Written by Katrina Filer | November 21st, 2021
Theater is full of storytellers. Writers, directors, actors—and behind the scenes, a production team. For Penguin’s production of Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman, this includes illustrator Ivy Gilliam, composer Jackson Booth, and costume designer Ella Meulen. Not all storytellers are the ones you see on stage, but they are integral to the unique artistry of each production.
“Music, art, costumes—these are not peripheral, but are central to collaborative storytelling and raising our collective ability to fully inhabit the world, engage imagination, and take big risks,” Producing Artistic Director Shana Bestock said.
The production team has taken several exciting risks for Metamorphoses. For instance, this is one of the first productions that will feature original compositions from a youth member: Jackson Booth (who is also an actor).
“It’s cool to do music for a production—partially because I know my characters because I am them—but it’s also fun to have deadlines for music and compose for new genres. I don’t usually make music for Ancient Greece,” they said.
Jackson’s composing started with piano, when he would try and learn themes like that of Star Wars by ear. They then moved on to different genres to compose original music for recitals, such as jazz or video game music. Now, his process looks a little different, as he incorporates more orchestral elements.
“Usually, I’ll come up with ideas on the piano or in my head, and then go into the software,” Jackson said. “I make a 10 to 20 second loop depending on the length of the scene, add an intro and an outro, and then I can make it as long or short as the actors need.”
Not only is the timing difficult, but the sheer number of characters and scenes in Metamorphoses has created a unique challenge for the production team. Jackson sorts through these by using a variety of motifs.
“I have one main motif for the whole show, and then I think of variations on that. I also have specific motifs for different scenes and characters,” they said.
Costume designer and actor Ella Meulen has also had to navigate the many characters of Metamorphoses.
“I section characters off by color. Some are group costumes, which are all in blue. Almost everyone is a narrator at some point, so they all wear something generic, like black T-shirts and bluish jeans,” she said.
Despite the many instances of uniformity, Ella still finds ways to make certain elements or characters stand out. Orpheus and Eurydice get a “tragedy wedding kind of vibe”, and Midas is portrayed as a “pompous businessman”, as she describes—and some lucky characters get the full Ella treatment.
“I like to get as loud and crazy as possible with character like Apollo or Silenus. I don’t have to worry about muting them so that people can understand them,” they said. “I can decide ‘You are wearing bright gold, and then you’re wearing glitter on top of that, with Mardi Gras necklaces!’”
Ella’s process starts with thinking about the character, talking to the actor and watching them perform, and then doodling the dream costume for that character. After that, it’s all about finding or making the pieces.
“I ask the actor what they have in their wardrobe, and if that doesn’t work, I ask everyone, and if that doesn’t work, I ask for money, and if that doesn’t work, I go to Goodwill,” they said.
Without an endless budget, this scrappy approach has Ella making or altering a lot of costume elements—which is one of their favorite parts of the job.
“I sewed a lot of pieces for The Tempest, for example. I turned a bunch of Hawaiian shirts into waistcoats, because I needed everyone to be formal, but still look like a vacationer,” she explained.
Using alterations to get the right fit and the right mood for each costume is also important for the actor’s comfort. “It’s a lot easier to put actors into something they want to wear,” Ella concluded. Thankfully, unlike in The Tempest, there’s no outdoor summer heat to contend with.
Another exciting new element that Metamorphoses will incorporate is the use of projections for the set design—all illustrated by Ivy Gilliam. Ivy is a college student studying to become an animator, and has been with Penguin since Enchanted April.
“I did a lot of backdrops for digital theater when we were still at home, and I really liked doing that,” she said. “I was interested in ways that we could do that in a physical space, so we talked about using projections.”
There’s been a lot of trial and error while testing the projections in the performance space at UHeights, and that uncertainty is the hardest part of this unique form of set design. Her role has included a lot of back-and-forth with director Annika Prichard and stage manager Gabriel Klein to make sure all their visions align.
“We keep saying, ‘this will probably work, but we have to test it in the space’—like we try projecting it on and off the curtain or in different directions,” Ivy said.
Ivy’s experiences with Penguin have informed her animation studies as well. “There’s been a lot about analyzing story and emotion [in Metamorphoses], and that’s really useful for my form of art—particularly something that’s telling a story, like games or TV shows,” she said.
Equally helpful have been the relationships that Ivy formed along the way during her many years at Penguin. “Connections are important. I want to do an animated short film for one of my school projects, so I’m scoping out who to recruit as a voice actor,” she mentioned.
Though Ivy isn’t an actor and doesn’t have to be at rehearsal, she comes anyways to make these connections and enjoy everyone’s company—which has been a stark contrast with the early days of Zoom theater.
“It’s weird, because at the beginning of the pandemic I thought ‘this is so convenient, I don’t have to leave my house.’ I could build a set from my couch. But now I just come to see people, so my attitude has transitioned,” she said. “Everyone’s really excited to be in-person again, and they’re really putting their best foot forward.”
Jackson is similarly thrilled to be back in-person, as he took a break from theater during the Zoom era.
“I totally missed theater kids. We do this thing where we just kind of form circles. I don’t understand why, but we always form a circle and just start talking about whatever might be interesting at the time,” he said.
Ella, by contrast, joined Penguin in the midst of Zoom theater, but is likewise thankful for the face-to-face interactions.
“Learning how to be in Penguin over Zoom was an experience. I was so scared; I thought everyone was older than me, but I had a lot of fun. Everyone was so welcoming and kind and had so much compassion—and it was Shakespeare too!” she said. “So, I continued doing every single Penguin production after that.”
Ultimately, it’s good to be telling stories in-person again, whether that be in a circle of theater kids, or on stage at UHeights—with set, costumes, and music in all their full glory.
“I think all artistic mediums feed into each other. Being an actor is one way of telling stories, and music is another way,” Jackson concluded. “It makes me want to think of all music in a way that’s more about telling stories.”
See the work of these artists and many more on December 4 & 5 at UHeights! Capacity is limited, so make sure to reserve your spot. Visit our Productions & Performances page for more information and ticket reservations.