Designing His Girl Friday, Part 1: Vintage Office Desks

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While His Girl Friday won’t open for another 4 months I’m already busy prepping things on the production side. The budgets are set, fundraising & marketing scheduled, so now I get a little time to spend on one of my favourite parts of putting together a show (and part of why I started Bygone in the first place); designing.

Anyone who’s seen a Bygone Theatre production knows that we always do things set in the 20th century, and while there are of course budgetary restraints that don’t make 100% accuracy possible, I do work hard to get an authentic period feel to our shows, both with props and costumes, and when possible, set.

His Girl Friday is set in 1940 and takes place primarily in a newspaper office, which means that I have to find a lot of period office supplies. The good thing is, since it’s an office (as opposed to, say, the house of a trendy socialite), I can play with the time period a bit; supplies from the 30s or even 20s could easily still be showing up, as long as they do have modern necessities like typewriters and phones. So let’s start with the most basic part of an office…

Desks

There’s a few key styles of desk you will come across if researching those from the first half of the twentieth century; secretary desks, rolltop desks, typewriter desks and tanker desk.

The secretary desk is the oldest style in this list, and despite its name, would not be very useful for most secretaries, as it forces the user to sit staring into a bookshelf, rather than outward towards visitors. The base is made with wide drawers which have above them a hinged desktop surface, allowing it to be opened when a writing surface is needed, or closed to save space and protect documents when it is not. The top half of the desk features a bookcase – sometimes with some drawers – often covered by glass. All-on-all the secretary is a tall, heavy piece of furniture with a shallow depth. Once again, not very practical for a modern office, certainly not a shared space.

The rolltop desk was a staple of the turn of the (20th) century office. First designed in the late 1800s, it became popular throughout the end of the Victorian era as it was quite easily mass produced. Its signature element is the roll down top, wooden slats on a tambour that allowed the user to cover the desktop and drawers. While practical for a small office with minimal correspondence, the desks grew out of favour as large elements such as the typewriter required more desk space, and the small drawers and compartments grew unusable due to an increased volume of paper (again, thanks to mass production).

 

One of the modern marvels becoming appearing in turn of the century offices was the typewriter (I’ll go into more details on those later), and with that came the necessity for a new type of desk. Just as you would today want to have a different desk for your computer than say, writing or sewing, workers then found they needed something not only lower (for ease of typing) but sturdier than the hinged tops commonly used before; typewriters were heavy and required hard pounding on the keys. In addition to that, early typewriters were finicky and expensive, so it was important to keep them covered and safe from dirt and dust. Many initially considered them an eyesore as well, so the cover had an aesthetic value too.

1946 saw the introduction of the Tanker Desk, a new form of the pedestal desk made of steel, with a sheet metal surface. These utilitarian style desks were popular in institutions such as schools and government offices, and have a distinctly retro feel. They remained popular until the 1970s, and are often sought after now for a “industrial” look. However, as I mentioned previously, this show is set in 1940, so these are a little too modern. Plus, they are expensive and heavy; not a great choice for a show.

So what to use? Before even doing any research I knew I preferred the look of wood desks to wooden, and I knew I would need some that could support a typewriter. This play also calls for a rolltop desk. Given that we have a budget to stick to, and keeping in mind how difficult these can be to move and store, my plan is to get a larger, slightly older desk for Walter Burns (the editor) to have in his private office, and to use a small typewriter desk for his secretary.

The reporters will likely share a large table with just their own phone and small work station, and the back of the office will have a few older desks set aside, including our necessary rolltop desk. I’ll post photos when we have them all purchased, but for now, here’s an idea of what I’m looking for;

All for now, more to come soon!
-E.

A Review of the Summerworks Production of “Seams”

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing writer Polly Phokeev’s Seams at Summerworks Toronto. Directed by Mikaela Davies, the play starred Krystina Bojanowski (Ira), Clare Coutler (Old Frosya), Sochi Fried (Radya), Jesse La Vercombe (Anton), Caitlin Robson (Froysa), Elizabeth Stuart-Morris (Shura) and Ewa Wolniczek (Marina). Set in Moscow, 1939, the story revolves around a group of seamstresses (and one seamster) working for a theatre company in the time leading up to the war. While the show does explore the tensions of Communist Russia, and the fears of the approaching war, the play is essentially a personal memory piece, told through the older Frosya (Coulter) who is now living in Canada and spending her days reminiscing about the past. Their website states this nicely, so I’ll just quote that;

“Seams is a response to the inherited guilt and the chaos of identity that comes with being a Russian immigrant to Canada. It asks us to confront the cultural guilt we all inherit, regardless of where we come from, and whether we can find ways to overcome it.”

