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Photographs by Stephen Laufer

Playing Dress-Up

All the stage is a world behind the scenes at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, where--invisible to the SSC's adoring audiences--the hands of the craftspeople who bring each play to life can make or break a production

By Mike Connor

We're pretty sure that Shakespeare Santa Cruz's artistic director Risa Brainin is a nice person and everything, but we didn't want to talk to her. See, she may know how to write a nice, sappy letter to the community praising the efforts of everyone involved with the festival and the tremendous support of the community. She may be a brilliant director and an expert diplomat--she may even be a human incarnation of the Buddha. But can she procure a complete cow skeleton at a moment's notice?

We have no idea if she can or can't, because we didn't ask her. Because we wanted to get down and dirty with the people behind the scenes instead, the people who make all sorts of little miracles happen every year--invisible miracles that, when pulled off successfully, pass before our eyes unnoticed, affording us a seamless theatrical experience.

Granted, it all starts at the top: big-wig directors develop a vision of the festival months before the first plank is cut, presumably powwowing alone on a mountaintop wearing loincloths and face paint, deciding which plays to produce and hashing out an approach for each one. But it all goes downstream from there.

Directors return from the mountaintop to meet with a team of dexterous designers, passing down visions of plays set in 1930s France (Private Lives), modern-day Santa Cruz (The Comedy of Errors) and a world of flowing Chinese silk (Hamlet). The designers then kick out renderings of costumes and models of stages, which, upon final approval, serve as the intermediary between the visionary directors and the handy craftspeople who make it so. Phew! End of story, right? Sweet, that was so easy--one story in the bank! Next story!

No, wait--we can't stop yet. Not this time. This time, we head all the way down into the caged depths heretofore unknown to all but a select few to see how Shakespeare Santa Cruz really gets done.

Deep down in a basement shop beneath the UCSC costume department, Kelly Wiegant Mangan and her crew reside over a kingdom of falsies. Well, queendom, actually. Wiegant is extremely perky--a cute woman with glasses, bangs and conservatively cut shoulder-length brown hair. She smiles and laughs a lot as we talk about her job, which she obviously enjoys. The room is filled with shelves filled with boxes filled with all kinds of fake stuff--amazing labels like "skull box" and "buried child" identify the contents inside. I go straight to the shelf of fake meat, grab a T-bone steak and squeeze. It feels like nothing in nature should, like deep-fried whale blubber. I quickly set it back down.

"It's actually made out of cushion foam that you can get at the fabric store," she explains. "We snip it into a meat shape, and then it's covered with liquid latex to make it kind of bouncy."

She picks up the meat and jiggles it in my direction. I still don't want it near me.

"We're the kings and queens of 'it's not really what it looks like'--rocks that weigh a pound-and-a-half that look like you can't move them. We have all kinds of stuff ... and if we don't have it in here, we at least know where to go get it. We're the ultimate shoppers."

Hmm, sounds like a mall rat's dream job, no? Sure, as long as they don't mind the occasional assignment that includes the gathering, stripping and bleaching of an entire cow skeleton.

"I made some phone calls and found a cattle rancher who said he had one," recalls Wiegant. "We got in a Jeep and he drove us to the edge of this ravine, because at the bottom of this ravine were, like, 35 dead cows. So we tramped to the bottom, found one that didn't smell, and we dragged it up the hill and loaded it into the Jeep. About halfway home this little salamander came out of its eye socket--we almost drove off the road!"

Ultimately the salamander was endured, only to be replaced by bigger, more disgusting challenges.

"We had to get the bones detached from everything else--it still had the skin on it and everything. It was all leathery, like rawhide. So we decided to boil it, and the stench was ungodly, like burning hair. It was the worst thing I've ever done in my life--we boiled it in a 55-gallon drum, bleached it, and finally got a full skeleton for a show."

Voilà! A complete cow skeleton. I couldn't help but wonder what manner of gory props will grace the stage this year, but Wiegant says they're relatively tame. A brief rundown of this season's props:

The Comedy of Errors: Set in present day Santa Cruz, "It's the show with wheels--razor scooters, bicycles, a unicycle, lots of skateboards."

Private Lives: "Elegant, high society, they drink champagne cocktails, smoke cigarettes and talk about love. Very pretty to look at--art deco and lots of chrome."

Hamlet: "Mostly fabric, lots of Chinese silk drops that hang--it'll be very beautiful, but hard to keep still outside."

Summing up: "I shouldn't say this, but right now it looks like it's going to be a very uneventful prop season. But every time I say that, it turns around and bites me in the ass."

