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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Working Both Sides of the Brain: Costume Designer Shana Lincoln



Shana Lincoln.

By Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

When the cast of the upcoming Iroquois Amphitheatre production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore takes the stage on August 17, it will be a highly anticipated show for any number of good reasons. Members of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society have reason to rejoice, for one. But another very good reason will be the opportunity to see the work of Costume Designer Shana Lincoln in full flower.

Ralph, or Boatswain, from H.M.S. Pinafore.
Renderings by Shana Lincoln. All rights reserved.

Ms. Lincoln’s work is popping up on stages all over town. In the last year alone, her costumes have been seen in A Little Night Music at Center Stage, The Rocky Horror Show at Pandora Productions and Volpone at Walden Theatre. On top of that, her position as Resident Costume Designer for Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company this past season afforded the opportunity to clothe actors appearing in the works of Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare.

While certainly not the only locally based costume designer, she has found herself in great demand since becoming a free-lance professional a little over one year ago. The abundance of work might be the pay-off on a gamble she made several years ago when the native Louisvillian came home after first pursuing a career in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, where jobs proved difficult to come by. “It was hard to get work there unless you had connections.”

Eventually family obligations brought her back to this area, and within two weeks she had secured a job with Actors Theatre as a draper, cutting patterns in the costume shop. It was a situation that positioned her to connect to the larger theatrical community, and it wasn’t long before opportunity come knocking in the form of Charlie Sexton, Artistic Director of Walden Theatre. Having recently expanded their spring performance slot to once again accommodate a repertory schedule of three plays – now formally called the Young American Shakespeare Festival – he needed a designer hungry for work. Shana fit the bill perfectly.

Timon of Athens for Walden Theatre.
Photo by Shana Lincoln.

Her first show with Walden was an all-female production of The Merchant of Venice directed by J. Barrett Cooper. Shana’s interest in detail and period accuracy suited her director’s own deep understanding of history and devotion to classical theatre. “Barrett has a very specific vision of what he wants to see on stage, which isn’t true of all directors,” says Shana. The two very quickly discovered their sensibilities were so in tune that they developed something of a shorthand in their communications when working.

When in 2009 Cooper launched Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company, he asked Lincoln to be his Resident Designer. So far, she has designed nearly all of their shows, including Doctor Faustus, a production noted for a striking visual design that was dominated by a particularly memorable depiction of Mephistophilis. The character was portrayed as a woman and played by Hallie Dizdarevic with a surreal, distracted quality that was balanced by a sexy, vampy dress that married a modern sensibility to the period structure. “The image was drawn from research, but there was freedom that came from it being an otherworldly character. I gave her a plunging neckline and slit the princess seams to reveal more thigh than the period would allow, so she would be more…tantalizing.” Seeing the actress at work in rehearsal also informed such decisions. “When I saw how she was moving, it became very important, because normally the actors don’t get the costumes until very late in rehearsal and the adjustments allowed her the freedom of movement she needed to create that performance.”

Mephistophilis in Doctor Faustus for
Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co.
Photo by Shana Lincoln.

Much of a costume designer’s job involves shopping and procuring the necessary pieces from various inventories, and it is rare that she gets to construct new designs from scratch. “When there are multiples, several characters wearing the same thing, you often have to build. Two or more of the same thing almost requires it.”  Ms. Lincoln enjoys the alternating dynamic of building and searching. “Shopping is like solving a puzzle and works the organizational side of my brain, and building works the creative, so it keeps me balanced.”

Her latest project achieves this harmony with an opportunity to shop and build in equal measure for material that calls for an abundance of style. Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore affords the opportunity to outfit the large ensemble cast in the 19th century naval uniforms and women’s dresses that are so emblematic of the classic comic operetta. The preparation has required Lincoln to draft full renderings of many of the costumes, something she rarely does.

Buttercup from H.M.S. Pinafore.
Rendering by Shana Lincoln.
All rights reserved.
The production is being directed by Gregory Maupin, co-founder of Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, a troupe known for its free-wheeling and unorthodox comedic style. “Warner Bros. cartoons have actually come up in early discussions,” says Lincoln, as she finds yet another distinctive and individual director-designer relationship, one with its own unique creative language.

As Mr. Maupin tells it: “I chose her not just because she's worked on this stage before, which makes a difference, but also because we share a certain sense of humor, which I know sounds odd when dealing with costumes; but it simplifies so much. We've been talking about Looney Tunes and Fawlty Towers and things during this process. And while no one in the cast will look or behave like Daffy Duck or John Cleese, precisely, the allusion-as-shorthand is important to communication.”

Yet the creative goals reach far beyond the measure of shared pop culture touchstones. “Shana is terrific at combining two vital concepts of theater design,” Maupin continues. “She has ideas, creative notions, etc., but can also bring them in on a budget. That meshing is a big deal. Plenty of people can come up with lovely theoretical designs, which she does, and plenty can do things cheaply. But she is very good at knowing how to achieve in the real world what's been thrown on the table, whether by her or by me.”

The high praise is not surprising to anyone who has seen her work in action. Ms. Lincoln has designed for many local companies that have little or no budget, and she has demonstrated over and over again that she knows how to stretch a dollar. With remarkable creative ingenuity, she has repeatedly filled the stage with costumes that must carry the burden of set design as well when there is little set available: costumes capable of establishing a sense of place and setting the tone for the entire production.

Shana Lincoln’s web site:

Iroquois Amphitheater Presents
Gilbert & Sullivan's
H.M.S. Pinafore
or The Lass that Loved a Sailor
directed by Gregory Maupin
August 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25 @ 8 p.m.

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