This season Lehigh University’s Department of Theatre presented the famous British play Blithe Spirit, written by Noël Coward. Director Augustine Ripa brought to life an amazing comedy filled with banter, wit, and physical humor. The play follows a novelist, Charles Condomine, as he conducts research for a new work by inviting a medium, Madame Arcati, to a meeting with his friends. When Madame Arcati performs a séance, the skeptical novelist finds himself haunted by his deceased wife, Elvira. Set in the 1940s, the play is a comic period piece well worth revisiting on Lehigh’s stage.
Lehigh’s cast provided an enjoyable evening away from the daily routine as audiences found themselves chuckling to Coward’s writing as well as the flamboyant performances of each actor. Blithe Spirit was in production for many months beginning with casting in November, rehearsals during winter break, and many production meetings occurring in the early spring with the designers. Many components must come together for a show to be successful. Beyond the director and actors, the designers create the atmosphere on stage, transporting us into the world of the show. Blithe Spirit could not come to life without the help of the essential production staff like the costume designers: Erica Hoelscher and student designer Chalo Pope. I interviewed Hoelscher to get a behind-the-scenes look at how she created costumes for the recent production of Blithe Spirit.
The lengthy process to create costume pieces for the show started early, as there were challenging deadlines to meet. Hoelscher explained, “The design process for Blithe Spirit started in September 2019. So that’s a six-month process leading up to the opening night.” Although she has worked in theatre for 35 years, she “still pull[s] the occasional all-nighter to stay on track.”
Numerous steps go into the design process. First, designers must study the script by analyzing “time period, location, climate, socio-economic class, and atmosphere,” Hoelscher said. For Blithe Spirit, Hoelscher described the atmosphere as “the late 30s or the early 40s, set in England, spring with stormy weather in a few scenes, with upper-class characters, and a supernatural comedy.” Once she understands the show, she looks deeper into each of the characters, examining their “physical, social, psychological, and moral” features. For example, the main character, Charles, is an English, upper-class novelist who lives in the countryside; thus, his appearance should reflect a debonair quality with touches that speak to the physicality of living outside of the city. Hoelscher said that she and Ripa “decided that while he is upper class, his clothing might be more ‘sporty’ than if he were living in London or another urban area.” They chose a wardrobe for Charles that included “pants, a vest, and a jacket made of contrasting but coordinating fabrics” and a tuxedo for fancy events. Charles’s country-casual clothing contrasts with his more wealthier friends, the Bradmans. The contrast of his clothing with the posh attire of friends supports the dialogue in the play when his friends refuse to take his profession as a novelist seriously. Their dismissal of his career can be supported through more relaxed and less formal costumes that reveal his lack of status.
With the play’s female characters, Hoelscher had another challenge in creating the evening gowns, flowing pants, and nightgowns. The most difficult character was the ghostly Elvira. Since she has been dead for a long time, Hoelscher focused on a pale white color palette and added supernatural references to her costume.
Once the research is finished, Hoelscher moves into creating sketches of each character’s costumes, which are called renderings. She explained that the “drawings are often in black and white, so I have to add color as a separate step. I share those ideas with the director and other designers, and may create several phases of preliminary sketches as the design concepts are refined.”
The next part of the process often involves a trip to New York City to buy fabric to make new pieces. The designers also rely on the University’s store of costumes and may “buy garments from vendors ranging from high-end department stores to the Salvation Army.” Hoelscher and her staff “construct costumes from scratch” with a budget provided by Lehigh’s Department of Theatre. In the weeks leading up to the show, there are fittings for the actors, meetings to attend, and costumes to be finished down to the tiniest detail. All the work culminates in the most exciting part of the process for Hoelscher: watching the costumes on stage as the actors bring the show together for opening night.
As an actress and student who has been lucky to have been a part of this process, it was rewarding to be present in the costume shop, trying on my costume pieces and assisting in their creation for my fellow castmates. The wonderful work of Hoelscher and her team offered so much to each of us as we became characters in the play. Hoelscher humbly noted that she saw her contribution to the show as just one key part of a collaborative process. She stated, “There was once a famous designer named Robert Edmund Jones who advised designers to ‘Get the personal you out of your work.’ My design is not about me, or my preferences, or my taste or skill. It is about the theatrical artistry of a collaborative process and project. That’s what I hope audiences will appreciate and remember.”
She continued, “my message to the audience is to remember that there is no single person who brings to life a show. There are many people who contribute to the art of making such a famous play like this flourish on stage. There are many late nights, coffee trips, sleep deprivation. However, there also are laughs, smiles, and pride that go into each component of design, direction, and acting.” The collaborative project of the staging and production of Blithe Spirit was a huge success thanks to Hoelscher, her team, and the full cast.