In Which I Dabble in the Theater

      Are you ready for some serious insanity?  Brace yourselves and get ready for a seriously long post explaining what I've been doing for many many months. (So grab your smoking jacket- and a bib...kudos to you if you know what I'm talking about!) By the end of it you'll see why I haven't posted since Halloween.
     I agreed to help out with costumes for a production of an Irish-style Nutcracker. Not just because I can sew, but because I was the only person who volunteered to do it. So basically I was told what was needed (or I helped decide it), was given the dancers' measurements, and then I drafted patterns.
First I made costumes for the three girls doing The Claddagh Ring Dance. As a cheap and easy solution I came up with the idea that they could look like Roman Goddesses, dressed in what would look like liquid metal. This way, the costumes could be worn by different girls of different sizes year after year without much need to alter them.
     The costumes are silver chitons, sewn at the shoulders and partway down the sides, with a drape in the front. I realized that they could only drape so much, since the costumes would shift waaay too much while the girls were dancing. I'm really glad I started with these costumes, because even though they look really simple, there was more math involved than I anticipated. The silver fabric had some stretch to it, besides being slippery, so it was really hard to work with. 
     Shoulder width, arm length, and body length all determined how I made each girls' costume. Someone else made really neat silver-leafed belts with the claddagh design on them. I wish I had pictures of the finished outfits but I forgot to take some and the professional pictures are obviously copyrighted by someone else. I thought I had taken some of me trying them on for size (which didn't work well, since even though most of the girls are much taller than me I have broader shoulders), but I can't seem to find them. 
     Next came my big order of five costumes for The Peppermint Paddy Dance. These girls would be somewhere between 1940s-1950s style, with little sparkly white pillbox hats and striped skirts that will someday have fluffy crinolines under them. 
Taking each girl's measurements, I made a circle skirt out of white muslin and 5 red cotton pieces. After doing the math and making sure each red piece was spaced evenly from the others, I sewed them on the white skirt and attached an elastic waistband. 
 They were so big I had to open out the big folding table in our schoolroom so that I could cut out the material and pin the pieces on.

Here's the skirt folded in half. Still looks pretty big. 

I tried on the skirt of the girl whose waist measurement was closest to me, just to see what it would look like. Yes, it looks better without pants on underneath. But I was in the coldest room of our house.

 Then because they looked so boring in just plain cotton, I glued on hundreds of white opalescent sequins to the white sections. Not a whole lot, mind you, but enough to give them a hint of sparkle when the girls danced.
I cut out wide silver sequin belts for the girls to wear that covers the elastic waistbands, and I made little peppermint candies out of foam and white netting to put on the little pillbox hats.
Again, wish I had pictures of the five girls in their finished costumes, but later on in the post I'll explain why I had no time for photos. In the meantime, ignore my messy fabric closet.

As you may well imagine, at this point I was sick of making the same thing over and over. I was practically chomping at the bit for some more interesting design work. So I volunteered to make the nightgown for Clare (Clara in the original Nutcracker) to wear for most of the performance. Underneath, she would be wearing the blue and white-striped seersucker pantalettes I had made earlier for my oldest daughter. With that in mind, I decided to make a Regency-style gown with a net lace overlay. I made it with gathers at the neckline, waist, and wrists both so that it would be easy to get on and off and so that it could also fit girls of varying sizes. The waist is high, the back is in multiple sections, and the sleeves gather at the back of the arm, which make this more than your average nightgown from Wal-Mart.
I used the same muslin as I did for the Paddy skirts, and some embroidered lace with sequins that I'd never used for other projects. To tie the nightgown in with the pantalettes, I trimmed the wrists with the same lace, and also the same blue ribbon around the wrists, neckline, and bustline.
It's no surprise that I can't seem to find the pictures of that costume either. However here are some shots of it in action, from the back:
and from the front. I also did lots of little odd jobs on several other costumes, like the gold trim on the Nutcracker's jacket and helping with the multi-colored tutus for the girls in The Rainbow Dance .

Then a last minute change in the dancing order resulted in new costumes and a new specialty dance for the second act. Thus The Roses of Tralee Dance was born, and since so little time was left costumes were ordered (you can see 2 of them above, on either side of Clare and her Nutcracker). 
     I did, however, design headbands for each girl to wear. My original idea was to make them crowns out of large rose blooms but those proved to be too large and hard to dance in. And anyways, smaller roses and various types of greenery looked much better. 