Caitlin Robson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Caitlin Robson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

I was impressed with several aspects of the production. The first thing of note was the staging and design; as a period piece lover, I am often frustrated by the inaccuracies in sets and costumes of lower-budget productions. Seams however, was beautifully dressed, and with the exception of a couple pairs of rather modern shoes, everything looked beautiful and historically accurate. Bravo to designer Shannon Lea Doyle, her assistant Kelly Anderson, and installation designer Jackie McClelland (whom I have worked with before and am always impressed by).

The lighting design by Steve Vargo was also very effective. Simple, but powerful, it beautifully complemented the design and staging. Director Mikaela Davies accomplished something that I rarely see in this level of theatre; her staging was unique and memorable, but never completed with the work of her actors, and enhanced the piece rather than attempted to be the main focus. A couple moments were a little drawn out (I think of the random and a little cliched frantic wandering around the stage), but for the most part she succeeded in creating authentic moments and beautifully stylized tableau’s, in particular with the slow-motion movements of the young actors while Old Frosya spoke to the audience, and the (**SPOILER ALERT) flood of reporting papers that filled the stage in the final moment of the play. I have not heard of or seen Davies work before, but I will be sure to keep any eye out for her future productions.

Clare Coulter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Clare Coulter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

There were no weak links in this cast. Some of the characters were better written than others, but each actor gave a committed and completely believable performance, with very natural pacing and authentic emotion. I think the script still requires some work, as the distribution of lines and scene time is a little off; some of the stories I wanted to learn more about were glazed over, while in a predictable fashion, the onstage love story was given more stage time than necessary. Still, every actor was given a chance to be featured in the spotlight, and the variety of characters was impressive. As Frosya, Caitlin Robson (who I had the pleasure of working with in Bygone Theatre’s, Rope) embodied the motherly, protective role of a character who I would have expected to be played by someone considerably older than herself. Through the knowing glances and ever-watchful eye of Robson’s character, it is clear there is more to her than she allows others to see, making the end, while still surprising, very believable. Other performances of note include Elizabeth Stuart-Morris as Shura, who’s larger-than-life character adds the majority of fun and laughs to the show, and Sochi Fried as Radya who certainly had the most realistic and tragic portrayal in the cast.

Sochi Fried. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Sochi Fried. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Again, the script could use some final tweaks, and I suspect the final product will be as much as 20 minutes shorter, but overall this was a strong production and one I look forward to seeing future incarnations of.

For tickets and more show information, check out the Seams Collective website.

How To Draft a Custom Hat Pattern

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On Monday I started my week long millinery course at Stratford Off The Wall; after only one day we’d already done a ton.

After going over some basics we had a chance to tour the costume warehouse at Stratford, including the upper level not usually open to tours. There we saw some amazing costumes, like this beauty;

Hat in the Stratford Warehouse

Hat in the Stratford Warehouse

There was so much to see we could have easily spent a day there, but our main focus was the hats. Even limiting it to that section, we spent a good hour browsing the aisles, each of us allowed to pick out one to take back to the studio and model our own hat after. I chose this cute little topper that had been worn in Guys And Dolls a few seasons back;

Hat from Guys and Dolls

Hat from Guys and Dolls

While my own hat has since been altered greatly from this version, it was great to see a professionally made one up close and personal.

There’s a lot of work that goes into making a hat, and being a novice I certainly have more to learn than teach. But in the interest of sharing knowledge and fun I’m going to break my lessons down into several blog posts, starting with this one. So part 1 in my hat how-to tutorial begins with….

How To Draft A Custom Hat Pattern From Scratch

Step 1. Prepping Your Hat Form

Step 1. Prep your hat form

Step 1. Prep your hat form

If you don’t have the luxury of using a wooden hat block, the first thing you need to do is prep your hat form – here I used a Styrofoam head. I covered the entire thing in plastic wrap and masking tape, making it stronger and protecting it for future use.

