Interview with Erica Hoelscher, costume designer for Plays and Players’ production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

By: Amy Freeman

Whenever I see a show, the first thing that I notice is the costumes worn by the characters. Costuming, more than any other aspect of a production (in my mind, at least), gives the audience a clear picture of the play’s dramaturgy. Through the costumes, an audience sees the time period of the play and is given a snapshot of the characters’ qualities and personalities. Excellently designed costumes help push the play’s dramaturgy forward. Poorly done costumes hinder a play.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat about the connection between costuming and dramaturgy with Erica Hoelscher, who designed costumes for August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, being performed at Philadelphia’s Plays and Players theater until February 11, 2012. Erica traveled to Pittsburgh, PA to perform research on the play along with Heather Helinsky, the associate dramaturg on the production (Nelson Barre was the lead production dramaturg for Joe Turner). The conversation gave me a chance to see how research and dramaturgy helps a designer on a project.

The Cast of<!--em Joe Turner's Come and Gone/Drew Hood, Throwing Light Photography"

Amy Freeman: What was your process for designing for Joe Turner? Did you do research on your own and then did you talk to Heather Helinsky and Nelson Barre, the dramaturgs, and Daniel Student, the director?

Erica Hoelscher: I did research on my own. In fact, it’s pretty much when I learn that I’m going to be designing something or when I’m contracted, as it were, I start my research process. I’ve done a lot of productions, so I’ve collected a lot of work but what I’ve found with Joe Turner is that there has been a lot of new stuff since the last time I did an August Wilson play. That was very exciting to find books and specifically, what I’m looking for, is visual research more so than text. So that’s where I started.

I had done my renderings and pretty much designed the show before we had the chance to go to Pittsburgh. What I found in working with Heather and what was very exciting about working with a dramaturg is that they are never done. They continue researching even after the play is open. To me, the message in that is that you can always do a play again. There’s always something more than you didn’t do the first time, either by choice or by design, or by accident that you can do the second or third or fourth time you do the production. What I really enjoyed about was that even though I had done my renderings and shopped for fabric, I still found more information [in Pittsburgh] that I could then incorporate into my design. I left enough allowance and I left room so that I could still learn from that.

I think the other thing that working with Heather did for me, or just working with a dramaturg in general, was that her interest was not limited to or even focused on the costumes at all. And, so, I was watching her find things out and it did inform my thoughts about the costumes as well. So, where I ended up with that was really feeling that the clothes had to look like they belonged in Pittsburgh. We found a photograph of Pittsburgh in 1910 that showed how filthy and dirty it was there due to the steel industry. That made it critically important to me that the clothes be clothes and not costumes. At the end, they turn a little costume-y, but that was director’s input. For stylistic reasons, he wanted certain things at the end of the play, he wanted to see a progression.

Amy: Can you explain that, what makes something costume-y versus just clothing?

Erica: Clothes are lived in. Clothes belong to the characters and not to the designer. That’s very important to me. It was Robert Edmund Jones who said “get the ‘me” out of your work.” And to me, that’s what a dramaturg really can do for you. Get the me out of your work and it’s not about the designer, it’s about the play.

Amy: Can you talk about what happened in Pittsburgh and maybe the connection, how you ended up going there?

Erica: The play is set in Pittsburgh and it’s rare that a designer, or anyone in theater gets to visit the locale of the play. Of course, we can’t transport ourselves back in time, which would be handy-dandy, so being in the location at least lets you see what’s left of 1911 Pittsburgh. It’s available, if you search it out.

Amy: Is there a lot left?

Erica: There’s more there than any place else. I knew that, that was kind of a gimme. I knew I wanted to go there and the benefit of having Heather along was that,  here was a person really disconnected from what I was doing but really connected to the world of the play and of the playwright. Some of the most informative and exciting things that happened were just our conversations in the car on the way there. We discovered our similar interests and our similar attitudes or opinions about Wilson and the play and where we were coming from with it. That was all the plan that we really made. We didn’t schedule our time to the nth degree, we just went with it. She had good ideas of where to start and I was depending on that.

Kash Goins and Damien Wallace in Joe Turner's Come and Gone/Drew Hood, Throwing Light Photography

Amy: Where did you go?

Erica: Our first stop was the Carnegie Library. We to the library and could have stayed there the whole time, they had such a wide array. But what we found was the Pittsburgh Courier on microfilm. That was not available in 1997, I think, the last time I was there. That was very exciting.

Actually, I think the first place we went to was the Heinz History Center. Heather knew that they had this book. There’s been a recent publication about August Wilson and his connection to Pittsburgh and all of the locations in Pittsburgh that have to do with his plays and life. So we went and got that book and accidentally stumbled upon an exhibit of the Pittsburgh Courier. That had a lot of photographs available. We stopped by the Heinz History Center Library, which is where we found the photograph [from 1910] that I mentioned a minute ago.

We went to the UPitt library, which also has an extensive African-American collection. At none of these places did we exhaust the available resources. We didn’t have time. I got a Carnegie library card, Heather already had one. We were checking out books and returning them the next day, making copies, things like that. We could have easily spent an entire week going through this stuff, but we were limited.

We had dinner with an actor who had played the original role of Selig in the Pittsburgh Public Theater production of Joe Turner and that was very interesting. We didn’t sit down to dinner and talk about the play the whole time. We talked about other stuff, but I was able to ask a couple of questions and the actor opened up about it and gave some pertininent details about his experience that were very enlightening and we then pursued those further.

