Friday, August 22, 2014

Costuming: Dressing the Characters of Anatevka

By Molly Roy

Theater has delighted audiences since the times of Ancient Greece. Of all the elements that catch our imaginations--the sounds, the stories, the songs--one of the most important has always been the visual element. From the way the actors move to the expressions on their faces, from the set designs to the clothes they wear, the visual elements bring aspects of theater to life in a way no other element can match.

One of the most important features of the visual element is costumes. Four types of costumes are used for theatrical performances: modern, dance, historical, and fantastical. For Fiddler on the Roof, the costumes are historical. For help, director Paula Thompson turned to Sally Ann Buras to design costumes suited for commoners and Orthodox Jews in early 20th Century tsarist Russia.
“In general, the costume along with the stage sets, convey the mood of the play,” says Sally Ann. “Dark costumes may equate to ‘doom and gloom’ or poverty.  Lighter costumes: joy and frivolity. The costumes are the catalyst by which the playwright helps create the message of the play.”   

Sally Ann grew up in a family where playing dress up and costuming for Mardi Gras was a way of life.

"I was the only girl," she says, "so that was my identity, to be feminine."

She took ballet at a young age, and began costuming for herself when she was a teenager. After she was married and had children, her daughter also took ballet and musical theatre. As always with the arts, her daughter's troupes needed someone to make costumes.

This was the beginning of Sally Ann's life as a costumer.

David Jacobs as Tevye wears the tallit katan (“small tallit”),
a fringed garment worn by Jewish males.
Special twined and knotted fringes known
as tzitzit are attached to its four corners.
(Photo by Valerie Morgan)
As a show’s costumer, the first thing that Sally Ann does is familiarize herself with the script. Once she has done this, she uses the reference material she owns as well as the Internet to research the time period and fashion trends of the play's setting. Set in a small Jewish village in Eastern Europe, Fiddler on the Roof required clothing of tsarist-ruled Ukraine, especially Orthodox Jews of the period.

The attention to detail is an important aspect of costume designers, she says. “The purpose of the costumes is to sublimely set the mood to the time period, social and economic situation and the culture of the people in the play. When you look at Fiddler, for instance, you see a poor, pastoral community, committed to their faith and family.”

Once Sally Ann has a good idea of the styles she wants to design, she checks the theatre's costume shed for any available costumes. To personalize the play and to better help the actors understand their characters, Sally Ann sends the actors to check their own closets and local thrift stores in search of clothing or articles that will fit the play. The cast then brings in their findings and supplements them with pieces from the costume shed or from other costumers. Sally Ann refits any article of clothing as needed; the time it takes to sew a costume depends on the piece. A period piece, for instance an antebellum dress, could take up to six hours to complete. She also ensures that the clothing chosen by the actors fits their interpretation of their characters' personalities.

For Fiddler on the Roof, Sally Ann will use traditional Jewish prayer shawls (tzitzits) to costume the cast, as well as kippot (or yarmulkes), brimless skullcaps that the Jewish men wear.

“The biggest challenge in Fiddler is the prayer shawls for the men,” she says. “The kind worn then is not the present day tallis, consequently, I will make them. The other is the formal ceremonial coat to wear at the wedding. And men's hats are always a challenge. Fiddler is such a popular play that you can find several varieties to choose from.  Cost is another concern but we have found some economically priced ones. Hopefully they will fit, if not, plan B - modify!”

Regardless the show she’s costuming for, Sally Ann encourages the actors to embrace their character and look at clothing items in an imaginative way. One tip she gives to actors on the lookout for their own costumes is to look at the garment with a fresh eye. She suggests that rather than simply seeing a shirt, the actors "envision what it could become." For instance, '70s clothes can become Victorian attire. A long skirt can be made into an elegant gown.

As famed costumer Edith Head explained: “What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not….”

And so it is Sally Ann’s task to transform local actors in the 21st Century into early 20th Century Orthodox Jews eking out a living in rural Ukraine.

Yente, the local matchmaker (Carla Costanza, left) 
plots with Golde (Sara Pagones) to marry off one of her daughters.

