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  • Evan Hanover
  • The three main characters are always dressed in shades of pink and mauve.

This week I finally got to see Three Sisters, a play written by Anton Chekov, adapted and directed by Geoff Button, and presented by the Hypocrites—see the Reader review here. At first I was drawn in by the theme of a postponed dream, but what ended up creating a memorable experience was the set and costumes. Both were incredibly effective, despite the low budget, and both played important roles in showing the passage of time and the changes weathered by the characters, all through the use of color. Usually the hues picked for period plays are a bit too neutral and boring for me, but not in this case. In the beginning various shades of pink and mauve dominate the stage, creating a feminine, romantic, and warm atmosphere. As the story progresses, green gradually takes over, representing a harsher reality. The pairing of those two complementing colors gives the production character without losing the connection with the aesthetic of that era.

  • Evan Hanover
  • Warm and sweet colors dominate the first part of the play.
  • Evan Hanover
  • Masha (Lindsey Gavel), whose hair is part of the color scheme
  • Evan Hanover
  • Irina (Hilary Williams) and Olga (Mary Williamson)
  • Evan Hanover
  • The acid-green belt worn by Natasha (Erin Barlow) is a sign of the things to come.

An interview with costume and scenic designers Jeremy W. Floyd and William Boles, conducted via e-mail:

What was the meaning behind the color scheme you picked? Who came up with this idea?

Jeremy W. Floyd: The color scheme approach was presented by the director at an initial design meeting. Geoff wanted to show a shift of the world and the people in it through color: a visual manifestation of the world changing around the Prozorov sisters. The choice of pink/mauve and celadon green colors stemmed from them being complementary colors that proved a distinct difference between the “old” world of the sisters to the “new” world of Natasha.

Could you tell me a bit about your educational and professional background?

Floyd: I studied design both in undergraduate and graduate programs, and received my MFA in costume design from Northwestern University. I’ve worked in all sizes and types of theaters in Chicago and around the country. I first discovered my love of design in undergrad; I had always loved the arts but never even knew costume design was a profession. I was taking an acting class my freshman year as one of my “arts” requirements and was encouraged to volunteer in a shop. I knew how to sew and the costume shop seemed a good choice. By the end of my sophomore year, I had changed my major and dove head first into making theater. That was 16 years ago . . .

William Boles: I studied set design in undergrad and eventually came to Chicago to get my MFA in set design from Northwestern. I’ve designed at a variety of theaters around Chicago, the U.S., and internationally. The past few years I’ve been lucky to work on a variety of new pieces in both theater and opera, including two world premieres with Lyric Opera of Chicago and a new opera called The Snow Dragon that will premiere at Opera Siam in Bangkok in July, directed by Matthew Ozawa, a director I frequently collaborate with. I recently designed a wild new play with Pig Iron Theater Company in Philadelphia called I Promised Myself to Live Faster—a queer space opera told in the decadent style. It was one of the most fun and zany projects I’ve designed. My collaborations with American Theater Company’s PJ Paparelli resonate as the most transformative artistic experiences I’ve had in Chicago. We collaborated on multiple productions together, including Columbinus and ATC’s currently running production, The Project(s). PJ was recently killed in a tragic car accident while on vacation in Scotland. Our entire theater community has been devastated by the loss of his presence in our lives.

Where did you do the bulk of your research for Three Sisters?

Floyd: Researching this project involved a pretty even mixture of fashion and art books for the historical research, and the Internet and magazines for the contemporary research. Most of the books were from either my personal library or the Chicago Public Library. The magazine/Internet research was quite varied. Hundreds of images that felt like a contemporary version of the first of the 20th century. Anything from Vogue and the Sartorialist to websites with fashion trends and even Pinterest. Any source that can give a quality image with a citation can be useful. I also utilized the production’s dramaturg (Derek Matson) for specific things that were difficult to find in English-language books and websites.

Boles: Period estates in rural Russia during the turn of the century. I then looked into more contemporary art, design, and fashion to see how we could turn the period ideas on their head.

The scenic design was simple and incredibly effective. What was your strategy to make so many scene changes happen so smoothly right in front of the audience?

Boles: Our director, Geoff Button, choreographed the scene changes with music and action to fluidly transition into the next scene.

What were your criteria to pick the objects for the play?

Boles: I had an incredible props master named Danielle Case who we all collaborated with to find the specific items needed for the play. It was challenging since everything was rooted in period but often needed to be in a specific color palette. It’s hard to do that with limited financial resources, but she’s amazing at it and has a great eye.

I particularly loved the way the floor subtly went from red to green. Could you tell me a bit about the rug shifting?

Boles: It was a puzzle, really! The rugs were laid in a way that a few could be removed for each scene shift, ultimately revealing the green of the sub floor that was increasingly overtaking the space and the psychological world of the characters.

What kind of style were you going for with the sisters? How about Natasha? What inspirations did you have?

Floyd: The overall approach to the clothing was of simplicity. We knew we wanted to create a world with a great deal of pattern and color (within the pink/mauve spectrum), so keeping the silhouette of the characters clean and using small prints and textures helped pull them away from the ornately patterned rugs. This led to a simplification and slight shift of the “period” clothing to a bit later (into the 1910s) and the use of a lot less trim and accents. The goal was not to create a “reproduction” of the early 1900s in a small town in Russia; we wanted a gesture to the time, not an exact replica. The main shift that happened in the color was also reinforced with a shift into more contemporary clothing. This could be most easily be seen in Natasha. While she began the production feeling like the sisters and trying to fit in, she ends in a world that is entirely hers: one of clean lines, solid colors, and contemporary shapes. She is the agent of change and her clothes help reinforce that idea. This shift happens to all of the characters (some more subtly than others) by the final scene. When the military leaves, the sisters are the only remnants of the old way of life on the stage; they are left in a world that is no longer theirs.

Which character did you have the most fun designing for?

Floyd: This is a difficult question to answer. By the end, each of the characters is so individualized and nuanced it’s hard to choose just one process that was the most fun. The entire production was designed as a whole, with everything being tweaked a little at a time. Even during fittings, actors would contribute more to the clothing with ideas that developed during rehearsal. Some of these shifts were subtle and some were more bold. If I had to choose one character, I would say Natasha was also the agent of change in the design as well the production as well. As her look evolved, everything else would change in relationship to it.

How was the process of making the garments? Did you thrift some of the pieces? If so—and if you’re willing to share—where did you find them?

Floyd: Some of the garments were borrowed from other theaters, some were made from scratch, some thrifted, and some purchased new. I don’t really have any secret places that I could share. It just takes a lot of time and a lot of trips to stores all over the city and sometimes even the suburbs to find just the right thing. The “period” women’s wear was pretty much all made (either for this production or others) or purchased from reenactment stores. There was also a great deal of shopping on Amazon . . . you can find just about anything you can imagine there.

What materials did you pick? Why?

Floyd: I prefer to work with natural fibers as a general rule unless the production demands something different. They are easier to work with and easier to wear. I used a lot of cotton and wool not just for comfort, but also for a more “traditional” feel for the clothing. The exception was Natasha as she moved to a contemporary feel. Synthetic fabrics tend to look extra sleek, which was just right for her in the final scene.

How about their hair? I particularly loved Masha’s hairdo.

Floyd: All of the hair in the production was executed and designed by the actors. I provided a variety of research images for them to work with and they created their own styles. We were looking for a “period” feel in a contemporary style, so the actors adapted their own haircuts to fit within the world. I contributed my thoughts and ideas, but they deserve all of the credit.

Three Sisters runs through Sat 6/6 at Den Theatre, 1329-1333 N. Milwaukee, 773-609-2336,