43 Costume Changes in 95 Minutes

Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis at Radio Station OKKK
Arles Struvie (Peter Shipston) and Thurston Wheelis (Mike Petersen) in Greater Tuna. Here they are at Radio Station OKKK presenting their morning Wheelis Struvie Report.

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!

Didi Snavely who sells used guns and knives. Her slogan is, "if Didi's can't kill it, it's immortal!" She's a bit rough around the edges.
Didi Snavely who sells used guns and knives. Her slogan is, “if Didi’s can’t kill it, it’s immortal!” She’s a bit rough around the edges.
Phinas and Leonard
Phinas Blye and Leonard Childers. Phinas calls into On The Line With Lenord to announce his nth run at city council. This character was in the most intense series of changes where we went from Arles to Didi to Phinas to Stanley to Didi back to Arles in about 4 minutes flat. There were characters layered upon characters!

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.

Charlene
Charlene. She’s in her senior year and didn’t make the cheer team (again). Devastating. Being the only dancer in the crew, I got to choreograph a little cheer routine for her. Peter worked tirelessly to coordinate the head nod with the heel bounce — he got pretty convincing as a wanna-be cheerleader! I am quite proud of Charlene’s padding. Peter is tiny so there are custom pillows sewn into the jeans at the sides and back for the thighs and there’s a fat suit attached to his bra with a bum that tucks in at the back!
Peter bravely sharing Charlene's fat suit. Attached to the bra it opened on the side and velcroed around the actor. I couldn't resist adding the belly button!
Peter bravely sharing Charlene’s fat suit. I couldn’t resist adding the belly button!
Charlene's fat side view. Note the bum and extended belly, they just tucked right into the jeans.
Charlene’s fat side view.   The bum and belly tucked right into the jeans and worked a treat.

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.

Bertha Bumiller calls up Petey Fisk to deliver a scathing talking-to about the stray dogs he keeps sending home with her son.
Bertha Bumiller calls up Petey Fisk to deliver a scathing talking-to about the stray dogs he keeps sending home with her son.

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.

Stanley Bumiller and Sheriff Givens have an altercation.
Stanley Bumiller and Sheriff Givens have an altercation.

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.

Stanley and his great Pearl contemplate the newly dead Ripper, Pearl's  $2,000 bird dog that she has accidentally poisoned with one of her "bitter pills" -- strychnine-laced biscuits wrapped in dough.
Stanley and his great aunt Pearl contemplate the newly dead Ripper, Pearl’s $2,000 bird dog who she has accidentally poisoned with one of her “bitter pills” — strychnine-laced biscuits wrapped in dough. She’s a class act.
Bertha's boobs. You can see "her" above in the blue dress/grey wig.
Bertha’s boobs. You can see “her” above in the blue dress/grey wig.
Mike was such a great sport in Bertha's low hanging breasts.
Mike was such a great sport in Bertha’s low hanging breasts.

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.

Aunt Pearl Burras and Vera Carp viewing the recently deceased Judge Buckner.
Aunt Pearl Burras and Vera Carp viewing the recently deceased Judge Buckner.

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!

Petey Fisk's hat with the interchangeable (velcro) animal awareness patches.
Petey Fisk’s hat with the interchangeable (velcro) animal awareness patches.

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.

Wistful (or vacuous?!) Charlene Bumiller and her dad Hank, the two-timing son-of-a-gun. He and his cowboy boots make the briefest of appearances but the boots were a coup and really gave a good, rural flavour to things at the Bumiller abode.
Wistful (or vacuous?!) Charlene Bumiller and her dad Hank, the two-timing son-of-a-gun. He and his cowboy boots make the briefest of appearances but the boots really gave a good, rural flavour to things at the Bumiller household.

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.

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5 thoughts on “43 Costume Changes in 95 Minutes

  1. Thank you for all the hard work on this project. We really enjoyed the show and the costumes were very effective in creating the characters.

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