Dana Anderson and Michael Willman model their wardrobe
in the early stages of costuming.

(Photo credit: Don Redman)

Tevye’s Daughters played by (from left) Martha Braud, Alex Barron, Hannah Jennings, Jamie Skiles and Georgia Peck (Photo: Valerie Morgan)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Set Design - Building the Set for 'Fiddler on the Roof'

By Kim Hickey 

It starts with an empty stage. 

Much like a painter starts with a blank canvas or a composer begins from the new page of staff paper, the set design starts with the similarly blank canvas of an empty stage. 

Undeniably, an artist needs the canvas to put forth their artistic endeavors.  Likewise, most music is committed to paper from which to be performed.  Does it follow that a set is necessary for a play?  After all, one could argue that the necessary ingredients are a script and an actor. 

But, imagine for a moment, going to see a play with nothing but a blank stage and a couple of actors.  This might work for some productions – Waiting for Godot and other more intimate shows.  But would this always be the case?

The set, as well as costumes and make up, add to suspension of disbelief.  Imagine seeing Romeo and Juliet without the balcony; Othello without the bedroom; Cats without the junkyard; Phantom without the underground lair and the opera house; or Les Mis without the barricade.  The list goes on and on. 

Now most of those examples are musicals.  And I will admit that most of my theatre-going experiences have been musicals.  While there is something surreal and sublime about going to a darkened theatre to watch actors on a stage perform a beloved play before a crowd of a hundred or a thousand, a musical is that much more.  After all, the actors occasionally burst into song and dance.  This is not normal behavior (for many people).  Therefore, the suspension of disbelief must be greater than for your average play.  For that to happen, to my mind, it's all about the details. 

A well-thought out production, including a detailed set design, authentic costumes, fantastic make up that projects to the back of the theatre, great light design that enhances the production's high notes and subtler moments, sound design that supports the vocals, a great orchestra that is led by a sensitive music director - all of these things, plus of course the actors and director - make suspension of disbelief possible.  But the backbone of the production, the place where it all happens is, of course, the stage.  What do we do with the stage?

There are essentially two options at this point – the director can choose to go with a pre-designed kit or can have a set designer create a new plan for their production. For Slidell Little Theatre’s 2014-2015 season, the opening show is Fiddler on the Roof.  Director Paula Thompson has gone with a kit for her production. 

A kit designed specifically for "Fiddler on the Roof"
contained a series of blueprints for the entire set.
On a traditional show like Fiddler, using a kit lends authenticity to the production as well as saving time in pre-production.  There are also cost considerations as well.  While there are costs involved in purchasing the blue prints to a pre-designed kit, these are generally less than hiring a set designer to create an entirely new design for the production.  And again, with a traditional show such as Fiddler, there is a certain expectation of what the show will look like, so using a "tried and true" version of the set is by no means a compromise.

Fiddler on the Roof chronicles the lives of a Jewish family in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century.  Therefore, the buildings and set pieces reflect this time and place.  There are rough wooden buildings, as well as the furnishings common to the time - important among these are the table for Shabat dinner and Tevye's milk cart. 

The interior of a home in the fictional Anatevka
Photo By Kim Hickey 
Building the set is not the end.  Once the pieces are put together and painted, they must be decorated - props placed to add dimension and detail.  Many of these are small things that the audience may not directly notice, but would notice them for their absence:  plates and cups, a curtain over a window, chairs and stools, candlesticks.  All the items of everyday life, or at least, the everyday life of the characters whose life we are watching for a few hours.

Fred Martinez, board member for SLT, is in charge of the set for Fiddler.  For the last several weekends, Fred and his gang of volunteers have been busy at the theatre, marking, measuring, cutting, nailing and painting the set pieces to help bring life to the opening production of this year's season.  
Dana Anderson (above) transfers the blueprints drawings for a wagon onto
a sheet of plywood divided into a series of grids. Ken Thompson, below,
uses a jigsaw to cut out the wheels to Tevye's cart used in the play.
Photos by Kim Hickey
Cut out wagon pieces await assembly.
Fred, like all the people under his charge and all the people involved with this production, is volunteering his time to the cause of bringing live theatre to Slidell. That is the unique experience that is community theatre – volunteers from all walks of life uniting together to build sets, design costumes, direct, choreograph and of course, act. Since 1963, Slidell Little Theatre (SLT) has been bringing together the entire community for unforgettable performances filled with music, drama and laughter.
“SLT provides an environment that fosters appreciation of and participation in theater for all ages and levels of experience,” says Charlie Barron, PhD – oceanographer and local actor who is appear in "Fiddler" with his daughter Alex. “The shared memories among friends and between parents and kids will last a lifetime.”

