Tag Archives: Tennessee Williams

Season Seventeen – Costuming Through the Ages

We opened our seventeenth season, 1996-97, with David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. We followed with Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Shaw’s Candida, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and finally Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. The questions of how to mount, how to costume, were easy. Glengarry was written in 1983 and whatever changes may have occurred in men’s fashions over the last thirteen years seemed too trivial to bother with. The actors wore their own suits.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1996)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1996)

But Cat was written and takes place in the ’50s in a plantation home in Mississippi. The play is largely about sexual tensions: Brick, the male lead, is gay and closeted (not that anyone used that word in the 50s) but his wife Maggie is straight and unsatisfied. She is the cat on a hot tin roof. But the way people talked about sex, especially gay sex (if ever they did), was quite different between the ’50s and the ’90s. In the first act Maggie wears only a slip. That makes sense for a hot summer day in Mississippi in the ’50s, but I doubt any of our actresses even owned a slip in the ’90s. So we had to evoke the period.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1996)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1996)

Candida and Playboy both take place at the turn of the twentieth century; the Shaw in London, the Synge in western Ireland. Both are romantic comedies and the sexual language and tensions of the Vicwardian time, in London and in County Mayo are, of course, even more different than they would be at the turn of the 21st century. Obviously we had to recreate the setting and the costumes of the time and place.

Candida (1996)
Candida (1996)
Playboy of the Western World (1997)
Playboy of the Western World (1997)

The point is that the choice of setting and period for these plays was easy and automatic. But we also did Hamlet in that season and with that play, as always with Shakespeare, the choice is not easy. When does a Shakespearean play—any Shakespearean play—take place? Hamlet is based on a Scandinavian legend that Shakespeare read in a 13th century version written by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. That places it in Viking times and that sorts with the politics in the play. England owes fealty to Denmark, and the Danish king can give orders to the English king. But Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern were recent students at the University of Wittenberg, which was founded in 1502. And when Hamlet and Laertes duel in the last scene of the play their weapons are specified: rapier and dagger. The rapier was invented in the early sixteenth century. And rapiers are mentioned and worn and used not only in plays that can be thought to take place in Shakespeare’s time, but also in the King Henry plays and even in Timon of Athens and Two Noble Kinsmen, plays that presumably take place in classical or mythical Athens.

Hamlet (1997)
Hamlet (1997)

The ruler of Athens in Kinsmen and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Theseus, the Duke of Athens, which is of course a great anachronism. Well, yes, there were dukes of Athens, but that was during the Crusades when a duchy of Athens existed for a while during the 13th and early 14th centuries. That is not what Shakespeare had in mind. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony refers to a personal servant, basically a valet, of Caesar’s as “one who cuts his points.” Points were ties, ribbons, that attached a gentleman’s hose, his tights, to his doublet. And Cleopatra wears lace, which did not exist till some time in the middle ages. So we have a fair idea of how Shakespeare dressed his actors in that play.

unnamedIn 1594 or ’95, a schoolmaster named Henry Peacham made the drawing reproduced above, and, under it, transcribed some forty lines from Titus Andronicus. The sketch illustrates the moment in the first scene of the play when Tamora, Queen of the Goths, kneels before Titus, her conqueror, pleading for the lives of her sons. It is pretty clearly a drawing made either during or shortly after an actual performance of the play.

Hamlet (1997)
Hamlet (1997)

Titus, the two male (kneeling) Goths and Aaron the Moor are wearing Roman armor. Titus’ Roman soldiers however, are in Elizabethan doublet and hose. Tamara is dressed like a fashionable Elizabethan lady. Under their Roman armor the Goths and Titus wear hose: that is, tights. The anachronism in the weapons is just as striking. The Romans carry medieval ceremonial halberds. One sports a scimitar, an unlikely weapon for either a classical Roman or an Elizabethan English soldier. His companion and Aaron have medieval long swords. But twice in the play swords are called rapiers.

Finally, to complete the list of anachronisms, while the left-most soldier wears a contemporary armor, his companion has on a breastplate of a Saxon style that passed out of use a hundred years before the play was performed. This is one of the best evidences that the drawing is the record of an actual performance. It would be difficult to understand why the artist, simply illustrating a scene from a play he was reading, would draw an armor he would never see in use. But it is easy to understand why an actor might be wearing such an armor: the theatre owned it precisely because it was no longer serviceable for combat.

