“Imagination Run Wild” Designing Stuart Little

MainStreet’s 11th season starts with a charming adaptation of the beloved book Stuart Little. Stuart goes on many adventures throughout the play, and I was able to talk with some of the people who will be bringing these adventures to life, Angela Calin and Art Manke. Angela is the costume designer who has worked on three previous MainStreet Shows. Art is also working on his third MainStreet show as director and has also taken on the role of Scenic Designer. Angela and Art both worked on last season’s Elephant and Piggie’s; We Are in a Play!

Angela and I talked about her experience with designing for MainStreet.

 Can you give a brief summary of how you became a costume designer?

I was born in Bucharest, Romania in an artistic family. My mother was a graphic artist and my father a sculptor and so I was constantly surrounded by art and artists. My parents loved the theatre and music so from a very early age I was introduced to the magic of live theatre. I spent my childhood and adolescence in green rooms and rehearsal spaces and of course watching some of my favorite shows over and over again. I was absolutely fascinated by this creative, lively, colorful world where everything was possible where you could let your imagination run wild and escape the harsh realities of everyday life in communist Romania. After graduating from The Fine Arts High School, I was preparing for a college education and I decided to pursue a career in the theatre. So I applied to the Arts Academy and received my MFA degree in scenic and costume design.

How did you get involved with MainStreet?

One day I got a phone call from Mark Rucker a director friend who was invited to direct Cinderella at  MainStreet theatre. He asked me if I would design the costumes for his show and I gladly accepted. We opened the play in February 2010.

Can you describe your design process? In general and then more specifically to the show.

The design process in a fairly long process. It begins 3-4 months before we start rehearsal. First I read the play and take basic notes about when and where the story is set, what period, who are the characters, what age, how many etc. Then I have a first meeting with the director and go over the notes, talk about the concept and direction of the design. Then I read the play a few more times to make myself familiar with who the characters are,  Next step are the costume sketches, ideas of how to dress each character. These are called preliminary sketches, they are usually black and white. I do a separate drawing for each actor and for each costume change. More meetings follow and once the director approves the designs I add color and those will be the final renderings. The costumes will be built based on them. The renderings will be approved by the director, the theatre’s artistic director and will be given to the costume shop supervisor who will oversee the building. Once the play goes into rehearsal that is when we start making the costumes. I buy the fabrics and certain clothing pieces (like for instance shoes, socks, shirts etc that are readily available to purchase). The rest is built by the costume shop. When the play calls for wigs we hire a wig master. Once the show goes into technical rehearsals the costumes are ready to be worn but we’ll still need to make small adjustments. And so 5 months later the show is ready to open.

What is different when you have to design animal costumes? Ex: Elephant and Piggie’s; We Are in a Play, the animals in Stuart Little.

I enjoy designing animal costumes they are fun and I can use my imagination to come up with unexpected choices at times.  Sometimes we treat the animals no different from people but other times we try to incorporate their characteristics into the costumes through shapes, colors and textures.

Were there any challenges you faced with designing this show? Not really. Once we decided on a basic costume for each actor the rest just came together.

What are you excited about for this show?

I’m very excited to be collaborating with Art Manke our director. We worked together for many years and I think we make a good team. I admire and value him as an artist very much. And then there’s the play. Stuart Little is such a wonderful story to share with young and old and I’m very happy to be part of it.

Art Manke talked about his experience directing at MainStreet in this blog post. Now he is sharing his experience as a designer.

What are you excited about for this show?

The story of Stuart Little is the perfect introduction to live theatre for young audiences.  Stuart goes on adventures, gets to play with abandon and discovers the world around him just as all children do, one experience at a time.

You are also the scenic designer for the show, what has been your experience with that? What inspired your design?

When I was a small boy in pre-school, my favorite play-time activity was making skyscrapers with old-fashioned wooden blocks.  There is something so fundamental about them, and yet they release a child’s imagination in remarkable ways.  The same wooden rectangle can go from representing a tall building, to being a race car to a tree, depending on the child’s whim and shifting perspective.  In Stuart Little, the locations change rapidly, and I thought that over-sized wooden blocks could provide the perfect environment for the play.  Plus, because Stuart is a tiny mouse, and the blocks are oversized, we get a sense of how the scale of objects appear to him, or any small child.

What do you think people will take away from this show?

Stuart goes on a wonderful journey that takes him from complete innocence to a kind of wisdom as he teaches some very valuable lessons.  At the end of the story, he plays substitute-teacher and his book of rules includes “no being mean,” “no stealing,” and “no hurting of feelings;” all very simple, but important lessons.  My favorite exchange occurs, however, when he asks one of the students to articulate what is important in life.  The student responds, “A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy.”  Stuart responds affirmatively, but points out that the boy has forgotten one very important item:  “ice cream,” he says, “is important.  Very important.”  It reminds us all to appreciate the simple things in life, no matter what our age.



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