On Valentine’s Day, more than 200 people ushered into the Marian Gallaway Theatre to watch 19 actors and actresses turn back time to 1939, when a young wealthy perfectionist named Tracy Lord was getting married for the second time. The 150-minute production took the cast two months to prepare—from memorizing lines and blocking stage directions to learning how to walk, talk, and carry themselves like they were in the 1930s. However, their work represents just a small fraction of the talent needed to create The Philadelphia Story.
“The planning begins almost a year in advance,” said Bill Teague, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. “By the time we hold auditions, costume and scenery designs for a show are already well under way.
“Think about it like a subway in New York with trains running on parallel tracks. There’s a track for the director and the actors, a track for costumes and makeup, a track for the scenery studio, a track for promotion, and a track for lighting and sound.”
While there are weekly production meetings to ensure that each track coordinates its efforts with the others, they largely work independently of one another until the technical rehearsals, which are a just a week before the show.
Regardless of the track, however, the process for each production team begins the same—with reading and research.
“When I start working with a show, I read the script twice,” said sound designer and junior Christopher Spencer. “First I read just to enjoy it, and then I start analyzing it for sound cues—like how many people are in a room, whether the scene is indoors or outdoors, and how large the space seems to be.”
For makeup, costume, and set, the designers also draw on images from the play’s time period to make the play feel as real as possible.
“In theatre, you never want to break the illusion,” technical director and assistant professor Randy deCelle said. “All of our work is meant to enhance and never distract from what the actors are doing on stage.”
And from ensuring that the staircase doesn’t shake when it’s walked on to painting the bruise in the right place on an actor’s face, that is exactly what UA’s behind-the-scenes team of nearly 100 students does to make each show a success.
In four weeks and with 1,000 labor hours, roughly 30 students, faculty members, and volunteers created a 1,500-pound curved staircase, updated a towering wall of French windows, and painted the stage floor.
Associate professor Andy Fitch, who designed the set, styled the architecture after the mansion of Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, the 1930s Philadelphia socialite on whom the play is loosely based.
After making to-scale sketches of the set on large 18-by-24-inch sheets of paper, he put together a miniature 3D paper model of his design. The model took roughly eight hours for him to complete.
Using Fitch’s designs, Randy deCelle, the technical director of the show, made more than 100 detailed technical drawings specifying how each part of the staircase would be built. One of the drawings is pictured right.
To make sure the staircase didn’t shake on stage, the team used 1,200 screws and a custom air-lift caster system with six casters to firmly support up to 1,800 pounds on the unit.
Because the majority of set construction is done off-site, special care must be taken to ensure that all props and stage pieces are able to fit through the doors of the Marian Gallaway Theatre.
The final staircase, much larger than the theatre doors, was created in three parts and fastened together in-house in order to accommodate the size of the entryway.
In the costume shop, there is a hierarchy for workflow. Under the direction of graduate-student designer Chalise Ludlow, 36 students in UA’s costume shop built seven period dresses, three servants vests and hats, and a pair of ascots in addition to altering aprons, pajamas, and another dress to fit the production’s 1939 period.
Ludlow’s process begins with an immense amount of research. First, she studies the play to get a sense for the characters and plot—but also to make sure that any descriptions about appearance are included in her designs. Once she knows the time, setting, and class of the characters she’s designing for, she delves into the past to find historical references for the types of garments and accessories she would like to recreate. Her research culminates in a 4-inch thick costume design “bible” full of hand-drawn thumbnails, images, and historical references.
After selecting the best of a few options for each costume with the help of the show’s director, Ludlow creates detailed drawings of each costume and attaches a swatch of the final fashion fabric as a reference point for the costume construction team (see image 1). When the designers can’t find the right fabric color, they hand-dye the fabrics for the show (see image 2).
Building a costume from scratch requires a lot of measurements. In fact, the team takes 62 measurements from each actor and actress in the show (see image 3).
Using the actors’ measurements and the drawing designs as reference points, the show’s draper then pieces together a workable pattern on a dress form (see images 4–5).
Once the patterns are finished, another student, called a first hand, prepares the fabric by washing, drying, pressing, and cutting it so that it is ready for construction. The stitcher then sews the fabric together following the pattern and techniques outlined by the draper (see image 6). For each show, the roles rotate, giving students a chance to perform each of the various duties in the costume production process.
Each costume is built twice. First the costume is constructed as a mock-up, using an inexpensive muslin fabric (see image 7).
This helps to ensure that the pattern is accurate and will fit the actor or actress. The second build is done in the final fashion fabric (see image 8).
Tracy Lord’s ruffled pink ball gown alone required 118 yards of fabric (see image 9).
The costume shop held more than 45 fittings in order to ensure each piece was picture-perfect for the show (see images 10–11).
After being cast in a UA show, each actor and actress is brought into the costume shop to have their skin tone matched to a Ben Nye makeup kit basecolor. That basecolor determines which Ben Nye kit the actor or actress will use for basic corrective makeup.
Freshman makeup designer Kyndall Stoker, pictured above, researched looks from the 1930s in order to find reference images for the actors and actresses to use while applying their makeup and styling their hair. She then used her images to construct a makeup map and instruction sheet for each actor and actress.
To help the audience identify the difference between a servant and master, not just by the costumes but also by their makeup, Stoker planned for the women in the wealthy Lord family to have bright red lips, heavy eye shadow, winged liner, and bright blush, while keeping the servants’ looks much more simple.
Because The Philadelphia Story didn’t require any intricate or 3D makeup, like warts, blood, or nose pieces, most of the actors and actresses did their own corrective makeup, following the guidelines on their sheets.
Lily DiSilverio, who plays the lead actress Tracy Lord, is a natural blonde. During the course of rehearsals and productions, she dyed her hair four times to get the natural red color needed to look like Katherine Hepburn, the show’s original actress.
LIGHTING AND SOUND
Lighting designer Bill Teague drafted the light plot, which is a road map to the show’s lighting, weeks before the technical rehearsals began. The plot shows a ground plan of the theatre and all the positions the lighting instruments occupy, detailing which light fixture goes where, what color it will be, and what number it will have in the lighting console. The lights are then meticulously hung and focused to a particular part of the stage.
The show used 82 lighting cues and more than 150 lights. Some were incandescent fixtures designated for area lighting, while others were LED fixtures whose colors could be changed at the lighting console to almost any color imaginable. During the setup and run of the show, the assistant lighting designer, Emily Phillips, replaced roughly eight lamps.
For sound, the Department of Theatre and Dance has a library that contains thousands of CDs with approximately 250 to 300 sound clips on each disc. According to sound director and junior Christopher Spencer, they have the sound of everything from a doorbell ringing to a steak being slapped.
In total, The Philadelphia Story had 35 sound cues, including a phone ringing, a piano playing, and a boat creaking among ocean waves. Spencer personally recorded some of the sounds, like crickets chirping, and used a sound bite from the Rowand Johnson Hall drinking fountain to make the ocean waves more pronounced. “Popcorn popping can sound like rain falling on a tin roof,” he said. “It just depends on the context in which you’re hearing the sound.”
In addition to the costume, set, lighting, and sound teams, The Philadelphia Story relied on students and faculty for promotion, stage management, props, movement, and fight choreography. Tying everyone’s work together, however, was the creative vision of assistant professor Annie G. Levy, the director of the production.
“As the director, my job is to ask a lot of questions, but then to find the best people to answer them and get them in the room with me. That is how a successful production is created.”