CEDAR RAPIDS — “Intimate Apparel” is being staged in an intimate space — all the better to see the intricate detail in the corsets laced throughout the production.
While the script calls for six actors, the title reveals yet another major player.
“It’s definitely a ‘costume as a character’ kind of show,” said Kathryn Huang, 46, of Cedar Rapids. She’s stepping from behind her sewing machine and into the spotlight as the costume designer for this show, set in 1905 New York City.
It’s also well-suited for an intimate presentation, so it’s opening Friday (10/26) and continuing through Nov. 11 in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Grandon Studio. Seating just 90 people, the lower-level black-box theater will give audiences a close-up view of the handiwork by Huang and her five costume construction volunteers.
It’s the story of Esther, an African-American seamstress trained to make “these extremely fancy undergarments,” Huang said, which brings in clients “in every possible range of financial situation and lifestyle,” from wealthy white women to prostitutes. Despite having these acquaintances, Esther (played by Joanna Jordan) lives a lonely life, longing for the dreams she set aside, as well as an intimate relationship.
“It’s about a moment in time for an African-American seamstress who doesn’t really want to be a seamstress,” Huang said, adding that Esther knows her place in society, so when a wealthy client sees her as a friend, the relationship is one-sided.
“There’s a lot of confusion as to her place, because it is intimate,” Huang said. “We are talking about getting someone into the undergarments, so that’s very close. You have to look at parts of the body that in this era you were not supposed to see. ... You were very discreet.”
Corsets are Huang’s specialty, so when she saw the title on TCR’s 2018-19 season, she reached out to the staff, offering her services as a contract designer. The owner of Odd Blonde Duck Sewing Studio near downtown Cedar Rapids, Huang has made other specialty pieces for TCR, including Belle’s final ballgown for “Disney’s Beauty & The Beast,” Thenardier’s frock coat for “Les Miserables” and Cinderella’s dress for “Into the Woods.” Next up is Queen Elizabeth’s dress for “Shakespeare in Love.” She’s also costuming “Sunday in the Park with George” for Revival Theatre Company, onstage Nov. 15 to 17 at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
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But since late September, her focus has been on corsets, a smoking jacket, a wedding dress, hats and underpinnings to bring to life an Edwardian world. Her wheels were turning even before that, as she purchased fabric while vacationing in London and Paris in early September.
The script — by Lynn Nottage, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — includes very specific costume changes and color descriptions.
One such detail calls for an off-white silk lace corset with peach blossom decorations, worn by Mrs. Dickson (Kierra Young Bey). Coincidentally, a corset fitting that description was pictured in the book from an undergarment exhibition in London, worn by a Mrs. Dixon. “Is it possible (Nottage) saw this and used this as a jumping-off point,” Huang mused, adding that she is recreating the piece “within reason.”
Each corset takes about 18 hours to make, she said, and uses between 28 and 36 pieces of steel boning to create the required shape for the period and posture for the wearer. “The goal was to have a very small waist but a pigeon posture,” she said. The players needed rehearsal corsets to figure out how they would have to sit and move during the show.
The finished pieces are their own works of art, featuring vibrant colors and intricate lace trim, beading and front hook-and-eye or lacing in back. That makes quick changes tricky, as well.
“The real problem with this production is that Esther very rarely leaves the stage. In fact, she even does a corset change on stage while you’re watching the show,” Huang said. That also means the corsets have to be modest.
“So it was a question of how low do we want to go,” she said. “We decided to go middle. I didn’t want to have everyone really super covered up, but I didn’t want to have any risk of making it too provocative. I still wanted the corsets to be the character, not there to present something. It’s kind of that delicate balance of trying to find something in between those two things of being something that’s beautiful to look at or being something that actually is functional and is there to titillate.”
WHAT: “Intimate Apparel”
WHERE: Grandon Studio, Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: Friday (10/26) to Nov. 11; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $25 adults, $15 youths/students; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org/event/intimate-apparel/2018-10-26/
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