1913 Atlanta comes to life on stage in “Parade”

Lindsey Sellman Reporter

Costume and scenic designers relied on research and months of production to give life to the production of “Parade” put on by the Kent State School of Theatre and Dance.

Designers held their first meetings in October, and started by reading through the musical to pick out the most significant characters and scenes.

Research, the next step, is especially important in historical pieces, said director Fabio Polanco. “Parade” is centered around the real murder of 13-year-old girl and lynching of a Jewish man, Leo Frank, in 1915. Many of the events featured in the musical, like the trial and following appeals, are historically accurate.

A book called “And the Dead Shall Rise” by Steve Oney was particularly helpful for Polanco and the cast because it put the murder and lynching into a historical and cultural context, Polanco said.

“It gives you a real sense of what is the environment in which something like this can happen,” he said. “That book has been really instructive to us because I think he’s very plain in presenting the events.”

While designers did their own research, much of it is done by dramaturgs who are theater staff assigned to interpret and research events in the musical. 

For “Parade,” dramaturgs Talia Rockland, senior dance studies major, and Yuko Kurahashi, professor of theatre, researched the events and trial that lead to Leo Frank’s lynching and the themes of antisemitism and violence that run throughout the show.

“Through the work of everybody on the show, the resources for this are plentiful,” Polanco said.

Tammy Honesty, assistant professor of scenic design and scenic designer for “Parade,” worked with her associate designers to research the city of Atlanta. They began with inspiration photos they found online and narrowed the images down to a select few to base the scenic components off of.

Before any of the sets were built, model versions were made of each different stage arrangement being considered. In the end, Honesty said, they decided on a combination of elements from each option.

“It’s kind of like making a cake in a way. You have to make sure all the flavors go together and when you put the icing on it looks good,” Honesty said.

The results were platforms on wheels that could be used as multiple locations in the show. To capture the industrialization of Atlanta, the city was shown with buildings and trees as the backdrop. More rural locations in the musical were shown with just trees.

Honesty said she had some challenges to tackle with the trees. The design team found trees to be an important component of the scene due to their symbolism of the lynching in the show.

The final design of the trees involved 2D trees that slid onto the stage. Honesty and her associate scenic designers gave the trees texture by using polyethylene foam rods, which is what pool noodles are made of.

“We twisted it together to make it look like rope and then put it on the trees. It’s a little foreshadowing of why ropes are important in this show and embeds into the fact that our trees are representative of the old South,” Honesty said.

Kelley Shephard, graduate student and costume designer for “Parade,” used historical images from the trial of Leo Frank and his home life from before the murder to craft outfits for his character. A similar process was used for Mary Phagan and some of the other characters. The large ribbons Mary Phagan wears in the musical were designed after the bows Phagan liked to wear in her hair in real life. 

“Characters which needed to be as historically accurate as possible were Leo Frank and Mary Phagan. So, Mary has these giant bows that were actually in pictures of her,” Shephard said. “Leo was very buttoned up and almost like his clothes were his protection from all the people in the South that didn’t really get him.”

Shephard also created renderings of each costume by digitally drawing on top of historical photographs of the characters she had found online. After the digital sketch, the images were printed so Shephard could paint and draw the rest of the costume.

“Parade” featured many custom pieces built by students in the costume shop, a costume construction area for theatre students. Some of the custom pieces include Lucille Frank’s yellow dress, Sally Slaton’s ball gown, and Mary Phagan’s dress. Other costumes were rented from Great Lakes Theater and Playhouse Square in Cleveland.

This was the biggest production Shephard has ever worked on. She credits the teamwork and costume shop for helping everything come together.

“Parade” runs until March 1 in the E. Turner Stump Theatre inside of the Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets cost $10 for students and $18 for non-students and can be purchased online or at the Performing Arts Box Office, in the lobby of the Roe Green Center for the School of Theatre and Dance.

Contact Lindsey Sellman at [email protected].