by Matthew Lopez

The Legend of Georgia McBride

FEB 3-19
Ivy Tech Waldron Auditorium

Designing in Drag

Designing in drag: Cardinal Stage costume designer rises to challenge

By Marcela Creps
February 5, 2017

LGM 1

Aaron Holland, Armand Fields, Will Mobley and Mike Price, from left, in Cardinal Stage Company’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” Photo by Blueline Media Productions.

Designing costumes for Cardinal Stage Company’s production of “The Legend of Georgia McBride” had many challenges for Johna Sewell.

“I felt personally under an enormous amount of pressure doing the show because I knew that there are people who were going to come see this who have a knowledgable and critical eye,” Sewell said.

And she was going into unknown territory. Sewell has done costumes for a variety of shows, but with a play that features drag queens, she had to figure out how to amp up the look necessary for the play.

She had lots of ideas. But the elaborate looks seemed to embody every idea she had into one look.

“There was always a concern that I wouldn’t be doing it justice and I wouldn’t go far enough,” Sewell said.

The biggest challenge was creating a base for the costumes. A man’s body doesn’t have the necessary curves to fill out a dress, so Sewell used couch foam to create the right shape. She cut out a shape that basically looked like Africa that she then molded, cut and shaped to give the look she needed.

Getting the right shape was important since Sewell wouldn’t be able to rely on layers of pantyhose — a common trick drag queens use when filling out their shape.

“It compresses everything down so you get this really nice clean line and it reads as hips,” Sewell said.

LGM 3

Mike Price, left, and Will Mobley in “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” Photo by Blueline Media Productions.

With the need for quick costume changes, it wasn’t possible for the lead character to wear the typical three layers, so one pair of pantyhose would need to be enough.

Sewell also had challenges when it came to finding the right base clothing. She got lucky when she found a basic ‘70s jumpsuit that morphed into a costume for Elvis, but buying women’s clothing that could be transformed for a man’s body provided more difficulty — a problem she typically doesn’t have when dressing women as women.

“It really opens your eyes to the frustration of women’s sizing and that it stops at a certain size,” Sewell said.

Because she was buying for me, Sewell was forced to buy plus-sized clothing, and it wasn’t easy to find a base outfit that was what she needed.

Then came the embellishments. Luckily, with the use of two drag queens in the show, Sewell had a sounding board that provided the necessary feedback to make sure the costumes were right.

“I collaborated with a couple of them on sort of ideas and things that they liked, and it was really fun having them in fittings because they gave me really good feedback. They loved things, and it was really, really, really good for me to see if they liked it,” Sewell said.

Sewell also enjoyed collaborating on creating an entire look. She learned a lot about combining fabrics and trims, adding shoes and accessories and the finishing touches of hair and make-up.

While the costumes eventually came together and wigs were easily styled, there were challenges with the make-up. Sewell said it can take upwards of an hour to do make-up — time that isn’t possible when it comes to the quick changes needed during a play.

“So that was sort of a little bit disappointing that we couldn’t do the false eyelashes. We couldn’t do glued-down eyebrows. We couldn’t do really crazy eye make-up. So the make-up is very subdued and it definitely harkens back the older ‘80s street drag,” she said.

There are characters who wear everyday clothing, but they’ll pale in comparison to the drag costumes.

“People are going to notice them, but sort of the flip side of that is we do have modern dress in the show and sort of what I did to sort of offset the drag and the world of the drag queens is to make the real world and the real clothing painfully boring and subdued — in its colors, in the fabrics we choose and the clothing that we bought and what it was made of and everything,” Sewell said, adding she was going for a thrift-store quality with the everyday clothes that she termed “painfully dull and normal. As the play progresses, the glamour of the drag and the extravagance of the drag sort of bleeds into the rest of the show and into the rest of the characters.”

LGM 2

Will Mobley in Cardinal Stage Company’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” Photo by Blueline Media Productions.

Having just down the costumes for Cardinal’s production of “Oliver,” working on this show has been a nice departure for Sewell. “It was really more of an opportunity to play with a style I’ve never done,” she said.

Before the play opened, Sewell had an opportunity to see dress rehearsals and appreciate the glitz and glamour of her work. And she’s hopeful that her work impresses at least one segment of audience members.

“The best thing to happen for me would be for a drag queen to come see the show and like it — like the costumes and like the look and like our take on drag and our interpretation of drag within the parameters of the play,” she said.

If you go

WHO: Cardinal Stage Company

WHAT: “The Legend of Georgia McBride” by Matthew Lopez

WHERE: Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center Auditorium

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Feb. 8-11,15-18; 7 p.m., Feb. 12; 2 p.m., Feb. 11-12, 18-19

TICKETS: $14.95–$36.95. Visit www.cardinalstage.org or call 812-336-9300.