It Takes a Village to Build a Village

A salute to some of our many volunteers who helped with set construction

Mike White and Kathy Dalcarpio work on making risers for set pieces.
Blaze D'Amico, a volunteer from Hammond, spent a day painting set pieces.

Charlie Barron adds extra safety features to a rolling staircase.
Jeremy Himel steadies the ladder while Mitch Stubs adds roof tiles. Kathy Delcarpio continues painting other set pieces.

Find out more about Kim Hickey here.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Shalom y'all!

As Slidell Little Theatre prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof, we want to use the occasion to also celebrate the little-known Jewish tradition in Louisiana ...

Gefilte Fish in the Land of the Kingfish

By Susan Levitas

Popular culture and history have helped create the idea in the public imagination, that American Jews are northern city dwellers, mostly living in New York, who sound and act like Woody Allen. As southern Jewish historian Eli Evans points out, even northern Jews are hard pressed to believe that Jewish life exists, let alone thrives, south of the Mason Dixon Line. The fact is, over one million Jews live in the South, from tiny towns in Arkansas to booming metropolises like Atlanta. What about Louisiana? Are there Jewish communities around the state, and if so, how did they get here and what have their influences been?

Jewish life in Louisiana has been flourishing, largely under the radar for hundreds of years. While it has become conventional wisdom that Louisiana is the Creole State, with waves of settlement encompassing Native America, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and Canada, the story of Louisiana Jews is lesser known. Today, there are over 13,000 Jews in New Orleans alone, and Jewish communities are thriving in small towns across the state. There are Jewish cemeteries in such places as Berwick, Bogalusa, Farmerville, and Opelousas, and Jewish communities exist today in Natchitoches, Baton Rouge, Washington, Monroe, Shreveport, Lafayette, and many other towns.

So, how did Jews get to Louisiana? Several people interviewed responded to this question with a story they had heard, and assumed to be true, about an unknown Jewish peddler who came to their small town. While there, his horse died, so he decided to stay. In fact, hundreds of Jewish peddlers, mostly from Eastern Europe, worked itinerantly around the South. There is a mystique that developed around these early "wandering American Jews." They were seen as industrious and adaptable. They were the progenitors of the landed merchant class that many southern Jews became. The "Jew store," as it came to be known in many communities, was often the one dry goods store in town, and the Jewish family that owned it, was sometimes the only Jewish family in the community. In fact, Jewish life in Louisiana precedes the arrival of 19th century peddlers by hundreds of years. Their arrival in the state continued a trend of Diasporic settlement that has its roots in the first century.

The Code noir (French for Black Code) was
a decree originally passed by France's
King Louis XIV in 1685
for the French Caribbean colonies.
Introduced to Louisiana in 1724,
the Code Noir ordered all Jews
out of the colony and forbade
the exercise of any religion other
than Roman Catholicism.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the expulsion of Jews from their Promised Land, Jewish communities have emerged and thrived in every corner of the globe. From Shanghai to the Seychelles, Jews were the "eternal strangers" living in a Diaspora that was supposed to eventually end with the return to Israel. Jews learned to adapt, acculturate and assimilate to the life around them, which was often hostile to their presence. They lived with the constant threat of persecution or, worse, expulsion from their new homes. No matter how successful they became, or how prominent they were in civic, political, or social life, there was always the prospect of banishment. This fractured existence was the Jewish way of life the world over for hundreds of years.

