That’s a lot of changes that is. It is. It is. Backstage was a finely oiled machine of 43 quick changes over the 95 minutes of play. Ladies and gents: I just concluded my first ever theatre gig this summer costuming the play Greater Tuna. I’ve spent my career as a costume designer in dance and a wee bit of film so this was new territory but I’m happy to report that it was fantastic fun!
I’m not sure I’ll ever have to create costumes for 20 characters on two actors ever again. Plus work as a dresser during each show. Every show was a feat of trust and fellowship, humour and forgiveness between the two actors, the other dresser (my indispensable other half), myself and our stage manager.
Greater Tuna is an American play about the citizens of the rural Texas township of Greater Tuna. It centres around the daily programming on Radio Station OKKK (yup, not a mistake, that’s three k’s!), “serving the Great Tuna area at 275 watts,” with local lives and dramas unfolding around and on the radio. Tuna was written in 1981 and is reportedly the most-produced play in the USA. The script is funny to read, but in action it is F-U-N-N-Y! And awful. And heartwarming. And heart breaking. And timeless, as relevant now as in ’81.
The actors, Peter Shipston and Mike Petersen, did great work. consistent, independent characters emerged and I could tell “who” was on stage while listening from backstage. There are five female characters in the play and these two male actors played everyone, ladies included. The play was produced by New Actors’ Colony Theatre in Bala, Ontario in their black box theatre, cleverly created in Bala’s curling rink! We had the longest backstage ever.
With so many characters on just two actors, it’s a busy play. I loved that the staging was very simple. The only props were a table, four orange chairs and an old radio. Everything else was mimed, which left a lot of space to enjoy the play and the characters and made jumping around many locations believable.
Because I work in dance and that’s where my heart and experience really rest, I mostly costume in abstracts and metaphors, helping to create a feeling, a flavour. Perhaps stating the obvious, clothing needs to stay on in dance yet be very flexible, leading to the constant search for stretchier fabric and a lot of gussets in armpits and crotches. With this gig, it was fun imagining the characters into being through their clothes, literally getting to dress people as people instead of ideas! The biggest challenge was making things work for quick changes. There was a lot of velcro, which I avoid like the plague in dance costumes because it’s unreliable, but it is truly necessary when changing a dress shirt in 12 seconds or less.
Making boobies was almost the most fun. Definitely the funniest! I stuffed nylon stockings with batting and created different breasts for all the ladies. Aunt Pearl Burras’ low-slung breasts were my favourite for pure comedy. We actually placed them at the actor’s belly button!
I think though, that I had the very best time creating patches for hats and for the sheriff uniform shirt. I sourced what I needed on the internet, printed colour images onto paper, covered them in packing tape (essentially laminating them. Note to self: need/want a laminator!) then sewed them onto a felt backing with a tight zig-zag stitch. Presto! Patches on the cheap. They look pretty real though, huh? Petey Fisk, the charming, lisping Humane Society representative had a different animal awareness patch on his hat every time he appeared, each interchangeable with velcro. Subtle, but a fun touch suggested in the original costuming notes.
It was a unique experience to stay at our cottage on a nearby lake, then drive though beautiful Muskoka each show-night to work. That plus a company of excellent, professional and kind folk equals I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
We had the rare alchemy that happens sometimes during an artistic production, where a bunch of different people are thrown together and happily, they actually really enjoy each other. Every night we all remembered and remarked on how magical it is to be backstage, how there was no place we’d rather be. Anticipation and focus and that je ne sais quoi that keeps us coming back.