Monday, February 1, 2010

Working Period.

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Heather Cunningham

It’s in the details. Whether your production is on Broadway or in a 40-seat theater on a side street in an industrial neighborhood, it’s in the details. The angle of the heel on the shoe, the buttons on the coat, the frame of the chair, the packaging of the cigarettes. And when your audience practically sits in your actors’ laps it is even more important that those details be as right as possible.

It’s hard work. It’s my own fault Retro Productions does nothing but period pieces. But the truth is, I love those details. I love doing the research and playing hide and seek with the items that will make those details right. And nothing drives me crazier than going to see a show set in 1960 and seeing a modern package of Ronzoni on the stage.

I know there is an argument, especially in Off-Off Broadway where money is ridiculously tight, for simplifying the experience. Why do you need a set, costumes and props to tell the story? Why not just focus on the acting, and save a ton of money in the process? And that’s right for certain plays (and hell, focus on the acting no matter what). But if you are doing a play that belongs in another world, say, the New York City of the mid-1950s (as Retro will be doing again this May with THE DESK SET), you really can’t get away with that.

The world has changed and so has the way people interact with each other and the material things in their lives. We dial and hold the telephone differently. We pack and carry our suitcases differently. We even type differently (tell the truth, would you even know how to change a typewriter ribbon now if you had to?). As the things around us change, so do our interactions with them, which is why I object to modern props and costumes in a play set in the past.

So how do you get the details right when your combined costume, prop and scenery budget are just a couple of hundred dollars?

1) RESEARCH! (The good news is if you have a library card and an Internet connection, you can do this step for free!) Know what it should look like and you will start to see the things around you that may not be vintage, but come so close that they won’t stick out like a sore thumb. (Check back for some of my favorite 20th Century research resources.)

2) “Beg, borrow and steal” (I’m not condoning the latter.) Obviously we all do this anyway, but it still applies! In addition to treasure hunting at estate and yard sales, junktique stores, salvage dealers, freecycle, ebay, craigslist, dollar stores and thrift shops I also fully admit to dumpster diving. I’m always checking out what people have tossed… one mans trash is another mans treasure!

3) Time is on my side, yes it is! And it can be on your side too. I occasionally take up to 6 months in advance of a show in order to get what I need within my budget. Time to spare can be your greatest ally when working on a budget.

4) Learn Photoshop. Need a mid-40s dust jacket for War and Peace? A ‘60s box of Wheaties with a ball player on the front? A can of tomato juice out of the ‘50s? At Retro we’ve done them all… with Photoshop.

5) No matter how gorgeous the costume, the look is not period complete without the right hair and make up. As a producer it makes me crazy (and I’m willing to bet costume designers hate it too) when actors don’t understand that the wrong hairstyle or shade of lips can throw the entire balance of the design off.

6) Don’t focus on what something is; see what it can be. I’ve had more than one designer for Retro who took apart something they bought at Goodwill and made it into something else. I’ve seen an early 90s cotton wrap dress transformed into a 30s day dress with a few cuts and stitches and a set of vintage buttons. And that modern sofa looked a lot less “Jennifer Convertibles” once the throw pillows of 50s fabric were put on top of it.

7) She’s crafty and she’s just my type… learn how to make stuff. Because when you can’t find it, you’ll have no choice but to make it. Giant wheel of cheese? Check. Bad modern art? Check. Wood burning cook stove? Check. Room sized “electronic brain”… check back with me in May.

And the diner jukebox that everyone loved… a combination of plywood, colorful plastic rods, kitchen lamps, and, yes, photoshopped images… if I had a buck for everyone who asked me where we got an old jukebox I’d have more money than it cost to make it.

And that’s one definition of being innovative, don’t you think?

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