The 15th century Spanish Inquisition dealt a stunning blow to Jewish life in Europe, as Jews had risen to unprecedented levels of integration and prominence in European society. It was 1492, the year that Christopher Columbus was "sailing the ocean blue" to America. School textbooks, tell us little about the early colonists, but it turns out that right there on the boats with Columbus, were Portuguese and Spanish Jews-doctors, merchants, and advisors. It would be a couple hundred years before Jewish life was established in America in towns like St. Augustine, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia.

The first Jews came to Louisiana in the early 1700s. They were Spanish and Portuguese traders along the Gulf Coast, who came to this colonial outpost from the Caribbean. Other Portuguese Jewish settlers followed, forming the first Jewish congregation in Louisiana in 1828. Together, these Sephardic Jewish communities comprised the first wave of Jewish immigration to the state. Jewish life thrived, even during the time of the infamous "Black Code" of 1724, which decreed that Jews should be expelled from the Louisiana French colony.

The next wave of Jewish settlement in Louisiana came from Western Europe in the early to mid-19th century. Jews from Germany and Alsace-Lorraine settled in cities and towns all over the state, and brought with them a less traditionally observant practice of Judaism. The French-speaking Alsatian Jews, found a niche in the burgeoning Cajun communities in the southern part of the state, as fur traders who shared a common language. Ury Wainer, an older Jewish fur trader interviewed, described this little-known world of Jewish fur brokering. "We used to go out on the boats for a month at a time. We'd go from camp to camp and buy furs from the Cajun trappers. Then, we'd sell them to the fur dealers. They were comfortable with us because we spoke French.
M. Marx Sons, a hardware store in downtown Bogalusa, was founded
by Max Marx, a Russian immigrant who arrived in Bogalusa
soon after the opening of the Southern Lumber Company sawmill.

According to historical researcher Cathy Kahn, Jews "took on the coloration" of the people with whom they settled. So, it was that Hyman Salz, a fifth-generation German Jew from Morgan City, became an alligator fisherman - a prohibited food under kosher dietary laws. His family owned the dry goods store on Main Street, following a trend of Jewish settlement all over the South. As Hyman recalled, "I grew up with swamp mud between my toes." He helped run the family business and sold alligator meat around town. The Jewish community of Morgan City was small, so his family had to bring in an itinerant Hebrew teacher from New Orleans to prepare Hyman for his Bar-Mitzvah. Hyman, like other Jews in Louisiana, felt more a part of the culture than apart from it.

Spike Herzog of Providence, Louisiana, in the northern part of the state, recounts that he did not feel different from his neighbors because of his Jewish identity. As he told it in his North Louisiana-inflected accent, "We didn't feel different because we were Jewish, we felt different because we didn't have two first names. All my friends were Tom Ed and Connie Ray and Bobby Lee. We just had one first name." Like other Reform Jews, Spike grew-up eating seafood and other non-kosher foods indigenous to the region. He had blond hair and fair skin, like his neighbors, and he did not wear a kippah (skull cap), or tsisit (fringe worn under garments) required of more observant Jews, which would have caused him to stand out.

Isidore Newman came to
New Orleans from Germany in 1880.
In 1897, he established the
Maison Blanche store, which became
one of the largest department stores
on Canal Street, which ran through
the city’s downtown business district.
Jews found creative ways to blend the traditions of their neighbors with those of their ancestors. Elaine Schlessinger of New Orleans makes an old family recipe for charoset, which, although blending the Old World with the New South, is not kosher. Charoset is a ritual food item made for and consumed exclusively on Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the Exodus from slavery in Egypt 5000 years ago. The dish, a mixture of nuts, apples, honey, wine, and cinnamon, symbolizes the bricks and mortar Jews were forced to make while enslaved. It represents the hardship they suffered as forced laborers, and it is eaten during the Passover Seder meal. Elaine Schlessinger's recipe substitutes Jack Daniels for the sweet Manishewitz wine, used traditionally. She knows that using the grain alcohol makes her charoset non kosher, but it makes her feel connected to her southern roots.

