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Dressing up the drama

FPU: Guest artists lend talents to drama, dance departments

How does an adult convincingly portray a surprisingly mature 4-year-old who has to deal with her dysfunctional relationship with her parents, teenaged babysitter and her imaginary friend, an emotionally unstable adult businessman with a cocaine habit?

Well, talent helps, and so does the dialogue. But the right costume can clue in the audience at a glance.

“Costume design is creating the characters. It’s a way of telling the audience who these people are and what they do, while giving a sense of the world you’re in, without a word,” said Jenny Fulton, a professional costume designer who is visiting Franklin Pierce University as a guest artist this year. “All you have to do to realize that is watch a rehearsal with people in their street clothes and then again while they’re in their costumes. The change is amazing. They really become the characters, and it’s the costumes that do that.”

Fulton has spent the last several weeks being the lead designer for the Drama Department’s current stage production, “Mr. Marmalade,” written in 2004 by Noah Haidle, which is running through Sunday . The story includes a range of character ages, with preschool aged children, teenagers, adults and imaginary talking houseplants of indeterminate ages, all played by college-aged students, said Fulton.

“The idea is to make adult people read convincingly as children,” said Fulton. And although she is the lead in terms of design, she is also functioning as teacher, Fulton said. That means allowing students to flex their own design muscles.

While for most costumes, Fulton drew up sketches for the students to work from, she left the innovation of the costumes to the students. For the two talking houseplants, for example — both imaginary friends of a 5-year-old boy — Fulton told the students the look she was going for, and allowed them to figure out how to achieve that. Also, because Franklin Pierce’s production is setting “Mr. Marmalade” — which as written does not have a set time period — in contemporary times , Fulton allowed the students to come up with the costume design for the play’s teenagers.

“Because it’s a very short process, you, as a teacher, have to present a pretty coherent picture,” said Fulton. “But with the teenagers, I said to them, ‘You know exactly who these people are. What do you think they would wear?’ I put it into their hands. And what they were thinking was in line with what I was thinking. It gave them the opportunity to do more than hem,” she added with a laugh.

For the last seven years, Fulton has been interspersing her professional career with part-time teaching residencies, she said.

“As a working designer, you do things, and you don’t really stop to ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s a job. You get an assignment, you get a brief from your client, and your job is to carry that out. When you’re a teacher, and you’re teaching the concepts and discipline and process, you can stop and say, ‘Do I actually practice what I’m teaching?’” Fulton explained. “It’s a chance for you as an artist to reflect on your own work. Doing both helps me to keep a healthy balance of practice and reflection.”

A night of dance

Fulton isn’t the only guest artist Franklin Pierce is hosting this semester. Paul Besaw and Selene Colburn, both of University of Vermont, will be making an appearance on Nov. 16 to put on a night of dance performance. Besaw and Colburn will be performing in two distinct halves of the evening, the two said in recent phone interviews. Colburn’s portion of the evening will be split into three duets for men and women, collectively called “Potboilers.” Colburn will only be performing personally in one, she said, due to an injury.

“I’ve always been drawn to the duet form,” said Colburn. “I’ve always felt very comfortable and interested in it.” She’s also drawn to another element that ties her three pieces together, she said — comedy.

“I’m a funny person, I think,” Colburn said thoughtfully. “Both as a performer and off the stage, it’s definitely a lens I see the world through. I think that’s a sensibility that I have and it’s something that’s emerged in my work whether I want it to or not. It’s naturally there, and it’s something I wanted to integrate more consciously in my form.”

In two of the duets, the male roles are played by women, and the female roles by men, noted Colburn. Her dances tell very specific stories, she said, such as an American woman and Russian man becoming an ice skating pair for a benefit to save the polar bears, but can’t seem to get along. Developing story and character is something that has come with flexing her comedy skills, she said. When she began to create works with other performers who had serious comedic training, their character was the first concern.

“I would say, ‘Okay, we’re ice skaters.’ And they wanted to know, ‘What country am I from? What’s my name? What does my voice sound like? What props do I have?’ That influence has made the work much more character-driven.”

Besaw, on the other hand, said he’ll be involved in presenting a single, longer work called “Momma at the Gate.” The story of the dance, which is set in Korea and delves into the lives of women left behind as their men go off to war, was inspired by both literature and personal experience, said Besaw. He was inspired while on sabbatical in Korea earlier this year to create a dance which integrates a lot of Korean movement and culture, as well as telling a story adapted from two different works, one by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and the other by Korean author Park Wan-Suh.

Besaw said he goes to Korea often, to visit his in-laws, who reside there. He said every time he’s in the country, he is struck by how his in-laws and the older generation in Korea have lived through a time of upheaval, from World War II, liberation from Japan and the Korean War. “The older population are still walking around with these memories,” he noted. “[This dance] was a real opportunity to dig into that memory and examine, in particular, women dealing with the reality on the ground of watching their men go off to war and struggling with the reality of how to survive. That, to me, was pretty compelling.”

Besaw’s piece will also incorporate performers who will be traveling from Korea to dance.

“Mr. Marmalade will run nightly at Franklin Pierce University through Nov. 3. Colburn and Besaw will present their works on Nov. 16.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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