Costume, tech departments enrich vision of ‘American Idiot’

Lighting Designer Zach Straeffer works on perfecting the lights during a technical rehearsal of “American Idiot” on Thursday.
Lighting Designer Zach Straeffer works on perfecting the lights during a technical rehearsal of “American Idiot” on Thursday. adrey@centredaily.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the last installment in a three-part series about the making of Penn State Centre Stage’s production of “American Idiot” — the Green Day musical, a high-intensity punk rock opera about a generation of young Americans trying to find meaning in a post-9/11 world.

In his research for “American Idiot,” Costume Designer Erik Flores looked back to 2004 and the punk influences of the 1980s.

“I like digging into history and seeing what was iconic of that time period. It’s fun for me to figure out ‘cause then I would be able to recreate it for an audience here and have them understand the story through costumes in a sense,” said Flores, a second-year Master of Fine Arts costume technology candidate at Penn State.

Flores said he and the director finalized the vision of the characters — who they really are and why they would wear certain clothes — before the semester break, and then used the break to finish sketching and designing the pieces the costume shop had to build.

Most of the costumes needed for the show could be pulled from stock, he said, which is basically a “huge” closet.

It was mainly military garments that had to be purchased, he said.

Flores had a budget of about $2,000 for the show.

Among the items that were built in the shop were USO inspired dresses but in 2004 style — shiny and glittery, Flores said. And for that, a mock up was done on cheaper fabric in case anything needed to be fixed before building the final dress in a more expensive material.

The work is done in the costume shop in the Academic Activities Building. Across the wall in the back are photos and sketches of ideas for the costumes.

On an afternoon in late January, Flores worked with tape measure around his neck — switching from working through a pile of clothing to doing a costume fitting for lead Johnathan Teeling, who plays Johnny.

At that point, Flores had done about a dozen fittings.

It’s an ongoing conversation with the actors about how their characters should look, he said.

‘The subliminal mind f--k America’

Midway through fall semester, Tyler Horn, the sound designer, started familiarizing himself with the music in the show. He said he’s known Green Day for a while, but he wanted “to see how the progression of songs worked in the storyline.”

“I need to make the show sound like it’s a rock concert, sound like Green Day, but also (it) needs to retain that musical aspect,” said the junior Bachelor of Fine Arts theater sound design major.

So he had to figure out what equipment he could use to get the sound he wanted, Horn said.

In the main proscenium, there are 13 speakers that will “cover the audience with sound,” Horn said. Four speakers on stage will allow the actors to hear the band, and then six speakers throughout the theater, in the back of house and in the coves will provide surround sound for effects.

Once the speakers were hung and working, Horn said, they needed to be focused — pointed in the right direction.

Then the system was equalized to make sure that nothing sounds like it’s coming out of time and making it feel like there’s an echo that doesn’t need to be there, he said.

During the four-day tech event and 10 out of 12, the task was getting the band in and “figuring out the sound of each of these actors, how they all sound different and trying to make them sound natural in the space,” Horn said.

He added that there’s no way to do any sort of show sound design without having a team to help.

‘It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right’

In April, Zach Straeffer did the lights for a local theater company’s production of “American Idiot,” and it served as a “warm up,” giving him some interesting ideas for when he’d be designing the lighting for the show at Penn State.

In November, he started doing “focus” listening to the music, thinking about the visuals and moods for each number, said Straeffer, a senior BFA theater lighting design major.

From there, Straeffer said he developed an overall idea and concept for the show. By the end of December, he had started working on his plot — taking his specific ideas for each number and figuring out what lighting systems he would need to make them happen.

Because of the show’s budget, some of the effects had to be done with lighting, Straeffer said. For example, the script says that a girl is supposed to be flying in the air, and it’s up to Straeffer’s lighting to create that impression.

“I think it’s just trying to convey the raw emotions of ‘American Idiot’ that I feel are super strong,” he said.

Choosing different colors is one way he accomplishes that.

“There’s a lot of more angry numbers so we have some reds, some orange in there, but then there’s also some really isolated moments where characters are kind of discovering things about themselves where it requires a lot more subtle treatment. So when I’m thinking about that I look for textures on the floor and textures in the air and cooler colors,” he said.

Before tech week, the lights were hung and focused, but a lot of the work actually happens during tech, Straeffer said.

“Our whole process is just building up to (the tech rehearsals) so we’re as prepared as we can be to basically do the entire show at once ‘cause we’re always the last in the door,” he said.

Straeffer will program the whole show during tech week, and he estimated that by the end, there could be more than 500, if not 600, lighting cues.

It’s fluid and has to happen so fast, he said, and he thinks that’s one of the biggest differences with lighting and other departments — it can’t be planned out to a T.

“It’s really just on the fly like making it look as best as you can,” Straeffer said.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz

If you go

What: Penn State Centre Stage’s “American Idiot”

When: (previews) 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Feb. 20-25; 2 p.m. Saturday and Feb. 25

Where: Playhouse Theatre, University Park

Info: theatre.psu.edu/americanidiot; 863-0255 or 800-ARTS-TIX