If you were looking to do a more fitted hat that comes down more on your head, like a cloche or a fedora, you’d need a form that is the right size for your head. Since I was doing a topper, it didn’t need to be as precise, so this method worked well.

Step 2. Make sure the form is protected

Make sure the form is protected

Step 2. Get Your Measurements
Measure the head you are building the hat for, and transfer those measurements to your form. You need to have your centre front, centre back, and size measurements, as well as your circumference. For detailed instructions on how to take proper measurements, consult the millinery book, From The Neck Up: Illustrated Hatmaking.

Step 3. Get your measurements

Get your measurements and oval pattern

Step 3. Make Your Initial Pattern
Once you have all your measurements, as well as an idea of the type of hat you’d like to make, you can start to construct your pattern. We used butcher’s paper; any study but light-weight paper will do. This is where some basic math is required.

Start off with the circumference of your head, or the size of your “head opening” spot of your hat. In my case, since it was a topper, it was smaller (higher on my head = smaller opening than the true circumference of my head). In my case, it was 19.5″. We were lucky enough to have use of our teacher’s patterns, so I had a ready-made oval that was 19.5″ in circumference. Without that, you’d need to make one yourself. Trace this onto your paper.

Mark the Front-Centre (FC) of your pattern, and then divide the number by 2, so you can find where your Back-Centre (BC) should be; 19.5/2=9 ¾ BC

Following the same idea, continue to measure and mark your Left-Side (LS), Right-Side (RS), and the halfway mark in-between those as well. You should have something that looks like this:

Step 4. Make your pattern

Step 3. Make your initial pattern

Add a 1 ¼” seam allowance to the inside of your head opening, and then you’re ready to cut our your pattern. Make a slit up the BC of the pattern and cut out the inside of the head opening (leaving the seam allowance).

Step 4. Notches
Take your scissors and make notches to the seam allowance, going in as far as your actual head opening; this is so you can attach the brim to the crown. They should be about 3/8″ wide all around the head opening. Now you are ready to begin shaping your brim.

Step 5. Make notches and fit that pattern to your form

Step 4. Make notches and fit that pattern to your form

Step 5. Shaping Your Brim
Pin your crown to your form using the notches. Tape up the CB seam. Now is the fun part! You can fiddle with the brim, deciding on how wide you want it, and if you want to alter it by using darts.

Step 6. Begin shaping your hat

Step 5. Begin shaping your hat

Step 6. Slicing and Layering
If you want to create a brim with some shape, do so by slicing and layering. This is an experimentation process; don’t be afraid to make a mistake. You can easily tape it up and go back to your initial shape.

Step 7. Shape your hat by slicing and layering

Step 7. Shape your hat by slicing and layering

Step 7. Complete Your Initial Pattern
Play with the slicing and layering until you are happy with your brim shape; I was going for a 1940’s look, so I created an exaggerated brim, but you can do whatever you want. Once you’re happy with it, be sure to mark the size of your darts and then un-tape the pattern and flatten it out. Remove the tabs.

Step 9. Complete the initial pattern of your hat

Step 7. Complete the initial pattern of your hat

Step 8. Creating a Master Pattern
To be sure to get an accurate master pattern, you want your paper to be as flat as possible; use steam if necessary. I then pinned it over my strong cardboard (for the master pattern) and into a piece of foam to make sure it wouldn’t slide. Trace the pattern remembering to mark where you will be placing darts. If you have large notches like I did, do not cut them out, just trace them. They will be layered.

Step 10. Flatten initial pattern and trace a simplified version on cardstock

Step 8. Flatten initial pattern and trace a simplified version on cardstock

Step 9. Checking Your master Pattern
When you are done tracing, once again add a 1¼ seam allowance and create your tabs. Then, cut out the pattern and pin it to your form, making sure it still looks right.

Step 11. Make final adjustments to your master pattern, fitting it onto form

Step 9. Make final adjustments to your master pattern, fitting it onto form

Congratulations! You have now created your master brim pattern.

More to come.

-E.

 Like this post? Check out my company blog, Bygone Theatre for related posts on a brief history of women’s hats and how to convey character through hats.