Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009

40 Characters on 5 Actors: Costume Design for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Chris Klopatek as Passepartout

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opens its season tomorrow night with a production of the recent stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World In 80 Days by American playwright Mark Brown. The play, which debuted with the Utah Shakespearian Feestival in 2001, has some 36 characters being portrayed by five actors. The adaptation has been hailed as a clever modern comedy directly adapted from a late 19th century adventure novel.

Verne’s novel found protagonist Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout rushing around the world on a very expensive bet that they couldn’t do it in only 80 days. Bringing a globe-spanning adventure into the stately confines of the main stage at the Broadway Theater Center is no small task. Part of this task is coming up with costumes which represent over 30 characters from all over the world . . .and putting them on only four actors over the course of an entire performance. The show's costume designer Kristina Van Slyke answered some questions about the unique challenges of costuming for the show.

According to reviews of other productions of this script, there are more than 30 roles represented here. How many distinct costumes were made for the production?

Kristina Van Slyke: My last count of characters was 40.  There is a look that has been created for each character as well as three costumed stage hands. I did a lot of renting and shopping and pulling of pieces from stock for this show. I really only built the pieces that I wanted to be VERY specific about or those items that I wanted to alter the look of.

If I'm doing the math correctly, 26 of those roles are being performed by Norman Moses. Have you ever worked this extensively with measurements from a single actor for a single for a single production before?

Kristina Van Slyke: I have worked on many shows where there are actor tracks with multiple roles. This is the most any one person has played. The toughest thing with the 19 characters played by Norman is getting each one to alter his look just enough to help us think he is someone new. However HE does most of the transforamtion through his acting. My contributions are meant to enhance what he and all of the other fabulous actors have already brought to the stage.   With 5 actors playing 40 roles, no one is sitting down that is for sure.

Moses' performance sounds like something of a quick change act. I would imagine the designs in question involve generous amounts of velcro. Were there special concerns in costume design for the bulk of the costumes, as many of them were to be worn by the same actor?

Kristina Van Slyke: Velcro, snaps, hooks, buttons and super glue were all used in the rigging of these costumes. Each piece is rigged to the specific time the actor has to change and who is available back stage to assist. So, I have been less concerned with bulk than with ease of adding and removal of pieces.

A huge part of establishing the feel of a round-the-world adventure is the costuming. Did you find yourself doing more reference research than usual for a production, or were you relying more on imagination to establish a fantastic look to things?

Kristina Van Slyke: My design process always begin with lots of research. I did a lot of collaging for different characters to help establish the overall sense of each character. Then I went back to the research again and began to design each look. I did  quite a bit of research into the different locales, culture and textiles.  However, most of the places thay go are colonized and we are seeing this world through the eyes of the British. I did find an excellent book of photography on Brtish Colonial India.  Lastly,  when the idea of the Steam punk movement was brought into the mix, a whole other aspect of research was needed. What is neat and exciting to me about Steam Punk is the idea of the unexpected. You do not expect to see someone walking down Water Street in a corset and bustle dress. For the purposes of this show however, it is set in the period that Steam Punk harkens back to. Therefore, I incorporated some modern pieces in an unexpected way in this victorian world to capture the essence of the Era.  I have also used unexpected blends of pattern with the mixing of stripes and brocades.   I  have taken liberties with the period that have enabled me to bring an elegant whimsy to the show.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS opens tomorrow, (August 14th.) It runs through August 30th. 

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