Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane": Designing and Dressing Edward

Brad Culver and Edward.
Scenic designer Ann Sheffield and costume designer Kathryn Poppen had a common starting point in their work for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane: neither had done rabbit designs. But Sheffield took on the challenge to create the sculpted doll and Poppen designed the doll’s clothing.

“These clothes were quite a different scale and I haven’t done much menswear tailoring,” Poppen laughs.

The story of Edward Tulane, the dapper china rabbit whose journey takes him from self-centered to the ability to love, was adapted for the stage by Dwayne Hartford and based on Kate DiCamillo’s popular book.

“When I was first asked to create the rabbit doll, I was thrilled, but I didn’t know the story,” Sheffield recalls. “I called my nine-year-old niece and asked her if she knew the story. She screamed with excitement and said, “‘You have to, Auntie! You can’t say no!’”

Sheffield started her design work for Edward by looking at the illustrations in DiCamillo’s book. While she had done a lot of painting and other work, including set models, she hadn’t done much figurative work—“or in this case, rabbit work.”

She started with a Styrofoam sphere and light-weight modeling clay, but puzzled over how to make the rigid head remain connected to a softer body design. She borrowed an old, small china-head doll from an earlier SCR production and saw how the single head-and-shoulder unit connected to the body and settled on that for her solution.

But back to Edward’s face. Sheffield whittled down the Styrofoam and added the clay. But, while she was proud of it, she noted it looked “a bit clunky.”

A 3-D printed version of Edward.
“Edward is more elegant and has a narrower face,” Sheffield says.  “My first design looked less like the illustrations from the book and more like the Easter bunny. So I started looking at jackrabbits.”

Jackrabbits are longer and leaner and worked better as a model. Sheffield “sliced through the clay cheeks, like cutting through an avocado, and then everything really started coming together after that.”

SCR suggested a high-tech solution to produce the seven dolls needed for the show: 3-D printing.

The process used to create Edward is called stereolithography.  It’s a 3-D printing process—done one layer at a time—that uses a liquid resin cured by an ultraviolet laser. The company that did the 3-D work printed four sets of rabbit parts at a time over two-and-a-half days.

“I thought that was marvelous!” Sheffield says.

Edward’s painted face is expressive—“I am happy to see that Edward does have that snooty look for quite some time, but by the end, he is smiling”—and the eye sockets hold marbles “to catch the light a little bit.”

Next, the challenge of his very dapper wardrobe. That’s where costume designer Poppen comes in.

Edward’s dapperness comes in contrast to the adult actors, who wear what Poppen designed as something that “felt lived-in, like clothing, not like costumes.” 

The story is told over a couple of decades—from the 1920s through the 1940s. She says the characters all live their lives vicariously through Edward, and his journey is one of hope: for them and for him.

Poppen gave Edward a “color story” as part of his journey.

Edward, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper and Brad Culver.
“We keep him in cold and austere colors at the beginning,” she says, like blues and white that contrast with the warmer tones of the adult characters’ costumes.

“The whole point is that Edward’s very vain, not loving, and he has a distance. But, as he goes through his journey, his colors get a little warmer, becoming more broken down and more accessible.”

Poppen starts and ends the play with Edward in three-piece suits: he starts out in a dark three-piece suit at the beginning and he is in a warm earth-tone suit at the end. “My hope is that he’s more approachable by the end of the story,” she says.

Poppen designed suits, a dress, a hobo outfit and more for the Edward dolls.

“This story made me think about when I donate something: how much more its life can be furthered, but also how what I donate could influence someone else’s life,” she says. “That’s also what I may do when I design costumes—those could be used again for other characters through the years. Just think about how many other people will be influenced by them.”

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is getting rave reviews from audiences—and oohs and ahhhs for the creative teamwork of Sheffield and Poppen on the china rabbit doll.

“I also love the way that Edward is spoken by actor Brad Culver and how the music and storytelling are seamlessly integrated,” Sheffield says. “I hope that audiences will go with us this journey and find it transformative.”

More About the Designers

Sheffield grew up in London, where she always was involved in the arts—music and painting. In addition, drama was part of the curriculum. But, she never dreamed that there’d be a role for her in the theatre as an artist.

She attended Occidental College in Los Angeles and, while singing in the choir, she met people who were involved in the theatre; they asked her to make some posters and then asked her to design a set.

“I didn’t even know what that was!” she laughs.”My college mentor said “Of course you can do that!”

She went on to earn top honors for set design during her senior year at the nation’s most prestigious theatre competition, the American College Theatre Festival. There she met the man who became her mentor in graduate school at Yale University, Ming Cho Li.

“I always like being a student of something and the process of finding out about and discovering things,” she says. “Designing Edward Tulane was another opportunity to do that and challenge myself.”

Read more about Sheffield in the program.

Poppen credits her grandmother as the first sewing inspiration and mentor she had. “She’s the reason that I got into the ‘construction’ side of sewing and from there, it organically developed into an interest in the theatre.”

Poppen took sewing classes and her first project was a little sewing bag. From there, she started doing more projects.

Her next mentor was close to home as well—neighbor and fashion designer Elizabeth Galindo, whointroduced Poppen to design in her fashion studio. Galindo also does costume design, in film, television and theatre.

“In theatre, we are creating characters and developing a whole world,” Poppen says. “So as a costume designer, I have to represent the world and answer so many questions through what the character is wearing.”

Poppen says that until the age of 12, she wanted to be a surgeon. But she loved so many things—history, art, English and sewing. While she now does a different kind of stitching than a surgeon, she is still able to do sewing and combine all of her other loves through costume design.

Read more about Poppen in the program.

Learn more and buy tickets.

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