“What color is guilt? How do we light grief?”: Design Practices by Guest Artists in Ripe Frenzy

Harper Joy has the pleasure of hosting professional nationwide theater-makers to assist on designs or direction for every mainstage production. The theater is pleased to have seasoned Denver-based lighting designer Jess Buttery and Gonzaga University costume design and theatrical Professor Leslie Stamoolis as our guest artists for Ripe Frenzy. Below, they address their approach to designing a show that is less about show and more about tell.

Ashlyn Quintus. What is the function of costume design in a theatrical production? (What is your statement on your practice, per say?)

Leslie Stamoolis. In my view, the function of costume design is actually quite simple – it is to support the work of the actors.  Theatre can happen without any of the trappings we usually include – scenic elements, costumes, lights, props – but it cannot happen without actors.  So my work as a costume designer is to support the textual and performative work of actors, to collaborate on character creation, and to make sure they are equipped to do their very best work.

Jess Buttery. Lighting design is often the last to the party that is technical theatre. As a designer I like to think about the stage as a black canvas that I get to paint with light. Shows like Ripe Frenzy are my favorite kind of narrative to work on. When the story allows us to visually fluctuate between a static real world and a memory based abstract space, lighting gets to flex its muscle. It is often said, and I think it to be true that good lighting design should rarely be noticed. Our job in lighting is to support the narrative as well as our fellow designers work without manipulating elements. 

AQ.How is this function you’ve described endorsed or challenged in a show like Ripe Frenzy?

LS. Ripe Frenzy is a great example of this work, because the show is intimate and largely character-driven.  So I get to be a part of creating each of those characters with the actors through costume design, and that’s my favorite thing!  It’s always fun when costumes become featured in a show – like the famous fly-in dress in Sunday in the Park With George, or costumes meant to create spectacle, like Susan Hilferty’s work in Wonderland.  But my favorite shows are all about story and character, and in a contemporary show, that can mean something more mundane like choosing the absolute perfect sneaker.  Everyone loves a huge, sweeping period gown – but I get as much satisfaction out of the perfect sweatshirt.

AQ. What are the biggest challenges you’ve approached during your work on Ripe Frenzy?

LS. The biggest challenges on this show have probably been creating looks for the teenagers, Matt and Hadley.  This is really a show about the moms, so there is much less text about and by the kids.  You can’t just create character out of thin air; it has to be rooted in the text, and so when you don’t have much to go on, you have to dig even deeper to create believable characters.  One way I do this is to figure out what music a character might listen to – you still need text to do this, but then it can open up more possibilities once you figure it out.  I decided that Matt listens to Drake, and Hadley wants people to think she listens to All Time Low, but probably actually loves Taylor Swift.  Cues like that help me get inside a character.

JS. The open concept of this show’s design and direction allows us to guide the audiences eye through the narrative as told by Zoe. This fluctuation between multi-character realistic scenes and Zoe’s personal experience inside her tumultuous mind lets us explore what light reads as emotionally. So much of this show takes place in Zoe’s mind as she struggles with trauma it begs questions like ‘what color is guilt?’ ‘how do we light grief?’ These are the questions I love to think about as a designer. Often the most minimal look is the most effective so intentionally bringing up specific and minimal fixtures is how I often like to work, especially on shows like Ripe Frenzy that are inherently dark and in many ways have the theme of being alone. 

AQ. What excites you most about a show like Ripe Frenzy?

LS. So what excites me most about this show is what I’ve described – it’s the chance to help actors create deep characters.  Supporting their work onstage is the most important thing to me of all.

JS. I love working on shows that drift in and out of reality. I also think the message of the play and the fact that it’s told from the perspective of the mother…is so haunting and interesting. It’s a point of view most people have never thought of and I think it is a unique mind-space to tell this important story from.

AQ. I saw that you [Stamoolis] pursue sustainable practices in your work, like using natural dyes instead of synthetic dyes in your costumes. What resources guided you in taking a more sustainable path to your costume design and were these resources difficult to find?

LS. As for sustainable practices, my journey with natural dyes began with necessity.  My current shop at Gonzaga does not have adequate dye facilities, and though I managed to avoid dyeing for a time because of it, soon it became limiting.  I began to investigate alternatives to synthetic dyes, and I discovered the world of fiber artists – weavers, spinners, and dyers – through the Handweavers Guild of America.  A special grant from my dean allowed me to attend the HGA’s biennial conference, Convergence, and learn from the leading expert in the US on natural dyes, the creator of the woven shibori technique, Catharine Ellis.  Several workshops later, I was armed with all sorts of knowledge – as well as more questions – about natural dyeing.  Since then, I have done many projects with natural dye, learning as I go, and there hasn’t been a single one where I’ve felt like I needed to use synthetic.  Basically, if I can keep those harsh chemicals away from myself and actors, why wouldn’t I?  It seems all the time we are learning that something we thought was safe is not – there was just an article published yesterday by NPR about hair dyes and straighteners, and a newly found correlation between their use and breast cancer.  There is no reason to expose ourselves to harmful chemicals when there is a natural alternative possible.  I feel much better using only naturally occurring dyes and salts, and I know the Spokane River is a little cleaner for it.  It is not hard to find what you need; really, there are many DIYers, crafters, and fiber artists working in natural dye.  It’s taken theatre a lot longer to discover it, and it’s my goal to spread the word.

AQ. I noticed that you [Buttery] and Emily have worked with each other on a number of plays in Colorado, at the Square Product Theater. What is the significance of having a network of other working theater artists in the field? How has it been working on this production with Emily at a college instead of directly in the community?
JS. I currently teach at a Magnet Arts High School in Denver and my greatest lessons to my students are: show up and do your best, be nice to work with and meet as many people as you can along the way. We’ve all heard the catch phrase ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ and while I don’t think that’s always true, it certainly can be in the small world of theatre. Networking is the best thing anyone hoping to break into the world of professional technical theatre can do. I actually started as a student of Emily’s in my undergrad at the University of Colorado and here we are a decade later still working together. Meeting people and maintaining working relationships is the biggest favor you can do yourself in professional theatre. 
Because I teach full time I love the opportunity to work with students on productions and this experience has been great. Students often come at productions with unique fresh ideas and I love that. In a lot of ways I think this show is more successful in a student driven environment than the community at large. I think students can relate to the fear and devastation of school shootings (unfortunately) and that gives them a unique connection to the show.
Ripe Frenzy opens this Thursday December 12 -14 @ 8 PM and December 14 -15 @ 2 PM at the Alexander Stage, Harper Joy Theatre. Buy your tickets online here  or @ the HJT Box Office, open 12 - 4 PM M - F (509)527-5180. Note: This production deals with sensitive subject matter and contains explicit references to acts of gun violence in addition to explicit language, sexual innuendo, projections of dead animals, and loud sound. This show may not be suitable for young children, parental discretion is advised.