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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Carleton theater’s spring performance “Intimate Apparel” runs

From May 2–5, Carleton Theater put on their spring play, “Intimate Apparel,” which was written by Lynn Nottage and set in 1905 New York City. It follows a young African-American woman who works as a seamstress, sewing lingerie for a variety of clients, as she navigates challenges in her financial, romantic and personal life. The production included six actors and dozens of other students and staff working behind the scenes on lighting, costuming, set design and more.

“I have to say, the cast is terrific. They’re terrific actors and they’re terrific people. It’s been a blast working with them and the whole production team,” said visiting assistant professor of theater Jeanne Willcoxon, who directed the production. “We have four stage managers; we have an assistant director, a prop associate — there’s over 50 people involved in putting this thing on, and they’ve all been just fantastic.”

“I think that the thing that lots of people don’t get when they go to the theater is how many people there are behind the scenes, making things happen,” continued Willcoxon. “The costumes, by Mary Ann [Kelling] who works here, are amazing. Tony [Stoeri] designed the lights, the sound, the projection. Christine [Esterl] co-designed the set. Owen [Roth]… and also Sasha [Rapacz]… helped make music for it. There’s all these people who make this thing that often don’t get the recognition they deserve.”

Unlike the production of “Orlando” during Fall Term, “this play is really based in realism… so, the first thing we did was tablework, which is when you figure out: what’s the character’s intention in this scene, what do they want, what’s keeping it from them, what [is] their relationship with the other characters?” said Willcoxon. “It’s about going to that psychological subtext that’s animating the words. It’s not about a lot of theatricality or movement; it’s about those relationships and desires. It’s a very different approach than the approach last term with ‘Orlando,’ which was very theatrical.”

One element that helped ground the play in the realities of 1905 New York City was the set design, which aimed to shape the actors’ performances in a certain environment.

“You can see the hierarchy of the society in the set. Mrs. Van Buren, a white socialite, is the highest, and Mayme, the black prostitute, is at the lowest. And then, even lower, comes Esther and George. And also in the size of space of [each character’s] platform, Mrs. Van Buren has a lot of room. Mayme, the prostitute, has very little room,” said Willcoxon. “It was a challenge blocking it because they’re really small spaces, but they reflect what that experience was. If you didn’t have money, you lived in a very small space, probably with a lot of people. We tried to reflect that through the set, but that was a challenge.”

This set design also showed glimpses of several individuals’ lives from vastly different socioeconomic classes in the early 20th century. “I don’t want to give anything away…, but I think that it resonates, for me, because it really fully shows how people’s lives are truncated by the society in which they live,” said Willcoxon. “Their choices, their hopes, their desires are limited by that society or annihilated by that society. I think that that resonates fully in this script.”

For students, working on various parts of the production influenced their viewing of the play as well, especially as those working behind the scenes often did not know the plot beforehand.

“It was definitely a weird experience; normally I know a lot about a show I am working on but this time I knew basically nothing,” said Carolina Cabanela ’25, who worked in the scene shop. “I knew most of the characters’ names because of how we labeled different parts of the set, I knew the main character was a seamstress because of the sewing machines and fabric we placed on the set, and I knew that there was an unhappy marriage that changed the set starting in Act 2. Honestly, it was such a delight to see it all come together while still enjoying the story of it. I liked still being able to gasp and be surprised by events in the show even though I had been working on the set for about two months by then.”

“Probably my favorite part of working on the show was creating and dirtying the numerous letters seen in the show. I wrote a good amount of the letters seen in the play, and I spent a good amount of time addressing, applying fake stamps, and beating them up,” continued Cabenela. “We needed the letters to look authentic, like they had traveled across continents and been held and cherished by Esther for days. To make that happen, I got to beat them up a little and rub them in the dirt, it was so fun! And it was so nice to see them appear in the show!”

Student workers in the costume shop, such as Nora Underwood ’27, had similarly limited knowledge of the play’s plot and focused mainly  on the costume pieces that the play featured.

“I made a few pieces from patterns, namely Esther’s work blouse, work skirt and petticoat. I also helped with various alterations that needed to be done on other pieces,” said Underwood.

“I would say that going into the play I already knew to some extent the significance of a lot of the costume pieces because we’re informed about that while creating them. That meant that the big betrayal between Esther and Mimi wasn’t a surprise,” continued Underwood. “It’s interesting to see because there is so much thought put behind all of the costumes by Marianne, the designer. Super small details are given lots of thought… We hear a lot about the characters in conceptual ways, such as one learns about book characters without ever seeing them. To see the costumes on an actual person is a really cool experience.”

Willcoxon emphasized the importance of the ideas  that each character represented as well as the overall significance of the play itself.

“[The play] is part of the theme for this season, which is about ‘hidden selves.’ In this play, Esther and George, two of the characters, are hiding parts of themselves,” said Willcoxon. “It fits in with this theme…, and I think that it’s a very good play for students to work on. It offers them the chance to go deep into the psychology of a character.”

“But I also think that it’s important to do work that centers on the experiences of Black and Brown people… What makes it special as a show is that it really centers on the experience of a working class Black woman in America. And historically, there haven’t been a lot of plays that are produced that do that,” continued Willcoxon. “That’s changing now, which is fantastic, but this is a really important story because the stories of working class Black women in 1905 America haven’t been told and have been erased.”

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Zoe Roettger
Zoe Roettger, Features Editor
Hi there!  I'm Zoe (she/her), and I'm a prospective Linguistics major with a Classics minor.  I love anything language-related, arts-related, writing & reading, and cats.  I also have a spider plant named "Pulchra," which, against all odds, is still alive.  When not testing my plant's resiliency, I can usually be found in Anderson or Blue Monday. Zoe Roettger '27 was previously an Arts & Features writer.

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