A fresh Peach for Poudre High

A fresh Peach
for Poudre High

Through collaboration, technical theatre gains new heights
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This composite photo shows the watercolor-style projections behind Poudre High students playing James and narrator-conjurer Ladahlord. Photo by Mina Delgado and Mitch Stark.

BY MITCH STARK

THESPIANS WOVE a bit of magic into the Poudre High School costume shop this fall. Anyone venturing down the stairs beneath the stage would find enthusiastic teams snipping and sewing garments for each kooky character in their October 2018 production of James and the Giant Peach. The shop was brimming with mounds of interesting fabrics, students belting showtunes, and endless handfuls of dark chocolate chips. At the helm of this lively vessel was veteran costume director Kari Armstrong, along with Joel Smith, Poudre’s master theatre teacher of 25 years. For the school’s production of Peach, these two worked with a collaborative team of student costumers, animators, collegiate mentors, and professional projection designers. As a result, student costumers and other technical designers were able to integrate their efforts in innovative ways.

"Maybe it started that way. As a dream."

Poudre High School, though limited in space and resources, is known for its robust and creative theatre program. Among past productions are shows including a bilingual Romeo and Juliet, The Laramie Project, and last year’s Zombie Prom. In March 2018, Smith started looking for a new challenge — a show that would appeal to a broad audience while providing new artistic opportunities for his student technicians and performers. He chose James and the Giant Peach.

“Going back to Roald Dahl’s original story, there’s bizarreness and absurdity to it, but it’s grounded in a real humanity,” said Smith. “It’s about connection, and it’s about family. In some ways that mirrors how high school theatre works. It can be bizarre and absurd, but there’s a connection and community that’s built.”

At the heart of Poudre’s theatre community is the 10-year collaboration between Smith and Armstrong, who is known to her tribe of student costumers as Miss Kari. Armstrong began at Poudre as a volunteer seamstress who would often fix the “unfixable.” She quickly proved her value in both production quality and student mentorship. In 2011 she was awarded the International Thespian Society Honorary Thespian Award and later hired full time by Poudre High School to teach her craft and run the school’s costume shop, a crossroads of imaginative thinking and theatrical sweat equity where students from all walks of life come together. “We do have a little family in the costuming basement,” said junior costumer Ranier Kahl. “Everyone supports each other, and it’s a nice environment where you can work and have fun.”

These costume renderings of Grasshopper, James, and Ladybug (below) by Kari Armstrong were inspired by student sketches.
These costume renderings of Grasshopper, James, and Ladybug (below) by Kari Armstrong were inspired by student sketches.

Smith announced his show selection in April, and Armstrong began drawing and painting ideas for Peach the next day. She recruited several of her costume students to begin dreaming up the look of James, his magical insect companions, and a host of other characters. The students were so enthusiastic that they produced character sketches throughout the summer.

“Using clues from the script and book, we went back and forth about the time periods and countries that would influence each character’s look,” Armstrong said. “We decided on more intense and kind of cheeky color combinations to add a little more snap and fun.” She helped the students refine their illustrations into the final look for the characters.

“One of the many reasons we chose James and the Giant Peach was that we were going to have to build these costumes,” said Smith. “These were not things that we were going to be able to pull off a rack. Sometimes a show calls for normal street clothes, and you’re just pulling stuff out of inventory or combing thrift shops to find the pieces you want. But if you give students the opportunity to build something from scratch, there’s an excitement that goes along with that. I think there’s also a fear that goes along with that too, because they are making something that wasn’t there before.” During Peach preproduction, this sense of both community and the “bizarre” rolled quickly and seamlessly through all elements of the design collaboration.

"Try looking at it another way."

Throughout the creative process, students in every design department met together to keep their vision in sync. The costumers fashioned their coats, wigs, and accessories not only to fit the actors but also to complement other technical elements such as props, projections, and sound. Likewise, student projection artist Sophie Nichols, a senior on the tech team, made regular visits to the costume shop when planning her animation. “Communication between the different areas of a show is so crucial, and it can be overlooked,” said Smith, “It was Sophie who really led the projection design crew.”

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For example, to create a matching digital projection of the magic bag (stocked with potion recipes, glowing crocodile tongues, and the promise of a better life for James) wielded by narrator Ladahlord, Nichols scanned the prop bag developed by Armstrong. This ensured that both prop and projection echoed the blended maroon and gold coloration of Ladahlord’s whimsical coat. For Nichols, it was important to coordinate the patterns, shapes, and colors of the projection art “to make sure everything melded together and wasn’t just random images behind the actors.” She animated her digital creations so the bag would spin and shoot smoke. This dynamic special effect splashed behind the song “Shake It Up” while the actor playing Ladahlord used the prop bag onstage.

To push collaboration further, Smith and Armstrong challenged the costume team to use the songs and sound design as inspiration to look outside the bounds of traditional British fare and adopt a more global look for the characters. Often, the student costumers would sit in the audience during rehearsals, listen to the musical numbers, and watch the staging and choreography to better inform their costume choices.