I had my oldest girl try hers on for size, since she was going to be one of the four roses.

I have to admit it was a lot of fun going to the home furnishings store to pick through all their fake flower bouquets to find just the right ones to take apart and stick on fat gold headbands.

I also found some crazy pink glittery feather-looking thing in the Christmas section that just happened to have four "feathers" on it. I cut them apart and used those to cover the bulk of the headband, with the flowers and plants going on the right side.
I've never really taken fake flowers apart but it was a lot of fun. I wound up buying two different bouquets and used various parts and pieces from both.
     I don't really remember what other odds and ends I did for costumes, and anyways I don't have pictures of them. Keep in mind all this is happening the same time as the previous post, when I made Halloween costumes, and while I'm doing homeschooling and also lesson plans for teaching art. If that's not enough, at the SAME TIME I also was working on the sets.
     I started back during the summer, before I even really knew what the venue was  like (because of contract issues), and with only a vague idea of what the everything was supposed to look like.
Making landscape paintings out of nothing is something I haven't done in a very long while, and I'm not ashamed to say that I had a hard time of it. I also had to keep in mind that whatever I created had to take second place to all the costumes, and needed to support the dancing going on in front of it, rather than competing with the performances. 
     For the first act, which takes place in the home of Clare and her family, I got the brilliant idea to do a wallpaper-type design consisting of stripes and dots. Why, you may ask? Because I'd seen a live performance or two of the Nutcracker, and one thing that always bothered me was plain painted walls that looked streaky or had weird splotches. And for another thing, I wanted to reference the traditional Celtic art in a non-traditional way. Outlines and dots are two very common and simple methods of decorating letters and objects. 
     Looking at pictures of living rooms of Irish homes online, I got the idea for at least part of the living room to feature a bay-window type area. I thought it would break up the monotony of a straight backdrop. 

Once I had my basic plan, I had to work out staging with the director and figure out what props were needed where. Keep in mind that by this point, more than half the cast had already been rehearsing the show for about 3-4 months. 
Here is the original stage plan I came up with:
      This is one half of the 60 foot stage. After going over staging issues, we realized my plan would only work if it was flipped. So this half with the door actually wound up being re-drawn with the door on the left and the clock on the right.
     Below is the other half of the stage, with my pathetic version of a giant white screen in between both halves. I had no idea at this point precisely how big that white screen was, but knew it was big and was going to be used to project images on during the performance. In this scene it was going to be a giant window looking out into the frosty winter street.

You can kind of see in the plan that the windows on either side of the fireplace are at an angle, withe the fireplace jutting out a bit. This takes the place of my original idea of the bay window. 
     With the plans in place i set to work drafting the individual panels, with a scale of 1"-1' so that I could easily create my designs on a large scale. For each scene there would be 8 panels 8'x8' each. 
     My original color scheme for this scene was going to be warm tones. I wanted the stripes to be a buttery yellow color. Then I got this brilliant idea in the middle of the night that warm blue would look much more wintery and interesting. I quickly dashed off this rough sketch:
After a consult with the director, however, I was reminded that a light color would show off the dancers' legs much better, and be more unique, as many Irish dance performances are usually done against a dark background. So it was back to yellow. I didn't like the look of the white fireplace with the yellow stripes. It felt too lost. 

     I tried to do something about it. I thought a nice sienna color would be just the thing. It looked better in terms of visibility, but still wasn't what I was looking for. In the corner of the photo below you can also see part of the color key I made for the second scene.

     I wound up making the fireplace white again, but this time with the addition of some icy blue. It looked much better.

     Here it is next to the window panel.

Then to save time I combined two panels, one that would have photographs hung on it, and one with a light fixture. I figured I would save the rest of my measuring, and precious time for later when I'd need it the most.

     I also only painted one window scene, planning to make them both symmetrical on either side of the fireplace but changing up the buildings behind the window panes.

     When I designed these, it was with the idea that they would be painted onto panels of foam insulation. However, we realized that would be an awful lot of insulation to store, as well as being pricey. We decided to make muslin backdrops instead that could be draped over the theatre's existing curtain-type structures that they normally use. The theatre we were going to be using wasn't finished and so had minimal amenities.
     It took an awful long time to measure, cut, and prime all the panels we needed. There were many sore backs, blistered hands, and bruised knees. Luckily I had helpers.  It took even longer to draw all the stripes on, since the fabric wasn't perfectly straight and since some parts of it shrunk more than others once the primer dried.