Hamlet (1997)
Hamlet (1997)

So, there is no default proper period for any Shakespearean play, and that is probably one reason producers today seem to delight in finding strange settings and periods for the plays. But it seems certain Shakespeare did not place any of his plays in his own time. So we costumed Hamlet in the Viking period with rapiers and a university in Wittenberg. The religion in the play is Catholicism; Hamlet’s father’s ghost resides in Purgatory and Laertes says his dead sister will be a ministering angel when the priest at her funeral will “lie howling.” Claudius’s prayer in Act III is certainly a Christian prayer. But Hamlet’s absolute need to avenge his father is not a Christian notion. But it is a Viking’s duty, and mixing the Christian prohibition with the pagan, Viking duty helps to define the great conflict in the character of Hamlet.

The Guild Theatre

Our sixth season—1985-86: It was the worst of times and it was the best  of times. Our first show of the season, York 8, was our last show at the Rawhide Court theatre. The county closed us down for a number of code violations. We were not very knowledgeable about building codes and regulations in those days. So, we were back on the road again. Orpheus Descending at Southern Hills Jr. High; The Lady’s not for Burning in the City Council chambers. Neither space was satisfactory.
Orpheus Descending (1985)
Characters in Orpheus Descending (1985) at Southern Hills Jr. High
But there was a lot going on in the world of the arts in Boulder in the mid-eighties. The city government had been planning to build a performing arts center and had floated a bond issue and started a fund-raising campaign to pay for it. In response most of the city’s arts organizations joined in the effort to pass the bond issue and to raise money. There was an organization that had been formed long before called the “Arts and Humanities Assembly of Boulder” (AHAB) that had been defunct for some decades and was now revived. We all joined it and campaigned for the performing arts center.
Orpheus Descending
Characters (Mary Bell and other) in Orpheus Descending (1985) at Southern Hills Jr. High
Well, the bond issue failed, and AHAB was torn by some fierce internal struggles and finally transformed itself into The Boulder County Arts Alliance. The best laid plans of mice and men . . .
Orpheus Descending
Characters in Orpheus Descending (1985) at Southern Hills Jr. High
Among the mice were a number of theatre companies. We did not think of each other as competitors any more, if we ever had; we thought of each other as partners. Our members had served together on committees and sub-committees within AHAB. Some had shared space at the Rawhide Court theatre. And we began to learn how much we should value each others’ successes. When you see a play—anywhere—I want you to have had a good time; I want you to say, “I really like going to the theatre,” not “I don’t really like theatre.”
The Lady's Not for Burning (1986)
Characters (Joan Kuder Bell, Richard Bell, Others) in The Lady’s Not for Burning (1986) in the City Council chambers
So some of us got together and formed an informal alliance that we called The Boulder Theatre Producers’ Guild. Our main goal was to find a permanent performance space we could share.
The Lady's Not for Burning (1986)
Characters (Richard Bell, Others) in The Lady’s Not for Burning (1986) in the City Council chambers
One day, I think it was in the middle of our sixth season but memory is uncertain, I got a call from­—I think it was the director of BMoCA—asking me to come to a City Council meeting and speak in favor of building a theatre on the second floor of the BMoCA building. I and several others did and the Council approved the idea and the theatre got built. But—and this is why it was the best of times—toward the end of that meeting one of the Council members turned to me and asked if we, the Guild, had found a space. I said no, and he then said that since the bond issue had failed there was still money in the fund created for it, so how much would we need?
The Lady's Not for Burning (1986)
Character (Dan McNellan) in The Lady’s Not for Burning (1986) in the City Council chambers
The most responsible answer would have been something like, “I’ll do some research and prepare a budget and get back to you.” Instead I heard myself blurting out, “Twenty thousand dollars,” and he said “I think we can do that.”

 

Wow.

 

So, for the next couple of decades the Guild was a $20,000 line item in the city’s budget. We were no longer an informal alliance. We incorporated as a not-for-profit 51 (c) 3. We learned about building codes and zoning and fire regulations. We leased a warehouse at 4840 Sterling Drive and built two theatres there. In 1997 the Guild moved to the Dairy. Was the money well spent?
The original Watts-Hardy Dairy, which is now the site for Boulder’s Dairy Center for the Arts
Here is a list of the theatre companies the Guild hosted over the eleven years of the the Guild Theatre: The Upstart Crow, Boulder Conservatory Theater, Actors Ensemble, The Boulder Repertory Theatre Company, Nomad Players, Directors Theatre, The Shakespeare Oratorio Society, Trouble Clef Players, Goddess Theatre, September School, Imagination Makers, Now or Never, Dark Night Theatre, The Play-Ground Theatre, Boulder Ensemble Theatre, Holy Cow, Playwrights Unit, Rainbird Productions, Mingled Ages Theatre Company, Sirius Theater, Colorado Theatre Festival, Lady Jane Productions, Ancestral Moons, Rising Stage Theater Company, On-Stage Productions, X-Axis Independant Theatre, Mystik Hande, and Colorado Dramatists.I think it was money well spent.

