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Steam, Seams, and Sawdust: Crafting Mike Mulligan

By May 6, 2024May 24th, 2024No Comments

On the stage at Barter Theatre, where stories come alive with imagination, there’s an excitement waiting in the wings. It’s nearing time for the Barter Players’ much-awaited theatre for young audiences performance of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. However, in this delightful production, the stage isn’t only set with actors and scenery; it’s enhanced with living, breathing characters that may not always speak lines but still tell an important story through their silent presence.

As the curtain rises, the spotlight doesn’t just fall across the vibrant actors; it illuminates the vividly dynamic costumes and intricate props that take on characters of their own. In this animated rendition of the nostalgic story of friendship, the costumes aren’t just articles of well utilized clothing; they’re living personas. Every stitch and fabric choice serves as a brushstroke, painting personalities onto the characters they become a part of. From Mike’s rugged overalls to Mary Anne’s robust steam shovel attire, each costume breathes life into each scene.

“Bringing the classics to life is an essential part of the Barter Player mission. I always like to start with source material if possible,” said Sydney de Briel, costume designer for Barter Theatre. “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel has been a beloved children’s book for a long time, so I started by reading it with my son and seeing what parts of the story or the illustrations caught his attention. As a designer my journey into any new project always starts with the script. I read it initially for enjoyment and to form my first impression of the story. 

Once the director and I have decided on the look of a certain character I then start researching different materials that we could use to achieve that look. And for the machines in Mike Mulligan that could be anything from fabric to wood to retrofitted hiking backpacks to cut up snow shovels. It’s a wide range!”

According to de Briel, despite the fun of designing such brilliant costumes, there were challenges and obstacles that had to be faced and overcome – just like with any live theatrical performance.

“Designing costumes for humans to embody different kinds of shovels was a pretty tricky process. The props designer, the director and I spent many hours making the ‘rules’ for our world.” de Briel explained. “And we spent a lot of time listening to the music and discussing how the specific genres of underscoring should influence the movement so we get the function of the pieces and how those genres also related to the aesthetic of machines to create the look. That way the sound you hear, the costume you see, and the movement they make are all working in harmony to create a unified design.”

But it’s not just the costumes that stand in the spotlight; the props are stars in their own right. From the humble steam shovel to the bustling streets of Popperville, each prop holds a story within its carefully crafted design. They’re not just inanimate objects but lively companions, guiding the audience through the ups and downs of Mike and Mary Anne’s journey.

“The props for Mulligan were influenced heavily by the art in the children’s book the play is based on.” said Barter Props Designer Catherine Clark. “Research for this show involved looking at a lot of digging machines through history, and trying to find ways to evoke the changing shapes and movements of those machines through objects that could be worn or held by actors.”

Props too can come with their own set of unique challenges, but Clark steamed ahead making sure every piece and part of the props would intricately weave their way into the world and imagination of Mike Mulligan and the audience that immerse themselves in the surroundings. 

“The biggest challenge for designing props for non-organic characters is deciding which part of the object needs to be constructed, and which parts can be symbolized by parts of the actor,” Clark noted. “For most of the machines in Mulligan, only the shovel and one or two additional mechanical parts are props or costume pieces, and the rest of the machine’s bulk, movement, and function are represented by the actors’ bodies and choreography. 

“In contrast to the shovels, all of the hand props and furniture pieces have been selected and constructed to feel as lived-in and realistic as possible, to enhance the homespun, tactile, and mildly grimy feeling of the overall play.”

Together, the costumes and props work hand in shovel with the actors to bring the timeless tale of friendship, determination, and community to life. When the curtain closes on each performance of Mike Mulligan, the audience won’t just applaud the actors; they acknowledge the unsung heroes—the costumes and props—that made the story leap from the pages of a book to the hearts of those who love the timeless classic.

“I am always in constant contact with my fellow designers, but for this show specifically, Sydney and I had to navigate what side of the props-vs-costumes line all of the machines fell on,” Clark said. “It’s been so much fun collaborating with her, and learning from her how to make a piece that’s not only aesthetically interesting and mechanically functional, but also meshes with an actor’s body.” 

Likewise, de Briel credits the same notability to Clark and the talents displayed behind the scenes and center stage.

The costume department and the props department have been working extremely closely on this production. Usually, if an actor wears an item it falls into the purview of the costume design,” de Briel added. “However these wearables are made of wood, plastics, and metals and our talented props designer Catie Clark has the tools and the know-how to create these pieces that need to be mechanical and functional.”  

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel will take the stage June 11 – July 6 at Barter’s Smith Theatre. 

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