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Posts Tagged Cole Bylander

Is Your Theater’s Commitment to Diversity Real, or Realistic? (Written by Eric “Pogi” Sumangil)

This post originally appeared on Eric “Pogi” Sumangil’s personal blog, Sumangil plays John Jones in The Realistic Joneses, on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until October 16.

Tuyo is a fish dish in the Philippines. Also, Filipinos really like puns.

Tuyo is a fish dish in the Philippines. Also, Filipinos really like puns.

This may not look like much, but it actually means a lot to me. This is one of my costumes for The Realistic Joneses at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.

It started with a graphic t-shirt that the costume designer picked up at a thrift store. It was army green with a picture of a bicycle and some katakana writing underneath. But most of our set is also green, so the costume designer and director decided to look for a shirt in a different color. Something in a red or maroon. And, since they were already going to make a change, according to the costume designer, the director asked, “Can we make it a Filipino shirt?” The next day, the costume designer came into our dressing room with a few designs on a website pulled up on his laptop. They could have, just as easily, gone back to the thrift store and found the right color and size. They could have saved money instead of ordering a newly printed shirt online. But they made a choice, albeit a simple one, but a choice that acknowledges and honors my culture, and I’m grateful for that.

In my career I’ve played my fair share of Asian characters. And while I continue to believe in the importance of roles that are written by and for artists of Asian descent, I especially appreciate the rare opportunities when I get to play roles that make no mention of my race; roles that reinforce the notion that my face is an American face, that my experience is an American experience. As Asian American representation on stage and screen has been a topic of much discussion over the last few years, I feel strongly that it’s important to challenge audiences to see us in a strictly American context. Not foreign, or even foreign-born immigrants, but as Americans whose ethnicity has been on North American soil since 1587.

Good plays that have specific roles for Asian Americans, or Filipino Americans, are already pretty rare in the grand scheme of things. But here’s something even more rare: To have a director and costume designer make a choice to acknowledge your heritage even when it’s not called for in the script. There are plenty of plays out there that make no mention of race or ethnicity, but more often than not, people casting those shows make the easier (perhaps lazier) choice to cast white actors, furthering this notion that whiteness is “normal” and other ethnicities are varying deviations from the norm. When I’m onstage, my culture usually exists in a binary; it’s either essential to the story or completely nonexistent. So to know that my culture is not ignored in the world of this play is an example of a true commitment to diversity. Not only am I the first person of color to play John Jones in The Realistic Joneses (fact checkers, please advise!), but in our production the character is Filipino American, too.

Too often, well meaning people say things like, “I don’t see color,” or “I don’t see your race,” or “We’re all just humans…” and the only thing I can think is that if you’re not seeing my culture, you’re not seeing some essential things about my life and my experience. Also, I’d be less inclined to cook for you, so it’s you who’ll be missing out, not me.

Thank you to Director Joel Sass and Costume Designer Cole Bylander for their thoughtfulness, and to everyone at Park Square Theatre for their commitment to diversity onstage and backstage.

Dressing Up the Joneses

Photograph by Petronella J. Ytsma

Photograph by Petronella J. Ytsma

What is it like to go on a shopping spree with someone else’s money? Cole Bylander knows. Asked by Director Joel Sass to be the costume designer for The Realistic Joneses, currently on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Thrust Stage until October 16, Bylander did just that.

Typically, a costume designer does much research, makes sketches, then creates the garments for a production’s cast. But because The Realistic Joneses is set in modern times, Bylander was able to simply acquire ready-made clothing and accessories. He estimates shopping for three to five hours per character, imagining what would naturally be in the personal closets of Bob, Jennifer, John and Pony Jones.

During their fittings, the actors explored their characters through Bylander’s choices, free to accept or reject his picks depending on their own interpretations. The performers also helped to choose what they would wear for each scene. This costuming process allowed ideas to flow in an organic, collaborative way.

Why didn’t Bylander simply raid each actor’s home closets to build appropriate contemporary wardrobes? Not only would that be too much to ask of an actor, but you’d also run the risk of the actors looking too similar to themselves as opposed to the characters that they are creating.  An actor’s personal taste may also not match the character’s esthetics. For instance, Jane Froiland dresses in a less bohemian style than her character Pony Jones. However, a few of the actors’ own items are indeed worn on stage, such as Angela Timberman’s shoes and purse and Eric “Pogi” Sumangli’s pants. Actors are be paid a minimal rental fee for use of their personal possessions.

Any final costuming adjustments were made during the technical rehearsals, which was the first time when Bylander got to see all the play’s elements working together. Is that dress too short? Is that shirt’s color too much like that of the blanket? No major changes were needed for this play.

What happens to the Joneses’ wardrobe after the show? Unworn garments with tags still attached are returned to the stores for refunds, actors purchase some pieces and an assessment is made of what is stored away or donated to charities.

“I take it as a great compliment when an actor wants to keep what I’ve chosen,” said Bylander.

Bylander has shopped before for actors in film, but this was his first time to do such extensive shopping for a theatre production.

“It was a really successful approach for The Realistic Joneses because there are only four characters,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing it with a cast of 20.”

Shop till you drop? No, more like intensely mindful shopping, followed by intensely mindful fittings, all for a rich payoff for an intensely characters-driven show. After all the hard work on The Realistic Joneses, what’s next on Bylander’s To Do List? A much-needed vacation.

Costume Designer Cole Bylander

Costume Designer Cole Bylander

To learn more about the many talents of Cole Bylander, visit his website:

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