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Puppets and Polyester and Masks - Oh My!

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Center Theatre Group’s Costume Shop team has dressed a caged tiger and a future American president, a royal court and time-traveling ghosts. But they’ve never done anything quite like the costumes designed by Ingrid Ferrin for Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven. Popol Vuh was a months-long collaboration of CTG, El Teatro Campesino, and Boyle Heights community members for a two-performance, free-to-the-public production featuring towering puppets, colorful masks, and a cast of nearly 40 actors of all ages. What made this production different, and how did it inspire CTG’s Costume Shop staff?

“It’s an engineering feat,” said Tailor Swantje Tuohino, who was working on the costume for the Heart of Sky puppet while we chatted. For one thing, Heart of Sky is 14 feet tall. For another, typically, “we make clothes to be worn by the actor rather than the actor needing to manipulate and maneuver under and inside the costume ,” said Tuohino. Three puppeteers operate Heart of Sky (one plays the head and body; two others are the hands and arms). The design and construction must take every movement of all three people into consideration. Heart of Sky and the other large Popol Vuh puppets, Abuela and Abuelo, each incorporate “up to a dozen different fabrics,” said Tuohino. “Some of the fabrics are for structures you never see but hold the whole garment together.”

These logistical challenges have inspired what Costume Assistant Whitney Oppenheimer called “improvised creativity. Sometimes ‘standard’ protocols the Costume Shop follows had to be reevaluated,” said Oppenheimer, “then, we collaboratively came up with a new solution.” However, she added that even when the team tried to get ahead of a challenge, they ended up having to step backward on occasion.

Even so, Popol Vuh is “certainly the most interesting project we’ve worked on,” said Costume Generalist Maddie Keller. “That really gave us a sense of pride about the puppets. Every time someone came into the Shop, we’d all say, ‘Have you seen the giant puppets yet??’”

In addition to making the costumes as beautiful as Ingrid Ferrin’s designs, everyone had to be mindful of the overall weight of the finished costumes, the airflow through the costumes, and especially the visibility, so that the puppeteers could operate them safely. “It’s a giant patchwork of see-through panels placed decoratively at certain points so the puppeteers can see where they are going,” explained Tuohino.

The immense scale of the puppets also posed some challenges, like figuring out how to wrangle 50 bulky yards of fabric under a sewing machine (“on your lap you’ve got this giant polyester blanket” that’s intensely hot, said Oppenheimer) and how to test drive the puppets and the costumes without knocking into the lights or beams in the Shop.

The test driving also kept things interesting. “As soon as they have the most rudimentary elements of a person—a face and a body—the puppets almost come alive,” said Keller. “We had to have the puppets set up in the work room so we could properly fit the costumes on them. They almost became new co-workers.”

Also new to the Costume Shop team was the experience of working with community members rather than professional actors. “I took great delight in the new and enthusiastic energy that the community members and our guest artists brought to this project,” said Costume Shop Manager Brent Bruin. “I employed a very different style of shop management when working with community members who had day jobs and families as I went about scheduling and conducting fittings. I wanted everyone to feel comfortable and taken care of while they were here.” Where professional performers voice their needs in the fitting room, Bruin took a different tack with the Popol Vuh cast. “We made sure to ask questions about everything: ‘Is this comfortable?’, ‘Can you move the way you need to?’, ‘How can this feel better for you?’”

The design of the costumes offered a unique opportunity for the Costume Shop to connect to Boyle Heights—and exercise their problem-solving skills. “The performers were split into several tribes, and each had its own glyph on the front of the costumes, designed by Manuel Prieto, to represent different parts of Boyle Heights,” said Keller. “The glyphs presented many interesting technical challenges. Screen printing was too expensive; iron-on appliques weren’t durable enough. Eventually, we settled on stenciling.” Stenciling was a complex process that involved a battery of tests and steps. “In the end, they turned out great!” said Keller. “The performers really enjoyed getting to be part of their own ‘tribe.’”

Everyone agreed that the efforts they put into Popol Vuh paid off tremendously—and that they especially appreciated the opportunity to collaborate not just with one another but with CTG’s props department, El Teatro Campesino, Boyle Heights community members, and local artists like puppet maker Beth Peterson.

Costume Director Candice Cain said that Popol Vuh was satisfying artistically: “I live for brainstorming, and Popol Vuh has given that gift 100 times over.” But it was also a culmination of many years of work with and in the Boyle Heights community. “The community building, workshops, and Popol Vuh planning set the backdrop for this production,” she said. “Time and time again, I’ve had my love of theatre reinforced through this new model that includes community in a real way—not just inviting the community to workshops and programs but truly collaborating to make art. Thank you, ETC, CTG, The Shop, and our fabulous production department!”

For more on costumes from CTG, check out our #EveryCostume tells a story posts on Twitter and Instagram.

Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven Costumes

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