Pam Richey ensures that the actress’s costume fits well.
Although the January sky was grey and overcast, a small room, buried beneath Zoellner Art Center’s theaters, glistened with activity and color.
In the department of theatre’s costume shop
, spools of red, pink and blue thread lined one of the walls in this hidden room, while boxes of baubles, bracelets and beads were stacked against other walls.
Several students bent over sewing machines or cut patterns out of fabric. The spring semester had barely begun, but the work-study students were already preparing costumes for the department of theatre’s eight productions this semester.
Their creations, along with the set design, provides the world in which the play takes place. Both costumes and stage reinforce themes and characters in the script and anchor the storyline in a time and a place.
On that winter day, Lauren Anderson ’08, a geological science major, held a calico dress in one hand while wielding a seam ripper in the other. As she removed stitches, she questioned Corinne Hawxhurst ’07 about the costumes for the department of theatre's
production of The Piano Lesson
, which opens Friday, April 4.
“What are you looking for when you design the costumes?” Anderson asked.
“I’m always considering what is written into the plays,” replied Hawxhurst, who designed the costumes for Lehigh’s rendition of August Wilson’s 1989 play.
August Wilson believed that African-Americans should appear in plays relevant to their history and lives, the Long Island native explains. For this purpose, he wrote 10 plays that depict the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th century. Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, The Piano Lesson
portrays a family wrestling with their legacy of slavery, which is intimately linked to their heirloom piano.
The costume design and acquisition for The Piano Lesson
is the “culminating event” of Hawxhurst’s education, says her mentor Erica Hoelscher, professor of theatre.
After Hawxhurst graduated from Lehigh last year, she and three other graduates were hired as apprentices by the theatre department. In return for their labor, the apprentices broaden their repertoire of skills to prepare for graduate school or professional theater.
“We created the apprenticeship program to help the department of theatre and a student,” Hoelscher says.
Usually the department hires one to two recent graduates, but this year it hired four: Corinne Hawxhurst, Justin Hoffecker ’07, Travis Kerr ’07 and Dede Ayite ’07, who is designing the set for The Piano Lesson
"An expression of the character’s soul"
When Hawxhurst began the design process in September, she investigated styles from the Great Depression, considering not only the fashionable clothing but the everyday dress of African-Americans.
“They had a lot of jazz and blues influenced styles,” says the former theatre major.
Her research included a five-hour trip west to the Pittsburgh foothills with the lighting designer; Ayite, the set designer, and Kashi Johnson, the play’s director and an associate professor of theatre.
Johnson described this period of research as a “journey of discovery” for herself and the play’s design team. “At the beginning, I had more questions than images,” she says.
Together, Johnson, Hawxhurst and Ayite began to see the characters, their clothing and their setting. “It was a joy to fill in those blanks,” Johnson says.
As she studied the play and its setting, Hawxhurst sketched historically accurate attire for each character. She redrew the costumes at least three times, experimenting with the cut and color. Her final watercolor renderings not only reflect the period and setting, but also the character’s personality.
“All costumes attempt to demonstrate the psychological aspects of the character,” Hoelscher says.
Augustine Ripa, professor and chairperson of the department of theatre, elaborates on the relationship between the clothing and the character.
“We use the costume to be an outreach and expression of the character’s soul,” he explains. The costume not only provides the audience visual cues about the character, but also helps the actor connect with his character.
“Sure, the actor has to interact with the walls of the set but nothing is as close as the costume. They sweat in the costume,” he says.
The costumes for The Piano Lesson
are infused with an African flare achieved by pattern, color and texture of the garment. This African influence can be clearly identified in the dress worn by the main character, Berniece, during the play’s final scene.
The purple-and-green pattern is reminiscent of native African prints, and the juxtaposition of the print over a 1930s-era dress illustrates Berniece’s position as an African-American living in Pennsylvania.
Berniece’s dress was created with the help of Pam Richey, the costume shop coordinator and adjunct faculty for the department of theatre. Richey directs the production of all the department of theatre’s costumes, accessories, hair and makeup. Richey and her students drafted patterns based on Hawxhurst’s sketches and specifications, and on the actor’s measurements. Then the costume shop staff created test garments, called mock-ups, from muslin before sewing the final costumes. Even after the costume is complete, it may be altered to ensure that the fit is correct.
Compared to many other universities, Lehigh makes a high percentage of their costumes, Hoelscher says. Garments that are not made specifically for a production are often found in the costume shop’s large storerooms or bought at a vintage or specialty store, as the pink nightgown and quilted robe were. For The Piano Lesson
, Hawxhurst also engaged a guest artist in costume technology. The artist specializes in creating period suits for professional theatres all over the East Coast.
“We did so to more accurately enliven the period aspects of the men’s wear as we have the women’s garments,” Hoelscher says.
Designing a set, designing a play
A student sands the unfinished set.
As Hawxhurst displayed her costume sketches that January day, Dede Ayite entered the costume shop and began sorting through a rack of clothes she prepared for the production of Frozen
by Bryony Lavery (2004).
When asked how her work on the set for The Piano Lesson
was going, Ayite laughed. “I’m letting it simmer,” said the former neuroscience and theater double major.
By mid March, Ayite could say that her set was in a rolling boil. In the scene shop, Ayite directed the construction of a stylized house. The building is slightly raised, partly for visual effect, partly because it was built on the Pittsburg hills, and partly because it resembles the keyboard of a piano.
“The house looks like the piano itself,” Ayite says. “It’s very subtle, and I don’t know if people will get it.”
The resemblance underscores a theme in the play. Because the piano represents the family’s history, it becomes a type of home.
“The piano is the house, and the house is the piano,” Ayite says. “The piano is where their touchstone is, but their house is where they are living.
Ayite is not only designing a set, but designing a play, says her mentor Drew Francis, professor of theatre.
“Dede’s work attempts to represent the history of Africans and African-American experience in this story,” he says. “The set brings to life where the play came from—Africa, New Orleans, jazz, joy in life, the African heritage and the history of their ancestors.”
Raised in Ghana, Ayite experienced this rich heritage firsthand when, as a high school student, she moved to the United States to live with her mother. Her life story is expressed in her art.
“Whatever you do, your past is still part of you. I can say, ‘Oh, I’m not African. I’m not Ghanian’, but it’s not who I am. I can try not to be it, but it’s already a part of me. It’s the way I see things or the way I express myself through my art. It’s just there.”
When Ayite entered Lehigh, she studied neuroscience with the intention of becoming a medical doctor. Midway through her career, she decided to complete her second major in theater and pursue design.
“I originally wanted to be a doctor to help people,” she says. “It was something that I saw as my duty and my job to make people feel better. I think I can do that through design.”
Like Ayite, Hawxhurst entered Lehigh with the intention of studying biology. After taking courses in both biology and education, she finally succumbed to her passion and switched her major to theatre.
Most theatre majors at Lehigh explore some other field, be it science, philosophy, engineering or business. Hoelscher says that by entering other fields, the students gain a wider perspective on humanity.
“We try to get our students to experience other things,” Hoelscher says. “The theatre department values double majors or minors, because theater is about life.”
Next year, both Ayite and Hawxhurst will incorporate these lessons on life when they enter graduate school for theater. Their professors expect them to flourish.
The Piano Lesson will be presented in Zoellner Arts Centers’ Diamond Theater at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 4-5, at 2 p.m. Sunday April 6, and at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, April 9-10.
To buy tickets for the production, visit the Zoellner online ticket page.
Story by Becky Straw
Posted on Thursday, April 03, 2008