Thursday, 20 April 2017

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Erin Gerofsky

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Erin Gerofsky is training in set and costume design with Judith Bowden

(March 18, 2017) As a significant part of my training, I accompanied Judith to fabric shop in NYC, and to tech Watch on the Rhine in DC. Both trips provided me with invaluable learning experiences in the process of theatre-making, but also offered an abundance of inspiration in arts and culture that are helping to reshape my process.

From January 10 to 14 I enjoyed making the rounds at many of the larger fabric houses in NYC: I have a freezer-sized bag of fabric swatches to prove it. For the better part of three of those days, I joined Judith and the Head of Wardrobe from Shaw or Stratford (good scheduling meant Judith was able to shop for both shows in NYC one after the other) visiting fabric stores hunting for the perfect ‘purpley-greeney-grey’ linen, ‘a lightweight silk twill in a navy that isn't too dark’, and other such treasures.  It was a great exercise in learning what Judith's eye is drawn to, which shops let you swatch for free, and all the decisions I need to have made before I dare bring someone fabric to be made into buttons and belts. Thanks to Shaw and Stratford's planning and having both Heads of Wardrobe in town to shop, it was also a great opportunity to observe what the dynamic between the Head of Wardrobe and the Designer brings to the process. Observing differences in note-taking style, book-keeping and negotiation tactics was useful for me on a very practical level, as in this time in my career I frequently wear all of the hats, particularly when it comes to costumes; knowing where to shop is just as important as knowing who to hire. This scheduling also had the added benefit of having Nancy Perrin—who is assisting Judith on The Changeling at Stratford—in town for shopping, who found a delightful off-off-Broadway show Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey which we took in on my last night in town. It was superb, we enjoyed it immensely, and committed egregious theatre faux pas when we thought a programme insert was inviting us to explore and take photos of the stage. Oops!

The abundance of selection in NYC is reason enough for theatres to shop for fabrics there.  For every store we went in to, there are three we didn't; stores carrying nothing but zippers in every length, material and colour, stores stuffed with sequins and velvet burnouts, stores specializing in dancewear and spandex. Following Judith around I learned to carry manila tags on a ring and a stapler to keep my swatches organized and on which to write the price, width and supplier for reference. I learned the value of over-swatching so that I have a bundle of options at the ready when I feel stuck for a fabric solution down the road, and I already know how it fits into my colour palette.  I was recently able to put these lessons into action through my work costume designing The Penelopiad at George Brown, the first show I have ever designed that is largely being built—and the labour is someone who isn't me. I went out on my own for a few hours one afternoon to swatch the show and then had two very successful shopping trips with my Head of Wardrobe where we found fabrics that worked well into our budget and suited the story I was trying to tell through the textures we used. We are still in the earlier stages of the build process, but the show is shaping up to have a very cohesive visual design that tells its own stories and makes its own connections to support the text, that has at the same time been an exciting vehicle for play and experimentation. 

Okay, back to the USA. This time, a trip to the capital, mere days after Donald Trump took over the White House. It was a very strange time to be visiting the capital, but having over a week there meant I really got to take advantage of the many free museums and beautiful architecture that DC has to offer. During my time there I had the opportunity to sit in on a few tech days on Watch on the Rhine at Arena Stage, which Judith was costume designing. It was a great pleasure to see the final tightening phase on a show with such a phenomenal team, about issues that are so timely. I won't say much here, but do watch the film version from 1943 starring Bette Davis (I did, after coming home, I couldn't get the show out of my mind!) Observing tech and hearing about the production process at Arena Stage was a great insight into the differences between American and Canadian practices of theatre creation. For instance, lighting levels did not have scheduled time to program with light walkers; all lighting cues were created while scenes were worked on stage over the course of two days. In Costumeland, the biggest difference in the build process is that Arena Stage builds muslins for every garment they build, a practice which is oft foregone for being too costly and time-consuming. From the designer's and builder's perspective, building a muslin provides an invaluable opportunity to alter the pattern to better suit the actor before cutting into the final fabric, giving you a cleaner final product. It's also a chance to see how long a garment will take to build, and what materials suit the cuts the best. In the fitting process, a muslin provides a literal canvas to draw on and pin to tweak the shapes to suit. A great fitting tip I picked up from Judith is to keep a long length of 1/4” twill in white and black in my kit to bring into fittings. I can use whatever twill is in high contrast with my fabric to visually adjust the lines and offer a guideline to mark up the muslin for alterations. That's a tip you can take right to the fitting room.

DC's many free museums filled up a number of afternoons, leaving more still to discover next visit. Highlights include seeing an exhibit on how bystanders become complicit in genocide through inaction at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the National Gallery's contemporary art collection (pretty much all of it.) It was a really interesting time to be in DC to say the least, with a few large protests occurring both within the city centre and at the airport while I was in town. One of the unexpected and most enjoyed side effects of this mentorship has been reassessing my sources of inspiration as a part of my process. I have tried to reconnect with old sources of inspiration I haven't gone to lately, as well as look at new avenues and where they could take me. I look forward to continuing to explore this through the second half of our mentorship, and I hope to be coming out on the other side with a newly minted artist’s statement to match my new approach to the work.

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 2, 2017.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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