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Photos: Making Costumes For Cygnet’s ‘Cabaret’

Above: Shirley Pierson is designing all of the costumes for Cygnet Theatre's production of "Cabaret," the famed musical set in a seedy burlesque club in 1930s Berlin.

"When I tell people I'm working on "Cabaret" they often say 'Oh, how fun, how pretty.' This definitely isn't pretty," says costume designer Shirley Pierson.

Sean Murray, who's directing "Cabaret" chimes in: "Garish and kitschy maybe, but definitely not pretty."

Pierson is designing all of the costumes for Cygnet's production of "Cabaret", the provocative musical set in 1931 Berlin.

The cabaret of the title is a seedy burlesque bar called the Kit Kat Club. Hitler is on rise outside the club doors, but most of the patrons are blind to the growing threat.

Instead, they are guided through a world of shabby decadence by The Emcee, a malevolent, but sexually powerful character made famous on stage and screen by Joel Grey, and later Alan Cumming. In a bold choice by Murray, the Emcee in Cygnet's production is played by a woman, San Diego actress Karson St. John.

Karson St. John plays the Emcee in Cygnet's "Cabaret." This role was famously portrayed on stage and screen by Joel Grey. Later, Alan Cumming was cast in an even more provocative take on the Emcee for a 90s Broadway production.
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Above: Karson St. John plays the Emcee in Cygnet's "Cabaret." This role was famously portrayed on stage and screen by Joel Grey. Later, Alan Cumming was cast in an even more provocative take on the Emcee for a 90s Broadway production.

Much of the design of the club itself, as well as the costumes, are meant to convey a worn, run-down quality. Some of the costumes are even aged through a dye and dipping process that creates a dingy, threadbare look. Of course, this is a burlesque bar, so many of the costumes are also tiny and sexy.

I visited the Old Town-based theater last week to see how the costumes were coming along and take some photos (see photo gallery!).

Downstairs where the dressing rooms are located, Pierson was busy working with volunteer drapers and sewers who were putting finishing touches on costumes.

It seemed as if every surface in the staging area was covered with costumes and fabrics. Pierson admits: "Even though a lot of the costumes are small (it is a burlesque club after all!), there are a lot of them."

Pierson has to dress St. John and the Kit Kat performers to create the right period and atmosphere. "For all of the costumes, I did a lot of research and went to a historical library on garments. Sean and I looked at images together. I also went to vintage shops."

"Cabaret" is the biggest show Cygnet has produced, with the largest budget in theater's history. There are 15 members of the cast, including the Kit Kat girls and boys, who sing back up and dance during the stage performances. They have a number of costume changes throughout the show and one of Pierson's challenges is to make sure the costumes, especially the vintage pieces, can hold up through the run of this very physical show.

Part of Pierson's research for the costumes involved looking at folk dress from 1920s/30s Germany. For the Kit Kat boys, this meant including lederhosen. Director Sean Murray says they modernized the traditional lederhosen, making them leather. "They're kind of tacky, goth lederhosen boys" in this show.

One of the period pieces that will be used in the show are vintage Marten fur cloaks. During the 20s and 30s, the Marten furs kept the head and the claws of the Marten in tact. Pierson told me these are fairly easy to find at vintage stores around town (see photos).

I couldn't help thinking Pierson has the best job! She gets to do all the historical research, design clothes, scour vintage stores for just the right pieces, and sew.

For more on Cygnet's production of "Cabaret," see Jim Hebert's preview in the U-T.

"Cabaret" opens at the Cygnet Theatre in Old Town on March 17th and runs through May 15th.

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