Before The Upstart Crow

When I first moved to Boulder in August 2012, I was fresh out of undergraduate school, my BA in Theatre Arts hot off the presses. I was eager to get started in the professional world but was hesitant and unsure of how to begin. Before I moved, I had been researching local theatre companies and one in particular really caught my eye. The Upstart Crow was performing Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, one of my favorite plays from an even more favorite playwright. When I finally arrived in Boulder, they were auditioning for another challenging yet interesting show, Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. I read the play and although I didn’t have a particular role in mind, I did lean towards playing Hester Worsley. I decided to audition and to my delight I got it! Since then I have played six different roles (one male role included) and designed make-up and masks for six, for a total of ten different shows with The Upstart Crow.


I had the opportunity to sit down with Joan and Richard Bell, two founding members, and interview them on the beginning of the Upstart Crow ensemble theatre company.

They had been talking about doing The Trojan Women. Richard was working for a program at a free school, which is an institution that no longer exists. Richard says, “After the sixties, you know, after that period, there were free schools all over America; just a bunch of people that would get together. They would find a building, anyone could teach there. They could charge students or not as they chose. They were all wonderfully open and easy.”

There was a federal program that Richard applied for and got a role in. It was actually subsidized theatre. There were many requirements to get in. Richard was a veteran and unemployed at the time. “And it was terrific!” he says. He was payed $25 a week. He was able to perform improv in a number of places: “housing developments and places like that.” While doing that Richard, Joan, and India Cooper (another founding member) started talking about doing a play like The Trojan Women. Joan and Cooper were both a little against because Joan had always wanted to play Andromache. She said she would never be cast because she was “too short and too girlish.” Cooper dreamed of playing Cassandra but claimed she “wasn’t good-enough looking.”

This conversation sparked an idea. Richard said, “Let’s do it, let’s do the casting that way. You know, let’s cast against type.” So they put together a script. No one in the group read Greek, but Richard was able to compile a version by reading seven different translations. He liked other translations but claimed they weren’t human-English speech. He said they were definitely poetic but “most of the scripts are full of expressions of sorrow like “ah me.” No one in grief would ever say “ah me.” You would only say that if you were parodying grief. You know, its simply not human utterance and I found it in all the translations.” So Richard put the translations together and came up with an American-verse adaptation.

They first performed their version of The Trojan Women at the community free school and then were invited to do it at the Longmont dinner theatre, which is now Jester’s Dinner Theatre. Richard recalls it being called The Dickens Opera House at the time. “And so we did The Trojan Women,” Richard says through laughter, “to a dinner audience. And they were stunned.” It was a good production from Richard’s perspective. The cast and crew wanted to keep it going, following that show with Vain Flourish of My Fortune: Margaret of Anjou, a play Joan scripted from cuttings of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays and Richard III.

Vain Flourish featured Queen Margaret of Anjou, a character that, although never a lead, is seen throughout the whole Henry cycle. Richard and Joan say there were some wonderful female roles like Joan of Arc and many duchesses.

And so they cast it. Richard says in many ways he thought it was quite good. He did claim that their cast was too small, they doubled roles too much. After all, while each of the women played a single momentary starring role, Richard played about five different characters, that’s all. He also felt the play was difficult to end. “Margaret’s story is not satisfactorily finished. And we did the best we could to give it a finish but she just stops talking after awhile. We don’t know what happens to her.” But it was fun.

They were drinking one night during the performance (at which point Joan jumped in to point out they were drinking after the performance) and someone had the idea to start a theatre company. Richard was rightfully worried about how to start a company without any money when cast member Paul Ahrens pulled out his checkbook. They decided to do it. With Ahrens donation and $10 from everyone else, they had $600 for their theatre company.

The Upstart Crow’s first official season began with William Congreve’s The Way of the World “in twenties costumes because we could find them in thrift stores.”

Mrs. Millament (Joan Kuder Bell) in The Way of the World (1980)

It was reasonably well-attended. They charged $2 in advance and $3 at the door. They performed at Boulder’s community free school, a former Baptist church on the corner of Broadway and Balsam. Their stage was the church’s altar, bright blue wall behind them with doors leading off the stage, one on each side that locked from the outside. On one occasion, Richard says cast member Ruth Morel tried to make an exit in J.M. Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows, a show they later did that season (which, incidentally, will be our second show of the 36th season). Morel found she couldn’t get off the stage. She pounded on the door and ended up exiting through the audience and unlocking the door from the other side. “So many interesting things happened in that theatre,” Richard says.

Lavarcham (Ruth Helz) in Deirdre of the Sorrows (1980)

The Upstart Crow has been performing four or five shows every season from then on.

As The Crow Flies will feature history, stories, pictures, and anything else we may come up with highlighting the 35 years of Boulder’s The Upstart Crow. We hope you enjoy!