“There are so many different styles of music represented in the show. There are fairly traditional musical theatre songs. But there’s also a straight up disco number. And a salsa number,” said Smith. “And we thought, well, let’s look at some costume design elements that reflect that diversity in the musical score.” One idea Smith, Armstrong, and the costume department had was to put the Earthworm character, during his “Plump and Juicy” salsa tune, into a headpiece and Copacabana sleeves. “We thought, this is a Latin music style. How can we play that up in this number?”

"Marvelous things will happen!"

To support the expansive technical vision for the play, Smith connected with collegiate and professional resources to elevate the experience for his students and their audience. For example, he asked Broadway projection artist Price Johnston, who currently leads the theatre program at Colorado State University, to do hands-on workshops with the technical students. With Johnston’s guidance, they learned to develop scenic art in Adobe Photoshop and bring it to life with motion in After Effects. He also taught the students how to program the show in the Mac-based presentation software QLab. “When you have a guest artist like that come and work on the show, it ups everyone’s game,” said Smith. “There was more focus in our creativity and in our design work.”

Student costumers designed Copacabana sleeves and a headdress for Earthworm's performance of the salsa number "Plump and Juicy," shown here with a composite of the projection design. Photo by Mina Delgado and Mitch Stark.
Student costumers designed Copacabana sleeves and a headdress for Earthworm's performance of the salsa number "Plump and Juicy," shown here with a composite of the projection design. Photo by Mina Delgado and Mitch Stark.

Smith also reached out to Theatre Avenue, an Atlanta-based professional projection studio. Working with Poudre High, Theatre Avenue produced many of the visual effect projections for the show, including the flying, floating, and rolling peach, portrayed exclusively through projection design. Rather than emailing broad instructions, Smith worked hand in hand with Theatre Avenue artists to establish a unique watercolor look in the projections that would contrast the detail and rich, saturated color of the costume design. Smith and his team decided early on to incorporate the projections into the show by dividing active scenic imagery (such as the rhino attack, the ocean journey, and the peach falling on the spire of the Empire State Building) across three circular screens — all mounted to movable wagons. “I was really intrigued by the idea of projections that were not static,” said Smith. “Anything can be a projection surface, so why be married to the idea of screens in the back that don’t move?”

Once the projections at Theatre Avenue were complete, Nichols took the final animations and integrated them into QLab on a single Macbook. She used a three-way splitter so they would perfectly strike each of the three screens. She and Smith worked back and forth to adjust their placement until the projections gelled with the lighting and staging.

Collaboration opportunities between projection art and costume design emerged again when it came to the design of James’ two horrible aunts, Sponge and Spiker. “The Spiker and Sponge costumes were the result of hilarious brainstorming with the students,” said Armstrong. “We knew we wanted to see their silhouettes correspond to their names — one round and ‘spongy,’ one tall and angular.”

To make Spiker as vertical as possible, the team extended her height with the use of a 1960s-style beehive wig. For Sponge, they went the opposite direction by caricaturing her hair into horizontal pigtails, like Princess Leia with one finger in an electric socket.

The Poudre High costume department sent sketches and wig photographs to Theatre Avenue, where artists replicated the hairstyles for a full green-screen film shoot with the aunts. The final projections depicted a nightmare sequence in which James’ aunts loom in the clouds, taunting and teasing him as an angry sea rages below. Smith showed the projections to his team. His actors for the aunts were inspired by the gestures of their projection video counterparts. They integrated some of those moves into their performance onstage, completing the collaborative loop.

Student costumer Ranier Kahl works on the design for Ladahlord's coat, which informed both props and projection designs. Photo by Kari Armstrong.
Student costumer Ranier Kahl works on the design for Ladahlord's coat, which informed both props and projection designs. Photo by Kari Armstrong.

"I dreamed about coming here. And then I did it!"

The efforts of Smith, Armstrong, and their team of actors and technical artists culminated in a fully ripe show on October 26. “To see the costume crew beaming with pride when the dazzled audience recognized their exceptional work — well, that is my reason for teaching,” said Armstrong.

Smith felt the show leaped off the stage like nothing he had yet seen at Poudre. “I feel re-energized,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and you get tired. And I don’t feel tired now. This production has recharged my batteries in a lot of ways. Everyone did their best work. As a director, you can’t ask for anything more than that.”

The cast and crew — costume shop, props department, projection team, and more — united through hard work and deep camaraderie. This is a magic of sorts but also something real that will serve the school’s theatre department long after the last applause dies down and the final set piece is struck. When asked if he plans to take a similar approach in the future, in terms of complexity of both script and technical collaboration, Smith grinned.

“Absolutely! You see these kids take incredible risks with character and understanding and empathy. You see the amount of courage it takes to put yourself out there. You see kids really create and grow and learn, and not because I’m telling them to but because they’re invested and they’re passionate and they’re honest. It’s thrilling, and it’s awesome every time.” Wander into a Poudre High School theatre class or rehearsal any day, and you’ll find magic woven everywhere.

Read more Teaching Theatre.