March 21, 2011

The Forest Springs Up with Period Corsets®: an interview with Tyler DeMotte Kinney, costume designer

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In the spring of 2010, a forest sprang up in Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre as Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods came to life on stage at Emerson College. The play’s director Scott LaFeber, an associate professor at Emerson College and former artistic director of The New Harmony Theatre, inspired both the actors and design team to conjure an organic world on performance nights, complete with a cow, a wolf, a witch… and corsets.

Tyler DeMotte Kinney, the costume designer for the production, brought life to each character’s garment. We got a chance to interview Kinney about his process and experience in designing using underpinnings from Period Corsets®

PC: How did you come up with the costume design for "Into the Woods"?

TDK: My process started with the script and the music. I knew that Sondheim and Lapine’s work was the foundation from which the whole production team would be based. I listened to the original cast recording frequently and marked up my script before the first concept meeting. The director (Scott LaFeber), set designer (Janie Howland - Freelance Designer), lighting designer (Scott Pinkney – Associate Professor with Broadway Credits), and I had a round-table from the beginning. The director wanted a more organically theatrical experience without the smoke and mirrors. From there, I began to do my own research.

I discovered that the stories and life lessons in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods did not belong exclusively to any man or nation. The universal tales had been developed over time and from various cultures. The Brothers Grimm’s life work was to seek out, record, and publish the folk tales that have come to shape our lives. This dramaturgical knowledge helped me create a design concept.

PC: What is your concept for the costumes for this production?

TDK: The costumes for this production reflect the heritage and evolution of the iconic characters. There’s a global sense reflected in the clothing, with influences from German, Italian, French, English, Dutch, Russian, Asian, and American motifs. The costumes have been carefully pieced together with specific attention paid to color and texture. The magical elements and powers come from the woods. The use of feathers, flowers, leaves, leather, fur and metals in the costumes empower the actors with this overwhelming force of Nature.

PC: What era did you choose to design clothing for?

TDK: I decided to have silhouettes ranging from 1760 - 1800. I chose to use Judith c.1770 corsets from Period Corsets® to achieve the look of this era. It was a time in history when new ways of thinking and modes of fashion were emerging –this fit with the themes of the libretto. I made the choice to move away from the embellished Rococo culture of this time and towards Romanticism, which embraced a new appreciation of the common people. The artwork that served as my inspiration came from masters of these periods such as Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth and Antoine Watteau. Within these forty years of history there was an extreme range in silhouettes. The shape of the actor became a tool telling a story, but in order to accomplished these silhouettes I researched underpinnings very carefully.

PC: Why was it important to use the type of underpinnings you chose?

TDK: Picking the right type of underpinnings is just as important as the outer garments for historical costumes. The articles of clothes worn underneath have evolved over time to serve period and geographic needs. Underpinnings are the hardest workers in fashion. These articles of clothes push, pull, pad, and reshape our natural bodies to become the ideal figure of the times. During the late 18th century, women needed many different types of underpinnings to support their gowns.
The shape of the actor was not the only reason for dressing the actors in period under garments. What the actor wears also affects their movement and presence on the stage.
PC: How did you learn about Period Corsets®?

TDK: I first learned about Period Corsets® by seeing their product in our college’s costume stock. The corsets looked great, even after extended use. I’d also handled them backstage while running wardrobe. Cinching actresses into a corset before a show has certainly taught me how to spot a well-made corset.

PC: How did they affect your design choices?

TDK: Designing characters that were wearing corset, was exciting for me. It’s not everyday that I get to imagine eighteenth century dresses! When sketching, I drew my human figures wearing the underpinnings and then overlaid the outer gowns.
I also embellished the corsets and panniers with colorful ribbons. I went over-the-top with the Step family – in such a musical there can never be enough trim in my eyes.

PC: Were they visible to the audience?

TDK: In our production of Into the Woods, the stepsisters and stepmother start the prologue in their underpinnings, as they get ready for the Prince’s Ball in the first scene. The visibility of the usually unseen clothing emphasized the silhouette. The corseted ladies acquired the period shape of a small waist that coned up to form supple cleavage--visible even from the back of the mezzanine!

PC: How did the corsets affect the draper choices?

TDK: My colleague Nicole Wilson is freelance draper who has worked on the west coast at PCPA and as a freelance draper in Boston. She says: “In order to drape the bodices over the corsets I needed to do some additional research on how clothing was patterned in the time period. Luckily through the help of books and common sense I was able to get a great result.” Some of they great books I used as a designer examined actual garments from the 1700’s such as Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold and Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh. Wilson also says: “In order to get a perfect fit I had to rely on my fittings with the actresses a bit more than usual. With corsets, it is extremely difficult to get their exact measurements to translate to dress forms that I use to drape.” The results were gorgeous period garments that celebrated their historical silhouette.

PC: How did the actresses get used to them?

TDK: I needed to make sure the actresses were comfortable wearing their corsets properly. Each corseted actress was fitted and instructed on how to lace-up properly. I sent the corsets into rehearsals early and started with an hour a day, as they slowly built a tolerance over the rehearsal period. I also advised them not to eat a large meal before putting on the corsets, and warned that if anything didn’t feel right, they should have a stage manager help them out. The novelty of wearing a corset and panniers also took some time to get used to. I would stop by rehearsals every now and then to make sure they were using each piece properly, and it wasn’t long before they became eighteenth century ladies!

PC: Would you use Period Corsets® again and in what situation?

TDK: The great part of my job is that every new show is a new experience! The inspiration and the time period choices change from play to play. It’s thrilling to imagine the variety of clothing that I’ll need to research for future projects. And yes, I would certainly use Period Corsets again! I was extremely pleased with my experience using these quality undergarments for Into the Woods. During the final dress, I got very emotional. I couldn’t have been happier with the costumes! I want to thank Period Corsets’ products for their part in creating the magic of Into the Woods. I look forward to reusing and expanding my personal stock of well-crafted underpinnings!

PC: Thank you so much for this in depth interview.  We always love to hear from our clients about how our garments are used. This was a wonderful look behind the scenes.  Your work is incredibly well researched, and the level of detail is inspiring.  It was a pleasure to interview a talented designer such as yourself.  We look forward to seeing more of your work in the future!

Emerson College's  performance of "Into the Woods" Spring 2010

All photos courtesy of Tyler DeMotte Kinney

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