We stopped by the  August Wilson Center for African American culture, which was fabulous and incredible but had nothing to do with this play. It did in a profound, but abstract way, so it wasn’t a direct connection. The last thing we did was drive around the neighborhood of the play. We stopped by several addresses that are specifically mentioned in the play and took some photographs. We went to August Wilson’s birthplace, the home. And I was sorry that we didn’t spend more time doing that. I was sorry that we left that to the last because I ran out of time and I had to leave. There just wasn’t enough time to do everything.

It was a really good feeling to come back and feel that I had done all of this work and had this much more full understanding, even if I was not capable of inserting it all into my design.

Amy: Costuming and dramaturgy to me seem like they are kind of connected. There’s more research into the historical aspects for costuming than for other designs. When you are doing sound, for example, I mean you  have to listen to historical stuff, but it’s different. Does that make sense?

Erica: It does. The way I think of it is that a set is usually built for a play and then it’s done. Usually, honestly, it gets tossed in the garbage, because it is so expensive to recycle and it’s so expensive to have storage space to keep anything like a set piece  whereas costume designers hoard everything. We are the original recyclers, re-users, re-procurers of everything. I have closets where I work that are so packed, they are overflowing with stuff because we refuse to throw anything away. It’s partly economic but it’s mostly artistic. Once we have made it and done it, we know it and we will use it again.

I also think it’s the people connection. Sets are things. They are environments. . . Costumes are hanging on the actor’s body, whereas a prop is in their hand or something like that, it’s slightly disconnected.

Amy: The costumes almost make the character.

Erica: They do, they do. . . anything you wear is a costume if you are wearing it on stage. It may also be, I don’t know if this is part of it, but since I’m an academic, I also have a great interest and love of doing this kind of research and doing this kind of scholarship. So even if if doesn’t inform this play or this production, it’s valuable to me for the future and to my ongoing work as a scholar, so that may be partly why I felt very keenly that I  needed to go to Pittsburgh. Having Heather along for a dramaturgical standpoint was just invaluable. There’s no substitute to having her come with me. I couldn’t have done what I did by myself.

Amy: How do you design the costume’s to fit into the play’s dramaturgy?  How do costumes push the story of the play or its themes forward?

Erica: The most exciting part about the dramaturgy is the little tid-bits that you find out, it’s like a lightbulb that goes on over your head. You can’t predict them. You can’t expect them. You can try your best to prepare yourself and position yourself to access them but you can’t guess at things like that.

As a for instance, as we were scrolling through these microfilms of the Pittsburgh Courier, we found an article that was also an advertisement for an African-American couple who ran a boarding house. It was a long description of what you’re going to get if you stay there, their amenities, their background, who they are, their history, their affiliations and how great it’s going to be if you come and stay at this boarding house. It was perfect. There was a photo of the couple and it described their interactions and who they are and all this. Their house was just like the play, it was a little piece of the play that was in reality. Just finding that opened the whole world of the play up and I thought, wow, this is real. These are really, truly real people.

Another example of that was another article in the Courier about a man who was a former slave and he somehow came to own a parcel of land. This was not around Pittsburgh, I think it was in Georgia, if I’m correct about this. He became recognized because he grew the most cotton per acre of land for several years running. This article was kind of celebrating the achievements of this former slave, who is now the top of his producing line. But it was written in the most deplorable, racist language you would ever read. But it was published in an African American newspaper. So, I guess I sort of understand who Loomis is now. He’s enslaved by his own thoughts of who he is, his own boundaries of self.

And it is still going on today.

Amy: But today we have more of a reaction, you know?

Erica: Right, we think it’s weird and unusual and we don’t see that the same kind of language and visual representations are alive in our world.

Amy: After finding these things, did you go back to your designs and tinker with them?

Erica: I did, yeah, I changed them. I dyed some fabric, I trimmed things in a different way, I cut patterns differently. Now, after the fact, there’s always things I would do differently. It’s the designer’s curse.

There’s one dress that I would have totally redesigned if I had had the opportunity.

Amy: Why do you say that? Was it seeing in on the actress?

Erica: Yes, it was seeing it on the actress and seeing how she envisioned the role. I brought too much of a white woman’s context to the character.

Amy: I think that’s another interesting aspect, the actors themselves contribute to the dramaturgy of the play. You  might actually have a costume that is conflicting with what they are doing in the role.

Erica: It did turn out that way. She worked with it, she made it work, she brought it to life, but it could have been better. I don’t know when she came to this interpretation. The director told me it was later in the process. He could also see it. I first encountered this problem with his reaction which was one of frustration and he said, don’t you have something different for her to wear? I didn’t completely understand it and then I started seeing it. She made it work, though, it was okay in the end.

Amy: When I see the play, will I be able to tell which character?

Erica: I don’t know. That will be interesting to see.

© Amy Freeman (January 30, 2012)

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone By: August Wilson. Directed by Daniel Student.
At Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia, PA. Through February 11.

With: Kash Goins, Damien Wallace, James Tolbert, Cherie Jazmyn, Jamal Douglas, Candace Thomas, Mlé Chester, Bob Weick, Lauryn Jones, Brett Gray, and Erin Stewart

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