Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sweating Under the Stars

When Director Geoff Kershner decided to place HAMLET in Civil War Virginia, my first thought was hot, sweaty wool - the actors are going to be miserable. My second thought was that this could be a really wonderful research possibility. Both thoughts turned out to be true, and even though the heat has been oppressive this first week of performances, everyone (for the most part) has suffered together - from box office, crew, actors, band and audience members alike.

The well-prepared box office crew cheerfully endured setting up in the heat of the afternoon

As to the costumes and research, we were fortunate enough to gain some time with a local Civil War re-enactor and educator, Mark Day, who talked about life in the area around 1864. He shared much about families, fighting, uniforms, decorum - did you know that men were not to show their suspenders? Suspenders were considered underwear and were to be covered in public by a vest or waistcoat (we did bend this a bit for the design of the show). He, and other local re-enactors, generously shared authentic canteens, satchels, belts, weapons and boots that added much not only for costuming purposes but for the actors who wear and use these valuable pieces.

Mark Day explains the types of uniforms, accessories soldiers would have worn.

In addition, even though actors are glowing, radiating, perspiring, and sweating in varying degrees, the boys wearing the wool uniforms are probably the most comfortable because the fabric is wicking up the perspiration, unlike the cotton shirts and pants most of the actors are wearing. All the actors have gained a new respect for the clothing and discomfort endured by people during this time, and playing the show outside instead of in an air-conditioned space has brought this into focus even more.

Preparations in the Dairy Barn for the changes into Confederate uniforms

Wearing wool is not as bad as Michael, Walter, and Derek make it look here.

As for the women, Gertrude endures the hoop (although not the corset), petticoat, pantelettes and heavy fabric that most well-born women would have worn. Ophelia is represented more as a serving girl, with no hoop and simple collar. The very-pregnant, poorer Guildenstern is the simplest - skirt, top, cotton shawl and no embellishment at all.

The Ladies of Elsinor Farm, showing more than any man would see in public.

As for the comfort (or discomfort) factor of the heat and the costumes, the actors (some of them) have completely immersed themselves in the sweat of the moment. When I offered Walter a change of shirt during intermission, he said he would much rather stay in the shirt, in the moment, in the character at the time - "the sweat's the thing" it appears, and everyone is on the same page, which is clearly evident when crew, band, actors return to the dressing rooms and shed their watery weeds for the massive nightly laundry pile, an image I will leave to the imagination of all of your senses.

Fortunately, I will not have to take the costumes down to the lake to wash them by hand - I'm not into being that authentic. I'll just push the button.


Sally Parrish Southall

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