Here you can kind of see the way the set looked with the girls dancing in front of it. Some parts are smoother than others because of how we had to drape it over the existing structure. Sometimes the poles got in the way.

     The color also wound up going darker, more into mustard territory. I felt the butter yellow was to sunny and happy. I really wanted to make the first act, in the "real" world, more dreary and wintery than the second act, while still being colorful.
     Which brings us to the second act. In the original, Clara journeys with her Nutcracker to the Land of Sweets. In The Irish Nutcracker, Clare travels with her Nutcracker to the Land of Tir Na Nog. All I could find out about Tir Na Nog is that it's a land similar to the Norse Valhalla, in that heroes get to go there when they die. It's a land of immortals, of flowers and winding streams where there is always abundant food and drink and eternal sunshine. 
     With just that to go on, I decided to continue the subconscious Celtic art theme. If you pay attention, the opening scene (to be discussed after this), is composed almost entirely out of straight lines and angles. The first act, the living room scene, is mostly straight lines as well but has the addition of the light fixture and the Christmas decorations bringing in some curved elements. Tir Na Nog, however, is entirely curving, curling, winding shapes with nary a straight line in sight. 
     Let's talk about concept art. I had envisioned the entire scene in two large panels. 

     I knew almost immediately what I wanted for the left side (stage right). A sort of woodsy scene with a waterfall in the background, separated by rocky outcroppings. At this point I didn't have the style I wanted nailed down yet; I was just trying to get my elements in place so it looks pretty sketchy.
     The other side was much harder. First I tried basing it on a trio of interlocking trees I'd once seen.

     It looked terrible. And sloppy.

Then I tried a bridge in the foreground. It made sense, at least in my head, that if there were winding streams everywhere eventually one would need a place to cross them. It was still too busy.

     I went back to my trio again and tried to flesh it out in the hopes of making it work. It didn't work.
So I scrapped both ideas and tried to envision a place where Clare and her Nutcracker could sit on their mushroom thrones and watch the specialty dances.

     It definitely looked better, and I was starting to develop a style for the scene. For the sake of good flow, I flipped my image. And because it wasn't a totally bad idea, I put the bridge back in, on a smaller scale.
      Being brilliant at math, when I went to try to make scaled versions of my sketches, I realized they wouldn't translate the way I wanted them to. So I decided to make each sketch only a part of each side, measuring 12'x8'. To complete each side I did two additional drawings, one meant to be 12'x8' and the other to be 8'x8'.
     Here is the rest of stage left:

Above you see the middle panel. The stream on this side keeps winding past the bridge and ends at another waterfall, different from the waterfall on the rocks side.

Then the scene just sort of continues with some more rocks, mushrooms and other forest life. This part is closest to being offstage so I didn't really want too much to be going on over here. I want all eyes drawn more towards center stage, where the action will be taking place.

And here is the whole tracing-paper shebang altogether, for stage left. I used tracing paper mostly because it's what I was taught to use in school. And because it could be easily flipped if need be.

Let's talk about stage right now. I took the original sketch and turned it into a scaled line drawing.
Then I did my usual 1"=1' drawing. Since my canvas was only 8", I was only able to do part of the panel.

Then using that color key we kind of talked about earlier, I put it in living color. I tried to use a cool color palette, as opposed to the warm one I used in the first act. I don't like it too much. 

Here is the sketch for the rest of that half of the stage:

     At this point I didn't really have time to do full-color renderings of all the panels. I was still doing lesson plans and school and housework and finishing costumes and in my spare time in the wee hours of the morning I was working on the opening scene, called The Town Scene. Before I talk about that, here is a little idea of what Tir Na Nog looked like once it was finally finished:

I did not make the mushrooms. But they look good there, don't you think? My favorite parts are the swirls on the trees. There are also tiny clusters of flowers in different colors all over, in groups of three to represent the trinity. And that's about it for my Celtic art references in this scene. Again, I didn't want it to be overt because that would be really visually distracting. I also made the bottom (technically the foreground) darker because I wanted the dancers' costumes to stand out better, whereas before I had to make the background lighter.

