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Posts Tagged steampunk

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?”)

The Curious Tech of the Watson Intelligence

When I was able to catch The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence at Park Square and I was struck by not just the themes of technological fluidity in our history, but how the show itself was able to convey those big ideas through the technical design. Lights, sounds and especially the costumes all worked together to thread a connection between the late 19th century and the new millennium. As technology is the main concept being driven home here, and specifically it’s relationship to humanity (i.e. personalities, communication, companionship) it was impressive to see how the tech elements of this show interacted with the humans on stage and in the seats. 

Beginning the show, the lights and sounds offer a feast for the senses, and then each scene transition proving to be just as entertaining as the action of the play. In fact, the show begins with a sound montage of various phone sounds such as historical voice recording messages and that ubiquitous “ding a ding a ding a ding” of the modern iPhone. In the dark of the house I listed to the laughs of nostalgia and recognition. Hand-in-hand with the audio landscape were the lights that portrayed shadows of turning gears, conjuring thoughts of a bygone industrial age. The coolest thing about the lights, I must say, were also during the transitions and those were the silhouettes of a man who may-or-may-not be Sherlock Holmes, forever calling on his blundering assistant, Watson. I could tell this was actor, Adam Whisner, back lit behind a screen and the effect was pretty captivating.

The backstage "Steampunk Fairies" of Sam Diekman and Rachel Lantow, get to join in on the fun with their own costumes.

The backstage “Steampunk Fairies” of Sam Diekman and Rachel Lantow, get to join in on the fun with their own costumes. Photo by Connie Shaver

 

Whenever the stage wasn’t shrouded in shadowy mechanics and abuzz with the sounds of telecommunications, we had the actors on stage to engage us in the story. Aiding them (and connecting the past to the present) were the costumes that invoked the imagery of steampunk. That is, the anachronistic blending of modern styles with the Victorian era. How fun it was to see ruffled shirts, ascots and waistcoats set against the backdrop of a modern apartment! This of course, was for the dramatic effect of being able to seamlessly transition from one century to the next. Making the transitions all the more imperceptible was the fact that rather than changing garb completely, the actors would layer their clothes how they needed. For example, the actor Kathryn Fumie started off in a nice, standard set of jeans, knee-high boots and a long-sleeved shirt/skirt. Well, over the course of the show I watched this base layer get both stripped away to the underwear and elaborated on with a wonderfully Victorian dress and hat. The boots were a great design idea because I realized they’re a fashion element that has always looked good!

Check out this more in-depth summary of steampunk, but knowing even a little is enough to enjoy the rich ideas offered up by the designers and my goodness, I almost forgot to mention the actual set of the play! Like boots, brick walls have been a staple of design for centuries and so it works here to reflect both time periods. Cleverly we know it’s the present day by the addition of a neon sign or fiber-optic paneling. Simply take them away and voila! You’re in 1876 before you can even say “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence”.

A great look at a scene that takes place in the 1920s. Just one of several time periods invoked throughout the play.

This play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, is certainly a well-rounded play in terms of acting, directing and design. Owing to the technological themes of the script, however, warranted a blog solely dedicated to such aspects as applied to the show. Hopefully when you see it for yourself you can keep what I’ve said in mind, and find your own appreciation for the sensual feast you’re to encounter. 

 

What the Heck is Steampunk Anyway?

Playing the boards right now at Park Square Theatre is the play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, and one thing you might have noticed about the design of the show is the use of steampunk as a choice. Basically, it’s when you saw the modern costumes blended with Victorian garb and the computers infused with copper pipes and steam-powered devices. If you thought this was just a cool choice by the design team, you are just scratching the surface. It’s actually a much larger aesthetic known as “steampunk” and it has a much richer history and more widespread use than you might have first imagined.

Typical steampunk attire. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Typical steampunk attire. Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

While the term steampunk was only coined in 1987, it has since been applied to much earlier works of art such as those by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Yes, it is a science-fiction thing and describes the genre where the Victorian era is re-imagined with modern technology that runs on steam power. The reverse is also true where an alternate future is imagined with society having to reacquaint itself with the use of steam (usually following an apocalyptic event).  You are actually probably very familiar with the look of the genre if you’ve seen TV shows and movies such as The Wild West West and any adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 

Beyond it’s use as a design in various works of fiction, steampunk has become it’s own subculture of living. Whole festivals and conventions are dedicated to people donning the Victorian/mechanical clothes and really giving into the conceit of living in such a world. Such events are hosted in Seattle, New Zealand and, of course, Comic-Con in San Diego. You will also most definitely run into a steampunk or two at just about any Renaissance festival, including the big one in Shakopee. Even if a city may not host a major steampunk gathering, as the genre becomes more mainstream, elements are trickling into just about every facet of art, including real-life architecture. This metro station in Paris, is a wonderful example, instantly making you feel as if you’re on board Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.

Arts et Metiers

The Arts et Metiers Metro Station in Paris. ontheluce.com

As a whole steampunk has proven to be more than just a fad or something limited to the pages of science fiction novels. As evidenced by the design of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, the look and feel of steampunk has become rather commonplace. Some critics will even lambaste this move to the mainstream as the death knell for the genre. Critics always have to criticize don’t they? The fact is that the anachronistic use of clothes and gadgets  is fun and seems to have captured the imagination of the general populace, and while it isn’t to be taken too seriously, hopefully it can be used to support the themes of a play. For a story such as The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, where times melds and the lines are blurred between two distinctly unique eras, steampunk seems like just right aesthetic to drive home some timely ideas.

 

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