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The Mikado, 1999, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Costume Concept & Design Notes by Tara Maginnis.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, has a built in design trap, because of its setting in a fictional long ago Japan. While it was not originally intended as a satire of anything Japanese, the simple fact of it originally having a British cast impersonating Japanese people, tends to make it a theatrical form that a 21st Century audience could reasonably find inappropriate. The natural awkwardness modern audiences feel, however, is not helped by sloppy productions that can easily devolve into offensive Yellow-face stereotypes. A number of well-known productions have simply avoided this problem by giving the play a purely British setting, or a made up Victorian Brit/Japanese hybrid setting, to emphasize the British satire at it’s core, but this avoids dealing with one of the main reasons I believe that the librettist, Gilbert, set the play in Japan.
While Gilbert was working on the script for The Mikado there was a growing Western artistic enthusiasm for the stylized look and gestures of Japanese traditional art, that defied the main Western artistic direction of that time towards greater and greater Realism. Gilbert had previously satirized the intense enthusiasm for “all one sees, that’s Japanese” that members of the British Aesthetic Movement felt in his book & lyrics for Patience, written in 1881, but by 1885, when he was writing The Mikado, he was decorating his own house with Japanese art, and was so struck by the Knightsbridge “Japanese Village” cultural exhibition in Britain, which opened while he was working on the script in 1885, that he hired, and subsequently had credited in the program “the valuable assistance afforded by the directors and native inhabitants of the Japanese Village, Knightsbridge” in the opening night program. Besides serving as consultants to the original costume designer, C. Wilhelm, Gilbert specifically hired a Japanese woman from the exhibition to coach his actresses in walking and gesture to tone down the modern British naturalism in their movements, by consciously mimicking the alternative movement patterns socially proscribed in a different country.
The exaggerated style of British comic opera that he and Sullivan had embraced in all their work, which was in direct opposition to the growing fashion of Realism coming up in late 19th Century Western drama of the time, was already very theatrical in style.In 1999, at UAF, our own director, Anatoly Antohin, was especially concerned with our singers and actors moving in a too naturalistic fashion in rehearsals, which does not fit with Gilbert and Sullivan opera at all. Anatoly’s own background was with Meyerhold’s Biomechanical style (which was influenced by Kabuki and Commedia del Arte), and because I had a considerable knowledge of G&S he asked how we might solve this. I had recently seen some Kyogen and Kabuki theatre down in California, and been struck how much better the highly theatrical Kyogen and Kabuki styles of acting would suit G&S works (all of them, not just The Mikado) and suggested we go in that direction, putting the play not in any realistic Japanese world, but in a world that only existed in the Japanese theatre. We pulled in some Japanese nationals from UAF as our own consultants to get it as right as we could.
Anatoly, ever the biomechanical director, also asked that I do things that would effectively force actors into certain sorts of movement that were pulled directly from Kyogen and Kabuki style, precisely because it fit with this theatrical 19th Century operatic style so perfectly. As a result, as our first action of the costume studio, we built geta (wooden sandals on small stilts) for the entire cast, so they had to plan out their movements carefully and practice any large ones that they wished to do, so they became bigger and simpler. We also gave the women short trains, so they had to make a larger circle every time they made a turn, and long hanging sleeves to encourage more operatic arm gestures. The costumes were more researched than designed and pulled directly from traditional Kabuki costumes, which help modern Kabuki actors even now at keeping to the planned, theatrical gestures of this style.
The titular Mikado, we further hampered with Court hakima (wide leg pants) that went a full yard past the length of his legs, requiring that every step he made be a full circular kick out and round of each leg to make the extra fabric shoot out into position, like John Wayne on steroids. Because there was no traditional Kabuki costume for a Mikado, since having the Emperor portrayed on stage was prohibited in the Japanese theatre until the late 1940s, this costume, was made like that of the Kabuki character Shibaraku, who wears the largest most striking male costume in all Kabuki theatre. It requires two attendants to follow and hold parts of it up to display it properly. This essentially constrained our squirrely 20 year old Mikado actor, who in early rehearsals kept trying to run around arguing with Katisha during “From every kind of man obedience I expect”, into someone who made a show-stoppingly huge entrance (to great applause), then posed in place center stage with great dignity, and appeared to be maddeningly above, and oblivious to, her self-aggrandizing interruptions.
