, we go for it, even if we risk playing to smaller houses. Because a "dark" theatre night makes us sad.
So, can we attract enough people into the theatre to cover our costs? That's the third and final hurdle, and it's my job (I'm the director of marketing & communications) to bring others on staff to a well-informed decision. Of course, we give consideration to the response of the professional critics -- we like to say that every variation in the posture of the Chronicle’s Little Man has a $25,000 impact on the box office -- but thankfully, the true test is audience response and demand for tickets.
It’s all about you. A critic can't save a show that people dislike. (In other words, nothing ruins a bad product faster than good marketing.) And a critic can't close a show that people love. And audiences love Yellowjackets. We know from sales. We know from the positive response of our guests, many of whom are on their feet at final curtain. We know from the Yellowjackets buzz (sorry again) we overhear as guests leave the theatre. We know from incoming letters and emails. So that makes an extension a good break-even-or-better bet, right? Not yet.
There are no season subscribers to "pre-load" the house for extension performances, so there needs to be substantial demand from the general public. We look closely at rate of sale. How many tickets are selling each week? Are we trending upward or downward, or are we flat? With Yellowjackets, we’re continue to trend upward. We look at the average price paid per ticket. With this show, the number is low, because so many young people are attending, and if you're under 30, tickets to Berkeley Rep are half price. So we take all this data -- rate of sale, sales trends, average price paid per ticket, and other variables -- and we project forward.
So, bottom line. Are we going to populate our extension with enough guests to cover our "nut"? (That’s theatre talk for the cost of operation.) And will we achieve the critical mass to create a galvanizing experience for audiences and artists alike? After all, most people prefer to see plays in a packed house. Because theatre is an experience of communion.
And in the end, yes, we believe we can create that experience with a Yellowjackets extension. A profit-driven company might not take those odds. But at Berkeley Rep, we live by them. On with the show!
It's a gray day outside, or at least I assume based on it being a gray morning, and I am lurking at my desk. We are in between shows right now, not only in between the opening of Yellowjackets and the start of rehearsal for Joe Turner's Come and Gone, but also in between the prep for both Joe and The Arabian Nights, which we will be working on simultaneously.
Right now, I am working on renting costumes for Joe Turner. Primarily this entails sending a rental packet out to various theatres and getting boxes back filled with lovely things. Currently we are waiting for packages from Oregon Shakes, costume rentals at the Guthrie, and Odds in New York. I have already pulled some marvelous garments from ACT and they now rest in a holding state.
Now, you may ask why so much renting? Well, because the design for this show requires the clothes to have a sense of age and authenticity. To make that happen, it makes sense to find clothes that, well... are old and have some wear built into them. It can be a challenge to take built pieces and weave them in with these rented pieces, but the craftsperson will work to age the built pieces so they fit seamlessly into the aesthetic of the show.
I have also ordered a TON of shoes from Zappos. Tons. Granny boots, men's worky boots, all manner of boots. In the immortal words of Kelly, "Oh my god, Shoes!"
*theses shoes rule*
Soooooooo, now I wait. Wait for boxes, and boxes, and boxes to arrive.
So here we are, just about to begin our fourth week of performances, and while some of us in the cast are considering freebasing Vitamin-C to stave off colds and others are acting like our bangs and bruises don't hurt (the fence... oh, the fence...), everyone in general is a little tired but doing really well. We are constantly working on refining this show, and we've reached an exciting point. We know this play and these characters so well that we get the chance to really focus in on the tiny little details in order to flush more and more nuance out of this fantastically generous script. And the more we undertake this detail work, the more I realize how important rhythm is to this play.
When we first started working on this script, the first thing I noticed which made this play so unique was that the way Itamar suggests rhythm was immediately apparent. All upward inflections, a California high-schooler trademark, were marked with a "?". Every "um," "uh," and "well..." was written in, along with word repetitions and interruptions. When Guillem says, "What the fuck kind of name is Trevor?", Trevor's response is "Um. I don't know. Just. Uh. Normal? I guess?" This line alone paints a pretty vivid picture of who Trevor is and the rhythms of his speech, and feels so natural to say. (At left: Brian Rivera, as Guillem, asks Trevor about his name.)
What has been harder to grasp is the rhythm of the play as a whole. How do we make these short scenes flow into each other? How do we use the rhythm of the conversation to help move the scene to a completely different setting than the last? It has been really exciting to watch this play move from a series of interesting vignettes to a complete organism, and I feel that we have really made huge strides in completing the whole picture that Tony and Itamar were trying to create.