And anyway, Wiegant insists that it's not all about wild props. It's about dressing up the sets and outfitting the actors with props that help realize the director's vision of the play. It's about searching all over creation to find the right props--and if they can't be found, building them. But above all, she says, it's about paying attention.

"Props, strangely enough, are all about history and about the things around you," says Wiegant. "If you don't pay attention, you don't get it. Because I have to know off the top of my head that if you set a play in 1805 in Virginia with a family of a certain economic class, what kind of furniture they would have."

So how did a nice girl like Kelly get involved in crafty theater work? Like a lot of high school girls might, she followed the cute blond boy who worked at a summer theater company.

"A lot of people are fascinated that I do this for a living," she says, "But so are my parents, so there you go. My mother bought a craft store; I learned how to use a glue gun and how to paint from her, but I've been doing theater ever since I graduated from college, and all because there was a cute blond-haired guy doing lighting for a community theater."

Wigmaster at Work: Robin Church helps SSC performers get a head.

The Wigmaster

While I must admit to the occasional indulgence in hyperbole, I shit you not when I say that there is a wigmaster who works in a cage for Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Though her given name is Robin Church, it's going to be so much cooler to refer to her as The Wigmaster for the remainder of this article.

"I should be on a video game somewhere," she offers gamely. "It's a small room, but years ago we didn't even have a room, so after getting batted around, I don't mind the size. We used to have a big sign up, 'Wigmaster of the Wig Cage.'"

Wielding a degree in professional wigmaking and a hairdressing license, The Wigmaster is somehow looking casually hip in a tie-dye Harley shirt and jeans. I can't help but speculate as to whether her rusty orange-colored hair is real--it is. But even if it weren't real, it would have been at least real human hair, which she uses almost exclusively despite its expense.

"The nicer wigs made of real human hair will run you $1,500 and up. ... Paul Whitworth is very pro-wig, putting it in the budget and wanting wigs to look right. A lot of companies, they put that at the bottom of the list."

Sometimes, though, she's able to cut a few budgetary corners. And no, The Wigmaster can't just cast a spell and create human hair out of thin air. But she can cut it off her friends' heads.

"I've had agreements with friends where I've cut their hair and kept it. I say, 'I'll give you a free haircut if I can keep it.' And then it's fun because I can tell them, 'You were in such-and-such show!'"

On the production side of things, wigmaking is quite the laborious process. First the actors' heads are fitted with a mold of Saran Wrap and packing tape, which is then used to size the wig correctly. For big, odd-shaped heads like mine, a little padding is necessary to keep the wig properly stretched during construction. The wigs themselves are made of a light net material, into which individual hairs are hooked. On average, The Wigmaster spends about 40 hours on each hand-tied wig, using a process called "ventilating" that she describes as very similar to hooking a rug.

"It's the same way that wigs have been made for the last three or four hundred years," explains The Wigmaster.

This year, she's celebrating her 10th season of wigmaking for SSC, during which time she's made some funky hairpieces--punk rock wigs, Hare Krishna wigs, wigs with Styrofoam and wire structures inside, wigs with cute little kitty ears pointing out, and plenty of facial hair.

Although one might think that ZZ Top might be a good source of facial hair, you may be surprised at the truth of the matter.

"There's this yak hair that's more kinky and already textured like that, but it's hard to get real facial hair."

What you see onstage, though, is usually just regular hair kinked up with a tiny curling iron called an "oven."

"With facial hair, everything looks like it's going to be a Fu Manchu because it's long and straight. But then we curl it up with the oven."

Yak hair? Fu Manchus? Ovens? This whole wigmaking thing is starting to sound a bit sketchy. But it's really only the end result that counts, and The Wigmaster's wigs always look real, and they never fall off.

"That's always the thing--I've had a lot of experience, but there's a lot of companies out there that don't have career wig people. I get directors that come in nervous, going, 'But I don't want it to look like a wig.' So it's fun to really set them up right."

Dress You Up

The din coming from the costume shop is excited and lively. The room itself is brightly lit and tightly organized, filled with workstations for sewing, ironing and stitching. Water bottles hang from the ceiling looking weirdly like IVs, with tubes connecting them to irons. Workers laugh and chat with the actors they're measuring and photographing for future reference; interns await the arrival of the grande dame of the costumes--Naomi Arnst. She enters the building laden with packages, bags and an orbiting swarm of people showering her with questions. I hear my name out of the hubbub:

"Your Mike is here to see you." It's The Wigmaster talking. I pass her as she leaves the building.

"See?" says The Wigmaster, "My room's small, but it's sane."

I follow Arnst into her office, and since the door is lockable, it's cramped with expensive costume stuff. She leaves the door open, leaving me a perfect view of the shop bedlam.