These are mostly pictures of stage left because I wound up being stage left manager (whaaat?!) and so this was my side. I took these during intermission after we'd changed the scenery and quite frankly I felt really self-conscious doing it.

Nevertheless I was spotted and convinced to sit amongst my artwork for a photo.

I hope this gives you something of an idea of what it looked like when it was done. I decided to do mostly warm colors, and it wound up looking much better. It's still not finished, in my mind, but it was finished enough for the production.

     Now on to The Town Scene. And just what is that, you ask? It's the very opening of the show, when all the guest walk through the streets of town to Clare's house for the holiday party that will be held there. The scene parts in the middle to reveal the living room scene, with Clare and her family awaiting their guests.
     My original sketch was just that - a sketch. Very basic. I knew that it was going to be very stylized, and in very dreary jewel-toned warm colors.

It was only later that I decided to make it straight angular lines to juxtapose the swirling curves of the Tir Na Nog scene. So I changed a lot of the buildings and drew them to scale.

I tried to do one in colored pencils, because I was lazy about opening up the jugs of paint, but it didn't work out too well.

 Unlike the 60' stage, these panels would be done on the foam insulation board (4'x8') and put together in groups of 2. There would be 14 panels total, 8 on one side of the stage and 6  on the other when split. I stayed up late many a night measuring, drawing, and painting these myself and got 8 done before they were all taken to the dance studio and I got help with the other 6.
     I wasn't sure that the houses would actually look as if they were in the distance, so halfway through my first pair I had my oldest stand in front of them for reference.

I didn't take pictures of all of them, unfortunately, but here are some of them in their unfinished state.

I tried to paint them in warm colors but after awhile I broadened my horizons to a few cooler warm colors. I was trying to be frugal and use up colors from the living room scene once we were done with them, so as not to waste paint.

So to amuse myself I started using color combinations to symbolize different things or people; I did one for each of my family members, one for me and my sisters, one for my high school, etc. The blue gray one above is for my husband, because his favorite color is blue. The ugly brown, yellow and orange one in the photo below I did in honor of the colors of our living room and kitchen growing up.

That green and brown house on the end in the photo below is my mother's.  Note the craftsman style windows (if you can see them, it's a little hard at this angle).

There is way more green and blue in these houses than I had originally anticipated; but at least I got to use up an awful lot of paint that would have gone to waste otherwise.

You will notice there is only a small amount of snow on the houses in this scene. I decided not to make it look too cold and wintry, since the girls would only be wearing scarves/shawls as they walked through the streets and not full winter gear. That would be too hard for them to take off quickly before entering the living room as the show progressed.

See the orange building with the T shaped windows? There's one for me and my sisters, and one big T for our last name. Next to us is a greenish-grey and beige house that I did for my dad. It has 5 windows for his 5 kids.

     Let's not forget that huge white screen on stage. We had planned on using it to project images on that would tie in with each scene. There would be a giant window for the living room scene and a giant "Tree of Life" type thing in the Tir Na Nog scene. I got out my handy tracing paper and did a line drawing that I transferred directly to canvas.

I wanted some actual knotwork in this one but tried to still make it cohesive to the other trees. Since it's so big I figured it would be more like what the other trees would look like if you saw them up close. 

     I tried to make the painting style close to what the muslin backdrops looked like, so it's purposely a little rough. Also I wasn't sure how much of this tree would be seen on screen, so I painted extra things around it like the leaves on top. I realize it might not work if seen on a really large scale, and wished I could have had time to do it in Illustrator or something but oh well. Sadly, due to technical problems, we wound up not using the screen to project the images.
     And finally, to top everything off, I made a doll-sized replica of Clare's costume to raffle off at the show. Luckily I had enough scraps of all the fabrics to make both the nightgown and the pantalettes. It took me a little bit of thinking to figure out how to make the nightgown bodice look gathered the way Clare's over-the-head version is, while making the doll version with velcro closures in the back.

     So, there it is. If you've made it through this entire post, then I congratulate you. It's awfully long and took a long time to put together. Sorry I didn't have pictures of the finished products, but all the girls looked fabulous and the sets weren't too terrible either. I really wish I'd had a chance to take better (and more) photos of them in all their glory, but I was too busy with helping the show run smoothly to think about it at the time. But's it's not bad work, considering we had a budget of almost nothing, and had to make do with what we could get.


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