On a personal level, Trevor and Mr. Terrance have been a huge blast to play, and took two very different methods of attack to create. I knew, on a sort of intimate and private level, who Trevor was the moment I read the script. His struggle is so clear, and his sense of overwhelming helplessness is something that I remember vividly from middle and high school, and have since only managed to hide under layers of inappropriate jokes and Axe body spray.
Terrence, on the other hand, is a collage of observations and memories of teachers who are so lost in the joy of affecting their students that they have sort of lost touch with how much of an effect they are actually having. (At right: Mr. Terrence talks to his students.)
Through the whole process the audiences have been fascinating. One day they will be completely silent throughout the whole show, and another they will be laughing and "ooooo"-ing and buzzing as they leave. However, there is one audience that has stood out, not just from all the performances here at Berkeley Rep, but from any show I have ever been in.
The first student matinee was filled with 400 Berkeley High students, and it will forever be seared into the collective memory of this cast. They were yelling and screaming, interacting with the characters, telling them what to do, and calling them names. They laughed uproariously and cheered after what sometimes seemed like every single line.
Now, while performing the play felt like trying to play chess in the middle of a bullfight, it ended up being one of the most interesting, fun, and fulfilling performances for me so far. Everything was different... well, it HAD to be different, and everyone was trying new things and working so hard to get this story told. And it really seemed to affect a lot of these kids, who at the talkback after the show had some wonderful, intelligent and difficult questions. Plays often feel so inaccessible to young people, but there is something really special in this play that, whether or not they actually saw themselves in it, really got them thinking about the fantastically difficult questions raised by this play---as well as thinking about performance and how this can actually be a voice for newer generations, too. It was really inspiring.
I guess I'll wrap this up by asking everyone out there what they thought about the themes and what answers they have for the unanswerable questions in this play. Did you see yourself in some of these characters or did it take you back to high school? Did anything about it get you really angry or upset? How did the rhythms in this show help tell the story? I'd love to hear any thoughts you, our lovely audience, have about this exciting and difficult project.
(Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com)
A couple of weekends ago, I was leading a backstage tour for donors (one of my all-time favorite things to do as part of my job), and I got a question I couldn't answer. "What kind of sewing machine is that?" I was asked as we stood in the costume shop. I was stumped. It looked industrial, yet it had delicate thread looped through its needle. "I'll get back to you on that!"
As I start my 12th season at Berkeley Rep, I find myself still learning about all of the little details that go into the makings of live theatre. Today I learned what a blind hemmer is. Our first hand, Janet Conery, explained to me that this machine is used to make "blind" hems, the kind of hems you can’t see. I also learned it's a machine that we've rarely used despite its life in the costume shop for the past 20 years (after receiving it as a donation). When the machine is employed, more often than not, it's to make a chain stitch in long swaths of fabric more quickly than using another type of machine. Who knew?
I've also learned other things over the years--for instance, the excruciating detail that goes into painting faux tile by our scenic artist or how our props department can recreate a realistic screaming baboon simply from looking at a photo or what the actors' union requirements are for the laundering of costumes. Sharing these seemingly insignificant details help to fill in the big picture of just what it takes to make theatre. I know that I'm awestruck by it, and I often find that our donors are as well. Certainly, seeing what happens behind-the-scenes, up close and personal, gives you a whole new perspective the next time you're sitting in the audience.
Our next donor backstage tours are happening in February. I'm hopeful to get another question that stumps me, and connects me a little bit more to the life behind the scenes.
Last weekend, an article from the LA Times talked about the wave of success playwright Itamar Moses has been enjoying of late.
It really does feel like there’s a Moses play everywhere you turn—Bach at Leipzig played at Santa Cruz Shakes in August, The Four of Us opens at The Elephant Theatre Lab in Hollywood this week, and The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego opens Back Back Back next week (and--if you’re really keeping track--he also has two shows about to start rehearsal off Broadway).
The funny thing is, while buzz was building in San Diego and LA, Itamar was here, in rehearsals for Yellowjackets. Everything was building and building and building around him, and he was sitting in the rehearsal hall, doing what he does best—writing like a madman. So, when the Times needed a pic of “The Playwright,” they asked one of their Oakland-based photographers to meet him here.
As a rule, someone from the marketing department comes along to facilitate anything press-related at the Theatre, to make sure the shoot is safe.
