Two stories below the Cathedral of Learning’s Commons, the theatre department’s costume shop is filled with busy students.
Storyboards line the unfinished basement walls and sewing machines hum on wooden tables, as designers work to complete finishing touches. It’s one week before the premiere of “Intimate Apparel.”
In her final days fitting actors for costumes, director Karen J. Gilmer made a confident declaration: “We are ready.”
“Intimate Apparel” marks the beginning of Pitt’s theatre department’s 2016-2017 season. After “Intimate Apparel,” the department will perform “Hair,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Baltimore” and “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Each show will feature all-student casts and crew.
“Intimate Apparel” will show Oct. 6 through Oct. 16, at 8 p.m. — with the exception of a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. and no show on Monday — at the Stephen Foster Memorial’s Henry Heymann Theatre.
This season pays tribute to the University’s Year of Diversity by picking shows with themes such as social justice, race and gender inequalities, according to Theatre Department Chair Annemarie Duggan.
“It is important to us to be in step with the University, but also diversity is a part of our department,” Duggan said. “We as a department can help to open a dialogue.”
In addition to stressing diversity, the current season will be the first with all backstage lighting run by students. It’s also the first time the season will have five planned shows, instead of the usual three or four that have been staged in recent years.
The lineup includes a variety of genres, ranging from comedy to historical plays, some with music and some without. Some, such as “Baltimore,” have serious messages about racial segregation and political revolutions, while others, such as “Peter and the Starcatcher,” tell quirky stories of fairytale characters.
This season is also the first time a theater company will produce “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a Tony Award winner, in the Pittsburgh area. Pitt brought in seasoned director Kathryn Markey from New York City to direct the play, as part of the department’s goal to bring in one outside director per season. Markey has directed 14 plays, including adaptations of “Don’t Dress for Dinner” and “Pete n’ Keely” in the last nine years.
According to Duggan, this year’s group — from onstage actors to backstage production — is made up of “hardworking, independent students,” a collective that represents 22 different majors such as English, neuroscience and pharmacy.
Rehearsals for Thursday night’s production, “Intimate Apparel,” began the first day of the fall semester. Set in 1905, the play follows Esther Mills, a black seamstress living in Manhattan. Tyler Cruz, a junior neuroscience major, will make her theatrical debut, in the lead role.
Gilmer, who also directed the play, has been involved with with “Intimate Apparel” for almost 10 years, since seeing the show at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre in 2007. Feeling connected to the play by the costumes she has sewn since she was 8, Gilmer pitched the production to Duggan for this fall season.
“I’ve been with this play for such a long a time,” Gilmer said, “and it’s really cool when something that you’ve been with finds a way to speak to you differently … even after the 500th time that you’ve read it.”
Nick Bernstein, a junior theatre arts and natural sciences major, plays Mr. Marks, the seamstress’ unlikely friend.
“[Finishing the performance is] one of those bittersweet moments … In a couple of weeks it will be over,” he said.
While “Intimate Apparel” rehearsals closed yesterday, the department’s other fall production “Hair” is just getting started.
The “Hair” cast just completed its first week of rehearsals, and will premiere on Nov. 10. With a much bigger cast and set, the Grammy- and Tony Award-winning 1960s rock musical is looking to fill the Charity Randall Theatre and its 438 seats.
“Right now we are in what I call ‘building the show’ and we’re focused a lot on choreography and music,” Head of Performance and “Hair” director Cynthia Croot said.
Actor Ben McClymont, a senior theatre arts and Asian studies major, will play Margaret Mead, a drag queen. He said that the songs are “rather disjunct,” but discuss 1960s topics that are still relevant today, including world peace and free love.
After the new year, the theatre department will hold auditions for its three spring productions, including the lighthearted, comedic “Spelling Bee” and the dramatic “Baltimore,” which comments on racial inequalities. To finish the year, the Tony Award-winning “Peter Pan” prequel will start in April.
Duggan remarks that “Peter and the Starcatcher” is “fun and physical” and brings a new challenge for students to try.
As for this week’s premiere, director Gilmer is confident that her cast and crew — which are part of what theatre department faculty call one of the most talented groups in recent memory — will earn a standing ovation.
“They have the commitment and the heart,” Gilmer said. “And then just the passion, which is really, really fantastic to see.”