UW News

April 6, 2006

Pinball wizard: UW undergrads re-create The Who’s classic story

When the School of Drama’s production of The Who’s Tommy opens April 12 (previews April 9 and 11), the cast will be wearing costumes designed at the last minute. But in this case, that’s a good thing. Jessica Lustig, the graduate student whose thesis production this is, came back from a New York internship with a design for the show in hand — a design she describes as “clean, clear and boring.”

Tommy, based on The Who’s album of the same name, may be many things, but boring isn’t one of them. Lustig took a look at the show and its all-undergraduate cast and decided to toss her original design.

“Being away, I just didn’t make the connection that this is a really youthful cast and no amount of costume design is going to change that,” Lustig said. “So rather than fighting the youth, I decided to just run with it for my design.”

Tommy tells the story of a young boy whose father was missing in action in World War II. When the father returns unexpectedly, he finds his wife with another man, provoking a fight. Tommy witnesses his father killing the lover, after which his parents tell him, “You didn’t hear anything, you didn’t see anything, don’t tell anyone.” In consequence, Tommy becomes unable to see, hear or speak. But he later becomes a “Pinball Wizard,” and finds in that role the key to his recovery.

The show covers 20 years of history, from the 1940s to the mid-60s, but Lustig decided against period costumes. Instead, she attempted to “tap into the energy of The Who’s music and the energy of the students — which is naïve and brash in both cases.”

The resulting design is drawn from the punk and “Brit rock” worlds of the 1970s, the period just after The Who released the album version (1969) of Tommy. Lustig said she wanted the clothes to look like the kind of thing the kids would have put together themselves, so she scoured thrift stores around the city looking for clothes to adapt to her purpose.

One character, for example, wears a black skirt that the costume crew stenciled with a skull and crossbones design. Under it is a bright red, ruffled petticoat. Those pieces are worn with a red and white striped thermal top covered by a torn t-shirt and a black scarf. In her original design, Lustig said, the character wore similar pieces, but with a “bright, girly” color scheme. There was a flower on the intact t-shirt and a blouse underneath.

“The actress was way too nice to say so, but I could tell by the way she squirmed at her fitting that she didn’t really like it,” Lustig said. “I thought it was important for the cast to enjoy wearing these clothes, so when they came in for a fitting, if they didn’t leave saying, ‘Oh my gosh, can I buy my costume after the show? I love it,’ I reworked the design until it would be like that.”

Lustig had a lot of costumes to be concerned about. Tommy has a cast of 30, and the band is costumed too. The crew moving the sets wears special t-shirts to make them look like roadies. It all added up to more than 100 costumes. Costume Shop Supervisor Josie Gardner said it was the biggest show she could remember in her 17 years at the School of Drama.

But Lustig said the show was easier to put together than others she’s done, despite the last minute change in design. That’s because of her determination to make the clothes look as if the show’s young characters had chosen them. Thus, the costume crew did minimal sewing from scratch, opting instead to alter found garments.

Lustig is pleased with the result. She says she made only one request for her thesis production, and that was to work with the undergraduates. “They have such a great energy,” she said. “They’re so excited to be in a production that even if the script isn’t that interesting, it’s still a really fun project because they are so much fun to work with. I just lucked out that they’re doing a really great show.”

Tommy will play through April 30 in Meany Studio Theater. Tickets are available at the Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880, and online at http://depts.washington.edu/uwdrama.

Katrina refugee finds safe harbor in Seattle costume shops

One member of The Who’s Tommy costume crew has some rather unusual experience listed on her resume. Decema (Dezi) Howe used to sew costumes for the Mardi Gras. But that was before Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans last August, leaving Howe homeless. The irony was, she’d planned to leave New Orleans anyway.

“We were going to move to Seattle on Sept. 14,” Howe said. “My sister lives here, and I lived here myself for a few years. We were coming back for good.”

But the hurricane beat Howe to it, taking her by surprise because she worked nights and didn’t pay much attention to the TV news. By the time she realized what was happening, it was too late to do anything but stay and hope for the best. Fortunately, her home was on higher ground, Howe said, but the roof was ripped off by one of the many tornadoes that came in the wake of the hurricane.

“The scariest part was the sun coming up and seeing the massive, massive devastation everywhere around us,” Howe said. “My car was smashed under a tree.”

After the storm, Howe stayed on for two weeks because she lived in an area where there were many elderly people who needed help. “I was married to a Navy SEAL for 17 years, and you don’t leave anybody behind,” she said. She and other neighbors took care of the elderly until they could be taken out of the area. Then she and her adult daughter, along with a neighbor and his son, loaded up a 10 by 10 foot trailer and headed for Seattle.

Once here, Howe was taken under the wing of the Seattle theater community. She has worked on costumes for the Seattle Opera, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and now at the UW School of Drama as an hourly worker.

“The woman who runs the costume shop at the opera gave my name to the woman at the Rep,” Howe said. “Then I think the woman at the Rep gave my name to Josie Gardner (supervisor of the UW Costume Shop). These women are fabulous; they’ve worked so hard to keep me busy and help us get started again.”

Sewing comes naturally to her, Howe explains. She is one of 19 siblings in a family where the watchword about clothes was, “I can make it cheaper.” She took on the Mardi Gras work as a second job to earn extra money. Much of that work involved repairing costumes that had seen the strain of the Mardi Gras revels.

Theater costuming is another matter. “I’ve never worked in a shop before, so these guys have taken on a lot,” Howe said. “I know how to sew, but a lot of these costumes are period pieces (she’s working on the UW School of Music’s opera as well as Tommy), and I’ve never worked on that kind of thing before. They are taking their time and effort to show me how to do things. It’s kept me busy, kept me working. And I love what I’m doing.”