(Here, for example, we’re in the Thrust during load-in for Yellowjackets. You can’t see it, but the stage is filled with technical crew, working to meet very very tight deadlines. Wires and cords and power supplies are everywhere. It’s probably not the best place to let loose a playwright whose script isn’t quite, well, finished.)
Unofficially, though, I’m there to do whatever needs doing—a photographic Gal Friday, if you will. I’ll break into locked rooms that look like they might be interesting, drag chairs and benches into more photogenic locations, or pull together ‘props’ suggested on a whim (for example, grabbing an empty cup from the concessions bar so that Itamar can pretend to enjoy a cup of “joe”).
The photographer’s job is to take a good picture. The playwright’s job is to be a good subject. My job? Is to help them do theirs.
That’s how I ended up spending a recent Tuesday morning at Au Coquelet, drinking coffee with Superstar Playwright Itamar Moses—with the express order of keeping him distracted from the fact that, hey, wait, a photographer was sitting in the bushes outside the window and snapping pictures like some sort of paparazzo stalker.
Also, had people stopped walking by, I’d have been pressed into the role of “passerby”—pacing outside the restaurant so the photographer could capture someone’s reflection in the window.
Here are five things I learned about Itamar during the shoot:
Yeah, sometimes I'm convinced I have the BEST. JOB. EVER.
(Immediately above: the shot that ran in the paper. Believe it or not, I'm somewhere behind the green bush on the far right. Photo by Dave Getzschman)
Despite how cool and collected we may appear when you peek through the little sales window into the box office or when we hand you your tickets at will call, answering phones all day can be hard work. Those of us in the box office even have a unique set of afflictions that we deal with, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. I have compiled a list of our troubles, so that you can get a sense of our work-related maladies...but you'll have to be patient, because you don't get to hear them all today. Today we are just going to focus on a little something I like to call the:
WORD JUMBLE (also known as: Box Office Autopilot)
No, I'm not referring to the friendly little word game that you find in the Sunday newspaper next to the classifieds and the funny section. When my colleagues and I get in the groove of answering ticketing calls over and over again, dozens (if not hundreds) of times a day, day after day, we develop our own personal scripts. Nothing as interesting as the scripts that come to life on our stages, but scripts nonetheless, with careful phrasing and repetition of key words.
I personally am a fan of using the few seconds it takes to authorize the patron's credit card to remind the patron that there "are no exchanges or refunds on these tickets, and there's no late seating to any of our performances." It's a pretty useful dialogue, when it works. Unfortunately, our pesky patrons sometimes like to shake things up. They ask questions! And they ask those questions before I get the chance to charge their credit card, so I end up repeating myself five times in one conversation! It’s worse when I actually realize how much I am repeating myself, so one part of my mind says, "Stop talking! You already told him this!" while the other part says, "...noexchangesorrefundsontheseticketsnolateseating..." When combined, these two parts of my mind seem to add up to a stuttering mess of "er buh well umm solikeIsaid uuuuh."*
Another form of this Box Office jumble is when we forget whether we’re talking to subscribers or not. As some of you may know, subscribers have certain privileges. By far the most popular of these privileges is that subscribers can exchange their tickets if their assigned dates do not work for them. Often when I am completing a subscriber exchange, the "scripted" part of my brain will take over and I'll give subscribers the exact same spiel as I give single ticket-buyers, only realizing my mistake at the tail end of the speech when the subscriber gasps, horrified: "I can't exchange my tickets ever again? But why?!? Is this a new policy?" At that point, I quickly backpedal: "Oh, no, I'm sorry, I was mistaken, as a subscriber, you can exchange your tickets up until a day before the show, but they are not refundable." However, there have been conversations (I'm not proud) where I have repeated this mistake two, three, or even four times. I can almost feel the subscriber judging me through the telephone sound waves.
And speaking of subscribers, I'm off to go help one at the window! I'll try to not get too jumbled....
*This phenomenon can also be filed under the category of "The Great Mind Blank Disaster," but I will go over that in more detail later.
Did you see this hilarious thing from Leah Garchik's column in the San Francisco Chronicle? I was stunned and amused -- yet sort of horrified -- when John told me this story about how Facebook won't let "gay" people on their site...
When "Gay" is a proper noun
A year and a half ago, John Gay - not the creator of The Beggars' Opera but the new house manager of Berkeley Rep - tried to get onto Facebook, to look at some pictures. Administrators sent a note saying they were sorry but the name was "not approved." So he signed in as John Gray and looked at the pictures.
