Why We Tell the Story: In Conversation with Deborah Lean

Anyone who knows me, knows that ‘Ragtime’, is my all-time favourite musical. So the news that Sedos, an amateur theatre company based in London, would be staging the show this November was like Christmas come early.

When I learnt that this production would have a 33 person cast and an 18 piece orchestra, I was keen to get a greater insight into the workings behind the scenes. Thankfully I was put in touch with Sedos’ costume designer Deborah Lean who will also be playing the role of Evelyn Nesbit.

In this interview, we discuss Ragtime and the relevance that it has to today, what it’s been like designing costumes for a show set in 20th century and more. Enjoy!

Name: Deborah Lean

Role: Costume Designer

Favourite Show/Play: Lucky for me, Ragtime has always been a firm favourite.

Favourite Part About the Theatre: As a performer it’s dressing up. I never miss an opportunity. In general it would have to be the community and the traditions. Sharing such a bizarre hobby with like-minded people, having the understanding of traditions like saying ‘break a leg’ and ‘the Scottish play’, applauding at the end of a song (this baffled me when I was a kid), standing ovations, applauding the band and tech crew at the end of a show and the silly running jokes that emerge from each show.

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Q: Can you tell us what Ragtime is all about?

A: The standard explanation is that it is based on the novel by E.L Doctorow first published in 1975. The action starts in 1902 and tells the story of a white family in New Rochelle whose lives are irrevocably altered by the changing of the times and the acceptance of people that come into their lives who are not exactly like them. It focuses heavily on the themes of class and racism.

What is so striking (and terrifying) is the relevance that the story still has. I know that everyone uses that line when describing their show/novel/movie/ painting etc… but we had a rehearsal when our director was describing the scene in context of the place and time in the show and it was horribly apparent that he could have been describing 2019. And this is why we should keep telling this story.

Q: What drew you to this work on this musical in particular?

A: About 20 years ago my friend Philip and I watched the opening number on the Tony Awards and we both fell in love with the show from there. The opening number alone is so exciting and enough to get you excited about the story the show is about to tell. The story and the music are just so moving. I didn’t think it was realistic for an amateur group to do the show given the sheer size of it and the importance of casting it and telling it correctly. I knew this would be my one and only chance to do this with such a great team and I would forever regret it if I didn’t get involved.

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Q: For anyone who hasn’t been involved with costume design before, can you describe what the creative process is like and what needs to come together to make it all happen from text to the stage?

I always start with research. As much research as possible. I will start with the original source material and try and remain as faithful as possible. For example in the book they say of the New Rochelle residents “In summer they wore white” and this is how we get the iconic opening tableau. It talks of the “boy in the sailor blouse” and this is the very first character you see. It references the Little Girl wearing her best black pinafore and this is what you will see in our show. We have many real-life characters in Ragtime as well who sort-of “frame” the action and Googling them and making sure they look as recognisable as possible was a very important part of the research. It’s important to remain faithful to the director’s vision too so there’s a lot of talking about that and making sure you’re both on the same page and happily we have been. I’m also not opposed to watching other productions on YouTube if they’re available and seeing what worked for other productions. It can be very helpful.

Making the costumes come together is a team effort and usually involves a lot of excel spreadsheets! For a show in this time period a lot of things needed to be made and luckily I had a small team of fabulous helpers. For the things that can’t be made, eBay, Amazon and charity shops are my favourite tools. And a cast full of people willing to find, mend and suggest their own small details has helped enormously. Once all the costumes are physically with you, you then have to start considering things like ‘does it fit properly?’, ‘can someone dance in this?’, ‘Do I need to add poppers, velcro, elastic, magnets etc to assist with a quick-change?’. And then there are of course, the ongoing repairs!

Q: Have there been any challenges in designing the costumes for a show set in c.20th America?

A: Providing period costumes is hard work and costly and much of the challenge was finding modern day suits for the gentlemen that look like they belong in 1902 – 1911. I found a lot of ex-hire wedding suits had the right look and replacing the collar of a modern day shirt with one of a larger and different shape made all the difference. And shoes! Ladies shoes in particular had a shape that is very difficult to find. Luckily the steampunk trend is steeped in this period and so we managed to find shoes that look right. So often you see shows where the costumes are gorgeous but everyone is wearing character shoes and it can sometimes look like the feet were a little forgotten about. I’m quite proud that I was able to add this detail as I haven’t always been able to.

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Q: What has it been like doing the costume design for this show and working with the Sedos cast?

A: It’s worked out well that my role in the show is not too big and so I have had the time to concentrate on the costumes as well. It also means that I am very familiar with the text and the shape of the show as it’s progressed. And this cast!!! Doing a show with people this talented makes you want to work harder as a performer and as a costume lady to make sure they look as perfect as their performances are. This script has some very difficult moments and I’m in awe of the people who deliver them so convincingly and without fuss all for the purpose of telling this story and getting its message across.

Q: Do you have any favourite costumes in this production?

A: Mine of course! I am very lucky that I am one of the few characters in the show that gets the chance to be a bit glamorous. Evelyn Nesbit was known as The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing and so I am dressed in a vaudeville showgirl outfit made entirely of red velvet.

Houdini’s straight-jacket is also something I’m quite pleased with. I found a story about a gentleman who took this straight-jacket to the tv show Pawn Stars having owned it for years not always aware of it’s value or significance. It was authenticated and sold at Christies in 2011 for over $40,000. I’ve tried to create something that looks like this from things we had.

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Q: What should audiences expect when they come to see Ragtime?

A: Expect to be blown away by the gorgeous singing. This score is beautiful and we are led by an astonishing Musical Director in Ryan Macaulay who always makes us proud to be part of his voice.

This show is packed full of sights and sounds and so much hard work from every one of us. I hope our audiences love it as much as we do.

Thanks for reading! And a huge thank you to Deborah for the interview. Ragtime is running at the Bridewell Theatre between 13 November and 23 November 2019 at the time of writing. 

Photo Credit: David Ovenden

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