Makeup was also taken from Kabuki kumidori and other styles, making our white, Asian, and brown singers all nearly white as paper, matching one another with greasepaint that precluded them from touching their own, or each others faces in any gesture at all. When one actor insisted it was not possible to do this for the time he was on stage during the play, I and my makeup crew chief put it on ourselves at noon, and wore it till 11pm all through the prep and the second dress rehearsal, while putting the costumes and makeup on everyone else, including him, and managed to keep our makeup pristine. This quietly embarrassed him into doing the same.
The only real disappointment we had was in the failure of our surprise onstage quick change costume for Ko-ko. Kabuki has a wonderful method for altering a costume onstage to reflect a sudden change in a character’s mood, where carefully sewn in strings that hold up an outer layer are pulled by attendants, revealing a different pattern below. We wanted this to reflect his sudden revelation that he may not actually have to kill himself, but may have instead found a willing “Substitute!” While I and my assistant could demonstrate this reliably multiple times, the chorus people assigned to the task could not manage it even once, even after an hour of rehearsal trying it again and again. So we cut this.
We kept budget in control with a number of measures. The shoes were built out of scrap lumber. Tabi were altered stretch cotton/nylon socks. For the women, rather than purchasing those annoying “geisha” wigs, we got plain, much cheaper, long black simple “witch” wigs, and padded them with hair donuts and tamales of old tights stuffed with net, and dressed them as closely as we could to Kabuki Onagata styles, with a tiny whiff of anime style to keep our girls feeling fetching.
I found a few used ready-made white jacquard wedding kimonos cheap in San Francisco over Christmas that we carefully fabric painted to match the sort of elaborate fabrics used in Kabuki dress. These only fit our smallest girls. For the rest we adjusted the patterns up to a larger size, and made them of cheap white satins and taffetas stiffened with underlying muslin for better hang. The extra long length needed to do the waist fold (that triples the fabric around the waist to give a tubular body shape under the obi) was retained. Then each of these kimono was fully painted with an individual pattern directly taken from research, further stiffening the fabric to a final result that looked convincing from the stage. The volunteers from the Japanese Students’ Club helped with this, as well as many members of the cast who essentially colored by number within outlines I drew onto the fabric. Then we stitched the waist fold in place to prevent it sliding apart, and added a few padded rolls to the hem as per Kabuki originals.
After some experimentation with obi tying with our singers it was obvious that American students are no better at obi-tying than Japanese brides, (who hire in an obi tie expert for their wedding day) so for the exceptions of the one seen put live on Yum-yum while on stage, and Katisha’s old style easy-tie court lady version, we dissected our obis into two parts, a stiff body band, and a pre-tied back bow insert, as we had found many Japanese do today for festival dress.
The men were all built from scratch, from Japanese traditional patterns, scaled up for the larger men, and with internal stiffening of buckram for some parts. Colored satins were used on many of the men’s clothes, and so the lighter parts of the patterns were added in fabric cut-outs appliquéd to the surface with fabric paint. Men’s hats were simply made of buckram covered in taffeta. We bought very simple heavy bamboo & paper fans purely for the sticks and made leaves for them out of the fabric scraps from the costumes to match. Basic $1 plastic reproduction netsuke were attached to each fan as a dangle to hold them onto the obis reliably without any slippage.
What follows are the designs and the finished costumes from our production.
To read more on The Mikado in context of 1885:
Japan in Late Victorian London: The Japanese Native Village in Knightsbridge and the Mikado, 1885 by Hugh Cortazzi, 2009. Unfortunately only available in print in a few libraries, check World Cat to find your nearest copy: http://www.worldcat.org/title/japan-in-late-victorian-london-the-japanese-native-village-in-knightsbridge-and-the-mikado-1885/oclc/463638969
The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado by Josephine Lee, 2010.
Downloadable as an ebook for purchase at http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttv2xm
Zombie Prom is a resolutely silly boy meets girl musical comedy set in a High School next to an Atomic Power Plant. Because of this, we painted & trimmed the costumes with UV material, to make the cast glow, during scene changes and key scenes, then we added light up elements to costumes in the Atomic Prom finale just for extra goofyness.