Last year, the theater company he worked for was doing marketing through Facebook, so he went back on and tried to sign in again. The same thing happened, and he sent an e-mail proclaiming himself to be really and truly John Gay. Administrators demanded he provide them information about his birth date and place of birth, in order to prove himself. (A cousin, he said, is registered as "Gaye.") He jumped through hoops, but they finally allowed him to be himself.
Had his name given him trouble before? "When I was a kid," he said, "it was kind of frustrating. Now it's just kind of fun."
So I urge all of you to make a Gay friend on Facebook today!
Now that Yellowjackets is up and running, it's time to turn our attention to Joe Turner's Come and Gone. The Theatre is lucky to have a fairly extensive collection of men's costumes from the turn of the last century, which means that most of the menswear for this show will be pulled (taken from our already-existing stock), purchased, or rented.
However, we'll be building the children's costumes, mostly because child actors are double-cast (two children share the role and alternate performances). This means we'll need to have two of everything for them--and it's easier to build their identical costumes from scratch than try and find duplicates ready-made.
Also, after looking at the costume renderings and the actors' measurements, we are guessing that we may need to make a suit for one of the actors rather than try to find or rent it. This is where the fun begins. Normally I would start to draft this pattern, but since we have some lead time, it's a great opportunity to let my first hand, Nelly Flores, learn my tricks of the trade. So, armed with brown paper, an L ruler, a pencil, an eraser, and my favorite drafting book, Regal's Garment Cutter, I will set her loose to draw lines, plot points, and connect the dots--all the while, letting her know I'm here to answer the inevitable, "what does it mean when it says, 'Apply the strap measure to points 20 to 21 and 27 to 32?'" I love that question.
Oh, sorry, I must leave you now--I'm hearing that whimper of confusion from the corner.
Stay tuned for more tailoring fun when we turn pattern to muslin.
Photo: The costume warehouse, which holds hundreds of costumes, for all eras and sizes, is one of our first stops when we begin deciding how we'll construct a show. (Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.)
In the past few days, the weather has made it very clear that summer is over for everyone in the Bay Area. But, it's actually been over for those of us at Berkeley Rep for a while. In the production department, every season ends with the build of the last show--usually in May--and begins again in late July as we start working on the new season. Some might think we get a break over the summer, but really it’s a chance to recoup from the last season and prepare for the next--and, of course, I never really feel like there is enough time to do both.
My big summer project has been organizing our prop stock, since we moved out of our warehouse across the street from the Theatre (future home of the Freight and Salvage) into a new and wonderful off-site space. It’s a work in progress, but I’m happy to say that we have catalogued and photographed all of our props (we have over 1,000 pieces catalogued, not including many shelves of small hand props). This is incredibly useful for us since most of our set designers live and work outside the Bay Area, and they can see if we have a good option in stock before choosing to build, buy, or borrow something. If you want a peek at this daunting task, check it out here, on Flickr. I’m hoping to get everything up by the end of next summer--a girl has to have her goals...!
But what I really enjoy about summer at the Theatre is the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre summer theatre camp. This is my second year teaching tech classes for the camp, and I have to admit I love doing it. The campers are incredibly enthusiastic and creative. Teaching a prop class is challenging, because our options are so broad. Anything an actor handles is a prop, so that could be anything from a pencil to furniture on the set. We also usually handle special effects (like guns and blood, which always catch the kids' attention), and any food the actors eat. We also deal with things that decorate the set like lamps, curtains, items in bookshelves...anything that is not the actual set walls or the costumes. I always struggle with defining my job to whomever asks, but it’s even more of a struggle to find something to teach that would seem inherently "proppy" and, for the kids, not just another arts and crafts class.
The warehouse move last summer gave me the opportunity to weed through all of our storage and find some gems to sacrifice to the campers, who had a great time playing “junkyard wars” props-style. This summer I challenged them to make fake food with whatever they could find in our shop’s various boxes of craft supplies. The campers came up with some really creative solutions and fairly realistic looking “food” items. They dove right into their projects and finished them within the first class meeting. The second class they created props for the shows they were producing as part of the camp.
Here's just some of what they created in less than two hours:
I was certainly impressed. Even though they all came to explore acting, I can hope that I inspired some future prop builders. I definitely was re-inspired by their creative energy to be a prop person. It was the kick I needed to start the season right.