Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Mar 25, 2014
04:38 PM
Stage Write

The Art of the Quick Change in Forward's 'OR,'

ILLUSTRATION BY HOLLY PAYNE

Payne's sketch for Lady Davenant, one of the three characters Colleen Madden will play in Forward Theater's 'Or,.' 

As audience members, we’re used to seeing actors appear onstage in multiple costumes during the course of a play. We don’t typically give a lot of thought to the backstage mechanics of what it takes to get them from one ornately designed outfit to another.

But in a show like Forward Theater Company’s staging of OR,—Liz Duffy Adams’s racy, Restoration-era sex farce loosely based on a wild night in the life of Aphra Behn, the first female playwright—costume changes, lots and lots of costume changes, are front and center.

OR, (running March 27–April 13) features a whopping twenty-five costume changes, most of which will be managed by two of the show’s three actors. Norman Moses, who doubles up as King Charles II and William Scott, a spy and potential royal assassin, and American Players Theatre vet Colleen Madden, who does triple duty as Nell Gwynne, a famous actress and Aphra’s good friend, Maria, her servant, and Lady Davenant, an imperious theater producer.

When it all goes off without so much as a hitch (or lost stitch), you can thank costume designer Holly Payne, who’ll be working her magic in service of the show. Payne’s been doing this for twenty years, including twelve seasons with APT (number thirteen comes up this summer) and eight with the Milwaukee Rep. Pretty impressive for someone who started her theater career as a stagehand and taught herself to sew as an undergrad.

Now, creating stunning and detailed period costumes with, as she puts it, “big fluffy hats” is, as they say, old hat to her. But shows like OR, like Noises Off and The Mystery of Irma Vep, feature a madcap nature that adds to the sense of chaos and fun. Madden, for instance, has to change from Nell to Maria really quickly—like less-than-ten seconds quickly—and that obviously requires some additional cleverness and dexterity.

“With a costume change, the most important part is the relationship between the dresser and the actor,” says Payne, referring the backstage hands whose job it is to facilitate the on and the off. “You need a calm actor and an efficient dresser.”

The tricks and tools of the trade are fairly key as well. As usual, Payne’s designed several lace-laden and frilly period costumes for OR, using resources borrowed from APT and the Milwaukee Rep. Some of which look like they’d take hours to put on and remove.

“What’s kind of cool is that we have some pieces that look like they’re built for not-fast changes,” says Madden. “Holly’s trick will be giving us something that you step into once. Let’s just say that this would be a fun show to watch from backstage.”

So how does she do it?

“We cheat,” Payne admits, with a chuckle. “We use zippers, clips and snaps.”

Velcro is another staple. If circumstances demand, even magnets may come into play.  

“Zippers are great for getting out of costumes, but not so great for getting into them,” Payne says, as she runs down her list of go-to options. “I’ve used parka zippers before just to make it easier. Velcro makes a sound, but sometimes it’s your only option.”

Usually, it all works seamlessly, and the audience never notices a thing—for Payne, that equates to some of the highest praise she can receive. Sometimes, however, even the best laid plans go awry, and a seam rips during a quick-change.

“There is something in a costume change gone wrong,” Payne concedes. “When something like that happens, you do have options. We’ve been reduced to using gaffer’s tape before.”

Madden can relate to the chaos. She’s had a couple of costume catastrophes in her long and impressive career. Like the time she was doubling up on characters in a performance of Much Ado About Nothing in Chicago and had already changed into the dress she was wearing as Margaret before realizing she still had lines to deliver as the droning male deputy Dogberry. In 2011’s performance of Blithe Spirit at APT, she forgot to change her stockings to match the all-white costume her ghostly character was supposed to be wearing. In another instance, while playing Queen Elizabeth, she nearly walked onstage without her crown before a fast-moving dresser saved the day.

“Things like that are a great reminder for me that the people backstage make the show happen,” she says.  

Madden actually appreciates performing in works that feature quick changes. “I feel the pressure of the audience. If I have too much time backstage I start to get into my own head.”

Here, she won’t have time for that. She’ll be occupied getting into the heads of the characters she’ll be playing.

“It’s interesting to be playing three women, each making their own unique way in the world,” says Madden. “In real life, Nell liked to dress up in men’s clothes. It gave her freedom to roam the streets.”

Forward’s production of OR, opens Thursday, March 27. For ticket information, visit forwardtheater.com

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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