The third, and final, wave of Jewish migration to Louisiana, brought thousands of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews to the state in the late 19th and early 20th century, bringing with them a more observant, traditional form of Jewish practice. These Jews were part of what Macy Hart of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life refers to as "the Dixie Diaspora." Jews came in through the ports of Ellis Island, New York, and Galveston, Texas, and fanned out across the South. In New Orleans, there was instant friction between these new more Orthodox Jews and their Reform brethren. The Reform Jews were concerned that these immigrants were "too Jewish," and thus would draw unfavorable attention to Jews in general. While Anti-Semitism was not as much a part of the cultural landscape of Louisiana as in other parts of the South, there was still a concern that, as one merchant put it, "we not stand out."

Fitting in was so vital to a Jewish population used to persecution the world over, that stories of "passing" or being fully embraced are common. One such urban legend encountered in many interviews tells the story of a Jewish merchant who was so accepted as part of the larger community, that he was asked to join the notoriously Anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan. The hero would politely decline the invitation, but he knew that he was selling white sheets to these same men who would use them as disguises. The irony lies in the Jew-hating Klan member unknowingly buying his wares from a Jewish merchant. The story expresses a deep-seated fear of the KKK, as well as a triumphant sense of getting one over on the bad guy. Each teller believed the story to be true, and in most cases, said it happened to a distant relative.
In contrast, the Ashkenazi Jews did not try to fit in and that made Reform Jews very nervous. Ashkenazim tended to settle in small enclaves where they could walk to synagogue on Saturday, so as not to break the Jewish law prohibiting driving on the Sabbath. They ate kosher meat and spoke Yiddish, a creolized Jewish language, blending Hebrew, Russian, and German idioms. The Dryades neighborhood in New Orleans' Lower Garden District was one such enclave of Orthodox Jewish life. There were several synagogues and stores serving this insular community.
In the mid-20th century, Jewish populations moved to the suburbs. Today, only one synagogue remains in Dryades with a handful of older members. Several African American churches have bought the old synagogues, leaving the Stars of David and Menorah carvings on the buildings. As one pastor explained, "We feel honored to be worshipping in the house of God's Chosen People." There are still Orthodox and Conservative Jewish congregations in New Orleans, but most of the Jews are Reform.

Judah P. Benjamin
Jews in New Orleans have been able to be involved at every level of civic life. Judah P. Benjamin of New
Orleans, helped finance the Civil War, and served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State for the Confederacy. (Elaine Schlessinger makes her Jack Daniels charoset in Judah P. Benjamin's old house, which she now owns.) According to Cathy Kahn, Jews were not, however, accepted at the highest levels of society, which in New Orleans means Mardi Gras. "It is a little known fact, that the first king of Carnival - the first Rex, in 1872 - was Jewish. His name was Lewis Solomon. Of course, he was the last Jewish king of Carnival." While Jews are members of the elite Mardi Gras krewes, they are not among the social tiers that represent Carnival royalty. In response to this, a group of Jews got together in the 1990s and created the Krewe du Jieux, a satirical marching club attached to the renowned French Quarter parade Krewe du Vieux. They hand out painted bagels, along with the usual Mardi Gras beads and trinkets.

The Northshore Jewish Congregation in
Mandeville, LA grew from a small chavurah
in the early 1980s to today’s full-service
synagogue with more than 100 families.
This cultural parody is set against a backdrop of resurgence in Jewish cultural and religious identification. The first Jewish private school in the state, the New Orleans Jewish Day School, opened in the early 1990s, and several Jewish Film Festivals take place around the state. Synagogue-based gift shops vend a dizzying array of religious and customary items, jewelry, and tchochkes (trinkets). A Jewish Renewal group, full of young members, holds havdalah services, marking the end of the Sabbath, on the banks of the Mississippi River.

To hear many Louisiana Jews describe it, they have found in the South and in this state, a new Promised Land. It is a place that has enabled them to thrive and continue ancient practices without the fear of expulsion. As Cathy Kahn mused, "If Moses had a boat, this is where he would've come."

Susan Levitas, a folklorist and filmmaker in New Orleans, was producer for the film, Shalom Y'all. This essay first appeared in the 2004Louisiana Folklife Festival booklet.

This essay was reprinted with permission from the Louisiana Folklife Program. A program within the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Folklife is designed to identify, document, conserve, and present the folk cultural resources of Louisiana.