When the costume and set designer at Palm Canyon Theatre took on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, they knew the play created the biggest questions of their careers: How do you include a life-sized tour bus onstage and create as many as 120 costumes with 40 headpieces from scratch?
“We’ve tried to stay true to the original movie from 1994,”says set designer Allan Jensen. “Yet onstage, we’ve had to work within our limitations.”
The 16-foot, 800-pound bus takes four to five people to maneuver around the stage, yet is fully equipped with headlights, rubber wheels, a bumper and a ladder on the back. It was all made with lightweight wood, PVC piping, and foam. Yet, it has to be strong enough to hold the weight of an actor roving on top.
VIDEO: Set designer Allan Jensen show how the bus will look on stage. (Video by Marcia Gawecki)
I had seen the movie once a week for a year because I was going through a trans-formation like the guys in the play,” reveals Jensen.
He had also seen one version of the play in which they used a cardboard cutout of a bus and the actors walked it onstage. He knew that the Palm Canyon Theatre had limitations (such as only four feet of room in one wing),but wanted to construct a full-size bus that could support the weight of actors, swivel 360 degrees, be open on one side, and could be moved in and out with casters.
PHOTO BY MARCIA GAWECKI
Costume designer Derik Shopinski adjusts the dress he designed for lead actor, Ron Cornado.
Besides moving a full-sized bus on and offstage, Jensen had to deal with the challenge of darkness. “I don’t like blackouts,” admits Jensen. “I believe that a play should be seamless.”
Except for a couple of costume changes, Jensen’s sets roll in on casters without delay. The play called for several background scenes, including a bar, a kitchen, a casino and a funeral, among others. The movie version starring Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, and Terence Stamp leaves an imprint that theatregoers look for on stage.
“Everyone who is coming to our show has probably has seen the movie or the Broadway play many times before,” says in-house costume designer Derik Shopinski. “There are expectations. Some people are even asking me if certain costumes are going to be in the show!”
For example, in the Broadway play, the diva dancers were “flown” in on wires. However, since the Palm Canyon Theatre doesn’t have much “fly space” for that kind of stunt, Jensen compromised with a wooden “perch” above the bus where the actors could sing and dance.
Shopinski and his associate, Mat Tucker, had similar challenges with the costumes. They have been all made from materials bought in the Los Angeles Garment District dating back to July.
“This play was beyond anything we’ve ever done before,” admits
Shopinski, who has dressed Beauty and the Beast and My Fair Lady multiple times. “Every costume has to be durable, so they are made with large coat zippers and oversized snaps that help the actors get in and out of them easily.”
PHOTO BY MARCIA GAWECKI
Designer Derik Shopinski points to an artist’s drawing of a cupcake costume used in the play.
Shopinski says the UK rental firm charges $8,000 to rent their Priscilla costumes, and that doesn’t include props or the set.
“So we’re considering renting them out to other theaters around the country or even around the world,” says Shopinski. “Our costumes are well made and durable, but we have to consider that sometimes renters don’t always take the best care of them.”
Besides Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, he and Tucker are working on costumes for Mame, which opens Dec. 1. Shopinski knew he had to start early, and work constantly until the play opens. So far, he’s made three trips to LA to buy material, and has spent nearly $3,000. By comparison, Beauty and the Beast only cost about $400 in materials.
It’s not only the costumes, but the headpieces that take time to construct. This is where Shopinski defers to Tucker, who has 3D sculpture experience. Each of the varied headpieces take about 20 hours to construct. Moreover, they have to be lightweight, sturdy, and attractive.
PHOTO BY PAUL HAYASHI
Lead actor Ron Cornado applies a blonde wig in the dressing room at the theater.
Tucker constructed one headpiece made from molded chicken wire, handstitched with material, then a hardening glue compound was added, and colorful fruits and flowers were the final touch. “Each of the headpieces is a sculpture, a unique work of art,” claims Shopinski.
Which is why he thinks there is “gold in them thar” costumes. When Shopinski first researched renting Priscilla costumes, he found an outfit in the United Kingdom, but distance and shipping made it cost prohibitive. There were no available outlets stateside. “We decided to make our own, but then realized that maybe we had something special,” adds Shopinski, who was a “stitcher” in the wardrobe department of the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. “We don’t have to worry about storing them afterwards. We can rent them to other theaters, and recoup our costs.”
“Costumes set the mood of the show,” says Shopinski. “And many of the plays that we do are period pieces that need the right costumes. All the long hours and hectic schedule is worth it when an actor comes to pick up his costume and gets so excited by what he sees.”
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Oct. 27 through Nov. 19. Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 760-323-5123; palmcanyontheatre.org