The privates and non-coms of the theater are sometimes hard to spot behind the generals and field marshals -- the actors, writers, directors and producers whose names appear, if not above the title, at least somewhere reasonably close to it. Here is a look at two of the unsung creators behind two shows that open tomorrow night -- "A Christmas Carol" at Ford's Theatre, and "The Rivals" at the Folger. Both are shows that aim, more than most, to dazzle the eye. If they succeed, these are two of the folks to thank.
In the wake of the Ford's Theatre version of "A Christmas Carol," the big question is always "How is the ghost done?"
Here's the Big Answer, from someone in a position to know -- Ingrid Crepeau, who designed and built the Ghost of Christmas Future and his spectral compatriots Christmas Present and Jacob Marley (The Ghost Of), plus various disembodied hands and faces who periodically drift across the stage.
But the Ghost of Chritmas Future is the star of the show, and the spirit in whom Crepeau is mostly deeply involved. She is his chief occupant and, you might say, his driving force -- his feet, his lift, his propulsion and his radar. She inhabits the space behind his black velour cloak, holds the body of the spirit aloft (his umbrella-pole planted in a sling that hangs from her belt), maneuvers him about, and tilts and rotates his green, electrically-lit fiberglass head.
Her co-tenant in the ghostly innards is Josie Lawrence, "my right hand," who is just that. Lawrence wields the levers that control the accusatory limb and fingers -- the fingers that bring Scrooge to his holiday senses. (The ghost doesn't have a left hand. "He's right-handed," Crepeau explains.)
The ghost is 12 feet tall. Crepeau is shorter. So her head winds up somewhere in the vicinity of his abdomen. To the audience, it looks dark in there. We can't see in, but, miraculously, Crepeau can see out through the weave of the ghostly garb, and that's why he doesn't collide with a wall or accidentally do a steamroller over Tiny Tim (although Crepeau and Lawrence have been known to trip on their train every now and then).
Crepeau is a 32-year-old "army brat" who has harbored as many as 200 puppets at a time in her Silver Spring apartment. "When I was 12," she says, "I announced to my family and friends that I was going to be a professional puppeteer, and I've stuck with it ever since."
She worked with puppets while studying radio and TV at the University of Maryland, and later joined the Smithsonian Puppet Theater and helped create a local TV show called "Sneakers" (winning two Emmy Awards). She has also helped found two local puppet companies -- Patchwork, which folded, and Kids on the Block, a surviving troupe that deals with the problems of disabled people (and of the non-disabled in working and living with the disabled).
She has done free-lance work for the Folger (the life-sized dolls in the play "Museum," for instance) and for various ad agencies. Arba the Eagle, a red-white-and-blue puppet she built for the Bicentennial, was recently displayed at the Smithsonian alongside Kermit the Frog, Charley McCarthy and Howdy Doody -- heady company for any puppeteer.
Crepeau doesn't mind divulging the secrets of her craft. The Ghost of Christmas Future hasn't always been what he is today, and she wants people to know it -- and appreciate it. "He's improved greatly this year," she says. "He has a face. Last year, he was just a flat green screen. And last year, I couldn't move his head."
The whole production, from her perspective, looks bigger and better. "It's much more Dickensian this year than last year -- it's much spookier. There are seven little ghosts that flit around, who weren't there last year . . . I'm told it's very pretty. I'd love to see it sometime."
When Mrs. Malaprop comes on for her final scene in "The Rivals" at the Folger Theatre, she will be wearing a straw hat with a delicate lace design on the top. You won't be able to see the lace design, however, on account of the two butterflies, six bees, one dove, 20 yards of ribbon, 15 yards of lace edging, and innumerable feathers and flowers stationed directly above it.
So why bother with all that lace-work in the first place?
"I'll know it's there," says Reggie Augustine. Alias Reggie the Milliner.
"The Rivals" is a small show, hatwise. Only 27 hats, compared to the 53 in "Measure for Measure," the Folger's last production. "I was banging out like five hats to six hats a day," says Augustine, perched on his workstool in the Folger's new millinery shop.
"But "The Rivals" is also an unusual opportunity for this 25-year-old, who divides his year between New York and Washington. The Folger's favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, doesn't present much of a challenge from a millinery standpoint. "Hats were very, very simple, basically, up until the late 16th century," Augustine explains.
The 18th century -- when Richard Brinsley Sheridan did his playwriting -- was when hats really went wild. In Augustine's library of hat reference books (about 100 volumes) there is a picture of an 18th-century woman's hat which sports a house, a windmill and a yardful of children and farm animals. The hat is four feet high.
"I love the 18th century," he says, and he describes the opening scene of "The Rivals," in this production, as "basically about hats."
His creations for the show include, besides Mrs. Malaprop's flamboyant finery, Captain Absolute's red and black "shako," with its dramatic medallion and cockplume, and Lucy's black and purple "calash," a hooped silk hood that folds up and down like a conestoga wagon -- and is almost as big. "I'm not sure which came first, the conestoga wagon or this," says Augustine. "They work on the same principle."
The hats are imagined, initially, by Bary Odom, the Folger's resident costume designer, who provides a rough sketch of each. Odom then monitors Augustine's work as it proceeds, and the two will periodically sit down together and decide how to accommodate the designs to the faces of the actors, the available materials and other unpredictables.
Unlike the other elements of a costume, hats are rarely re-used from one production to another. A show like "The Rivals" could have a total costume budget in the neighborhood of $4,000 to $5,000 with, $1,000 of that allotted for hats. Most of the materials are imported -- ribbons from Belgium, England and France, felt from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, straw from England.
Augustine's career as a milliner and costume designer began at Ohio State, from which he graduated two years ago. Then he went to New York and to work for Eve's Costume Company, a major theatrical costume house which has had him outfitting the Ice Follies, the Broadway revival of "Brigadoon," the movies "Ragtime" and "The Chosen," and "The Day the Women Got Even," a TV movie aired last week.
Compared to those enterprises, the Folger's means are limited. For the Ice Follies, Augustine spent $1,000 alone on artificial flowers for four Hungarian hats, and no one objected. The typical Broadway show will spend at least $1,500 a costume, he says, but the investment isn't always evident in the finished product. The "Amadeus" costumes, for example. "There's no real sense of detail to them," he says. "It was a fabulous show, but I was very disappointed in the costumes."
Augustine describes the Folger as "probably one of the best shops I've seen in regional theater." With a recent expansion of office space, the Folger has provided Augustine with his own shop -- a rarity -- and he has built his own "giant tinker toy set" of wooden blocks for stretching felt. The other costumers have been known to aim envious barbs in his direction. They have to work on one costume at a time, he says, while he can drift back and forth at will. "You get tired of steaming pleats, you go on to something else for a while."