"While we're building stuff," Arnst says, "we have a little less than 20 people in here full-time, and then there'll be another four or five people that come and go. So it's pretty full--every time you move, you have to say, 'Excuse me.'"

Having been raised by a heard of elephants in the Serengeti, I feel claustrophobic just looking into the other room. I wonder if Arnst is just one of those people who thrive on hectic hives of activity. Given that she's got a degree in theatrical design, and that's she's been working in the UCSC theater department for 10 years and running the SSC costume shop for six, I figure she's at least used to it by now.

"Yeah, well, you just get used to it," she says drolly, "because you can't do theater without it. You have to be able to function in that way, you have to understand how to finish a job. Everybody's working for the same goal, and that is to get that thing finished. It's all about deadlines. So if you don't understand that, then it's hard for anyone else to get their work done."

Arnst and crew pull their costumes from a huge attic upstairs, and what they don't have upstairs, they borrow or buy from other companies all over the country.

Clearly, the designers have already been hard at work, filling an entire half wall with drawings of this season's costumes. By the looks of the detailed drawings, the designers make a point of challenging the skills and wherewithal of the costume department. Already the stitchers are cutting and stitching away, trying to crank out enough costumes for the media photo shoot next week.

"Yeah, we have a photo shoot for the media coming up next week. It's just going to be me and the director there, and we have an appointment on Friday which I can't make."

She makes a face like a deer caught in headlights, then chuckles and shrugs off the seeming impossibility of it all. That's typical of these women: laughing in the face of ridiculous deadlines, toiling endlessly to realize the artistic visions of the directors, paying me generously to make them look good to the whole community--I tell you, these women are nothing short of amazing.

Wiegant sums it all up ever-so-nicely:

"We get goofy down here," she chortles.

Oh, wait, wrong quote. OK, here's the one:

"There's never enough money and never enough time," she says, "but there's always enough gumption. Lots of days with no lunch, nights with no dinner and no sleep ... everyone will work here until they drop, because they're extremely dedicated and don't want to drop the ball."

In other words, the show must go on.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz 2003 Season Festival. The Comedy of Errors runs from July 16 to Aug. 24. Private Lives runs from July 15 to Aug. 24. Hamlet runs from July 27 to August 24. Ticket prices range from $18 to $29 and are available at the UCSC ticket office at 831.459.2159. For more information on showtimes, subscription plans, ticket prices and pre- and post-play discussions, visit www.shakespearesantacruz.org.

Get Set

Building a stage from scratch in the glen every year ain't no walk in the park

By Mike Connor

Ah, Shakespeare in the redwoods! A woody glen, a blanket, cheese, wine and some damn fine theater--it's pretty much a surefire recipe for a pleasant, relaxing evening.

For you, anyway. Little do you know that a team of designers and carpenters spend hundreds of hours to build these things from the duff up each year. Not that you should cry for them, Argentina, but you might want to know what it takes to make it all happen.

It all starts a good nine months before performances begin with the directors deciding which plays to produce and how--ultimately they must choose two plays that can run on the same outdoor stage. Both are usually designed in such a way that they can easily be converted back and forth.

This year, first-time SSC designer Nayna Ramey was chosen to take on the challenge, designing the sets for Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors in the Festival Glen. With a BFA and an MFA in theater design, Ramey makes her living creating adorable little set models.

"It's my first time with Shakespeare Santa Cruz; my two shows are in the glen," says Ramey. "It's a treat to be able to configure how the audience experiences the plays. And to configure that in the redwoods, you get to design with the trees in mind--you can't ignore those fabulous redwoods."

The models both have white plank floors and the same basic framework of posts and beams. For Hamlet, the frame is dressed up to look regal, with silk drops and a dramatic red carpet in the center of the cute little miniature stage. For the Comedy of Errors set, the posts are dressed up with colorful postcard-style renderings of Santa Cruz landmarks like the West Cliff surfer statue and the Clock Tower.

Which sounds great and all, but turning it all into full-scale reality can often be a bit tricky. Materials and structural integrity must be considered. Changing rooms must be tacked onto the back of the set. That's where technical director Dan Eslinger comes in to regulate.

"I look at the set design and consider our ability to do what they've been thinking about," says Eslinger. "I come in and give them the hard practicality--the 'What are you, crazy? You can't do that.' I help keep them within the budget--it's a big collaboration."

Since the glen is a protected space, the entire structure must be semipermanent. The steel and some of the wood is recycled; the rest goes in the dumpster. Of course they try to keep the waste to a minimum, but certain compromises must be made to stay true to the designer's vision.

"In any professional theater, no two sets are ever alike, so you just can't save that. In a theater of this caliber, we're really trying to match the artistic intent of the designer."

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From the June 25-July 2, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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