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Kathy Kohl: On Creating the Costumes for “Watson Intelligence”

THE (curious case of the) WATSON INTELLIGENCE, on the Park Square Proscenium Stage until April 30, jumps in and out of three time periods notable for intense technical and industrial advances: the Victorian era, early 20th century and present time. This time-jumping aspect created unique challenges for its costume designer, Kathy Kohl, but they were successfully met by going with Director Leah Cooper’s proposal to create in Steampunk style.

“It was a great idea,” Kathy said, “as this look can layer all of the periods simultaneously, which makes costume changes from one time to another a matter of adding period-appropriate pieces rather than trying to effect a full costume change. It’s a really fun style to do, too, and interesting for an audience to puzzle out what piece belongs to which period, plus it’s flattering to every actor shape–and kinda sexy!”

Merrick CostumeMost of my challenges for this play came with the quick changes that happen with each character change,” Kathy continued. “These I achieved with the usual tricks: a little Velcro, a lot of snaps, some elastic laces for shoes. For instance, Merrick asked to try a shirt collar that could snap up instantly for his monologue with ties, so I stitched in a one-inch belt stay product onto the under-collar. Also, Watson the Android needed a special look when he hooked up to his battery chair. For this, I hand-stitched strings of tiny LED lights into a layer of his vest. In fact, all the hardware is hand-stitched.”

With all the hardware in the costumes, Kathy had to also consider how they could be safely laundered.

“Pants are turned inside out to protect them and other costumes from snagging in the wash,” Kathy explained. “Watson’s vest front panels are Velcroed and fully removable so the vest itself can be laundered. I did have to remove some little gears from Eliza’s jeans because she scraped her hand on one in a quick change in dress rehearsal.”

Watson CostumeKathy’s finished costumes stayed close to her initial renderings, but some details–namely having to do with fabric choice and trim–were adjusted as needed. For example, Eliza’s striped leggings were no longer available, and Merrick’s boxy plaid jacket just didn’t look right on him.

“Watson is very active onstage and has lots of quick changes,” Kathy added, “so I needed to rethink the industrial trim placement on his pants so he wouldn’t get caught on a belt buckle or get scratched by the snap tape that I used.”

Because the play has a small cast of three, Kathy could think through the costume plot carefully and hand off the tracking list, which tells what each actor wears in each scene and what they change into, to stage management early in the process. This allowed Stage Manager Amanda Bowman to plan change timings and where they would happen backstage.

Eliza CostumeThe actors were also given rehearsal clothes to wear (e.g., for when Merrick must change from modern to Victorian in a half sentence during his monologue), which helped to establish a useful muscle memory for them early on.

“This show required a combination of shopping thrift stores, some retail, a bit of building–Eliza’s 1890s coat and some smaller pieces–and rental,” Kathy said. “Leah was present for fittings–always an efficient way to make sure everyone’s okay, including the actors, with how things look and feel.”

Come see for yourself how Kathy’s work impacts the overall production during its final week on stage. Then have some fun pondering what costuming decisions you may have made if you’d been in her shoes.

 

(NOTE: Don’t miss reading the prior blogs “Kathy Kohl: Doing What She Loves” and “What the Heck is Steampunk Anyway?”)

Kathy Kohl: Doing What She Loves

 

Kathy Kohl (left) with stage manager Amanda Bowman (right) (photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Costume designer Kathy Kohl (left) with stage manager Amanda Bowman (right)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

People choose their careers for many reasons: It’s what they think that they should want to be. Their parents want them to be that. They do it for the money. They really don’t know what they want to do. They love doing it.

Fortunate are those who can ultimately create a profession from a lifelong interest. Kathy Kohl, the costume designer for THE (curious case of the) WATSON INTELLIGENCE is one of those lucky people.

“I started sewing when I was little, stitching together clothing for my cat, who was not amused!” Kathy said. “I received further training through 4-H and made much of my own wardrobe in high school. I was always interested in historical clothing via old pictures and books of art, but because I was primarily a musician–playing piano and trombone, I didn’t get into theater until I was an adult.”

Kathy created her first costumes in the mid-’70s. They were commissioned by her husband Allan, who is a children’s storyteller and needed a Robin Hood costume for his presentation of the Sherwood Forest folk. She also designed a Maid Marian one for herself.

“Just for fun, I took a pattern-drafting class around that time at the extension service where we lived in Wisconsin,” Kathy recalled. “And when the call came many years later from a community theater that needed a Victorian nightgown that couldn’t be found in commercial patterns, I was on my way.”

For many years, Kathy was not only a costumer but also an actor on the college and community level.

“But my need to see the full finished production was too strong,” Kathy admitted, “so I made the difficult choice between the two, and costumes won.”

Besides her work on Watson Intelligence, currently on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage until April 30, Kathy is also the costume designer for Girl Friday Productions’ Idiot’s Delight, which will be on Park Square’s Boss Thrust Stage from June 29 to July 23.

“After that I’ll be following its director, Craig Johnson, to northern Vermont for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a new theater in Greensboro, Vermont, very near where I grew up! ” Kathy said. “The venue is built like Shakespeare’s Globe, complete with a groundling area in the audience. Should be a blast!”

(NOTE: Look out for the upcoming post about Kathy’s costume designs for Watson Intelligence.)

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