CTC ’fore-Play delves into historical context

Tracy Lord (Carolyn Holding) calls to request the books of Mike Connor as her mother, Margaret Lord (Carol Halstead), looks on in the first act of The Philadelphia Story dress rehearsal at Bratton Theater Thursday. Photo by Eric Shea.

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

It’s 1939 and Tracy Lord is wearing pants.

The leading character of The Philadelphia Story, which officially opens Saturday at 6 p.m. and runs through July 8, touts a bold fashion choice from the first scene of the play.

“This is the beginning of the time when women were wearing pants in public,” said Tracy Christensen, costume designer for Chautauqua Theater Company. “You have this character who is a very modern young woman and has, for better or worse, really opinionated thoughts, and putting her in pants right from the beginning instantly says something about who she is.”

The historical significance behind the seemingly simple choice of pants or skirt is but one example of the history impacting the production decisions of The Philadelphia Story. At 7 p.m. Sunday in McKnight Hall, the ’fore-Play discusses the history surrounding the play and its effect on the finished product.

How the characters carry themselves or what bouquets are on display — and many other such decisions — rely on such context. The play is set in a time delicately sandwiched between the Great Depression and World War II.

“It would have been a very different play had it been written three years later. The story of this family would have been different … their concerns would have been different,” said Sarah Hartmann, the artistic associate for CTC. “It’s important in that way to understand when it was written and the world of the play … it’s also important to see what kind of story you want to tell with it.”

As artistic associate, Hartmann spent months researching the historical context of the play, or dramaturgy, to relay to the actors and the director. Splitting duties with Sash Bischoff, the directing fellow of the Conservatory, the two dug up as much as they could find about the time period and the relationship of that time to Philadelphia.

Philadelphia in 1939 had an “old-money” feel that is central to the core of the play, which raises questions about feminism, fidelity and the line between social classes, Hartmann said. Those topics and more will be discussed at the ’fore-Play.

“What was that like then and what do we see now looking at the play?” Hartmann said. “Having that context really helps an audience.”

That context also helps the actors. Male actors must adjust to pants that go up to their natural waists and to outfits that highlight the shoulder, which changes how they move and carry themselves, Christensen said.

“It changes where the energy of your body is carried,” she said. “You live into these pants a different way then you live into your modern pants.”

For females, the 1940s meant a shift to long, structured lines and big shoulders as opposed to soft, fluffy 1930s ensembles.

“(The period clothing) speaks a lot to the kind of personalities that the women of the show had. They’re really opinionated, they’re really strong, they’re really modern for their time, and these clothes really support that,” Christensen said.

Beyond the historical context of the costumes, the ’fore-Play will provide an extensive history of Philip Barry, how he cultivated the idea for The Philadelphia Story from a friend’s wife and the advent of tabloid journalism, Hartmann said.

“The whole goal is for the ’fore-Play to put the play and its process in context for the audience,” Hartmann said.

Without context, the pants Lord wears from scene one are merely pants instead of a bold statement that fosters a strong character.