The Alligator, the Angel and the Wardrobe
Summer repertory theatre provides opportunity for student design project
by Tony Moore
July 24, 2012
Sydney Moffat ’14 does the dental work on an alligator head needed for the Greenbrier Valley Theatre production of Mitch Albom’s "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel." Photo by Sherry Harper-McCombs.
In early July, a massive storm swept through the mid-Atlantic region, leaving nearly a million homes and businesses without power. In Lewisburg, W.Va., located about 300 miles southwest of Dickinson, the rain has stopped and the power is back on, but Associate Professor of Theatre Sherry Harper-McCombs is thinking about how much worse it could have been for her theater company. “If I hadn’t had Sydney [Moffat ’14] over these past 11 days without electricity, we would be in such a mess right now,” she says, clearly relieved.
Moffat, a theatre arts and music major, is in Lewisburg as part of a summer Dana Student Research Assistantship with Harper-McCombs, working on costume design and construction for plays being staged at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre (which lies 25 miles from where Harper-McCombs grew up in Virginia).
The first play the pair worked on together this summer was the musical Floyd Collins, based on the life of a cave explorer who died in 1925 after becoming trapped in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. In the costume design, “we looked for pictures of the actual people involved in the events before we made certain artistic choices,” Harper-McCombs explains. But, she continues, “Even a modern play requires research, and research can take a lot of forms.” Which certainly proved to be true of the next play appearing on a Greenbrier Valley playbill.
An alligator head and angel wings
The second show Moffat and Harper-McCombs tackled was Mitch Albom’s Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, a comedy involving woodsmen, a tabloid reporter, an angel and a creature with an alligator’s head and a man’s body. Moffat conducted research, which mostly involved studying pictures of alligators, and assisted with the design and building processes.
“The alligator head was tricky in its construction because it needed to be light enough to be worn around and taken off easily but sturdy enough to last through all of the shows,” she says. “It was also fun, because this kind of project shows a more crafty side to this field: You get the chance to work with more materials than just fabric.” Moffat took the details she needed from the research and made the piece, as Harper-McCombs puts it, “realistically cartoony, because it has to be funny, like a Photoshopped picture you’d find in the Weekly World News.”
Made out of upholstery foam, which can be bent and sculpted, the head is lightweight and slightly moveable, and Harper-McCombs finds that the performer can still project expression despite the mask’s inherent limitations. “The interesting thing about mask work is that the audience gets facial expressions, even though there are no changes in the alligator’s face,” she says. “The audience extrapolates the expression based on body language and head tilts, interpreting what’s happening with the character.”
But the costuming challenges didn’t end there.
“Not many people are out there making both alligator heads and collapsible angel wings,” Harper-McCombs says with a laugh, explaining the next piece needed for the production. “But we also had to have a pair of angel wings to be hidden under the actor’s clothes—and they had to pop up. So Sydney and I worked together to help figure it out, troubleshooting the creation of this element.”
Moffat adds, “The wings were tricky, and these kinds of projects can be frustrating, but ultimately they make the job like a puzzle or riddle. The need for quick invention keeps the work fresh and fun, and these types of challenges keep me thinking and force me to use my creativity.”
And everything else
As if angel wings and alligators aren’t enough, Moffat, who works in the costume shop at Dickinson, also helps run the shows—everything from laundry duty to costume changes to designing “quick rigs,” which involve snaps or Velcro to get actors through those costume changes quickly.
“It’s nice to know that someone who has been a part of the process all along is backstage making sure everything looks the way it should,” Harper-McCombs says. “It’s been a huge help to have Sydney with me this summer, and it’s really nice that she gets some experience in a venue such as this.”
Moffat also sees the experience, with a little hard work thrown in, as a big plus.
“This internship has offered me a look at what the professional theatrical world is really like and gives me a good idea of what I would be doing in this field,” Moffat says. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been a lot of fun as well!”