Brandon Baker of Philly Voice chatted with costume designer Alison Roberts and costume builder Jill Keys about the creation of a "fat suit" for our upcoming production of The Whale.
" When (OK, if) you see Theatre Exile's production of "The Whale" this winter, remember this: A lot of work went into making 275-pound actor Scott Greer look like the 600-pound character he's set to portray.
Alison Roberts, costume supervisor for Arden Theatre Company, has had, as you might imagine, a lot of costume challenges come across her desk over the years -- but none quite like "The Whale."
"The size of the suit itself -- it's huge, so it's difficult to sew and transport," Roberts told PhillyVoice.com. "They've even decided that Scott will basically be getting into it on stage, so they're making a special dressing room so that he doesn't have to go through the doorway -- the director didn't want the audience to have to watch him come in. [The suit's] a challenge to maneuver."
The suit's mission is to bring to life Greer's portrayal of Charlie, a 600-pound recluse who eats himself to the point of near death but eyes redemption by reaching out to his estranged (and troubled) teenage daughter.
Roberts said the suit has been in the works for the production, which runs Feb. 5 to March 1, since last spring. In May, she began the designing process by sending pictures back and forth with designers who also have worked on productions of "The Whale." By November, she'd sent a note to Theatre Exile with the cost of the suit -- about $500 once the spandex, foam, padding, compression shirts and cooling vest were accounted for. (Yes, a cooling vest -- a vest with pockets in it for ice packs, so that actors don't keel over from heat exhaustion.)
"We're doing this all pretty inexpensively, actually -- other suits had more layers to them and were more toward the $1,000 range," Roberts said. "But we tried to look and see how simple we could make it, and what was really necessary. ... We needed to consider the comfort level for Scott, who's a bigger guy than the other productions had."
Essentially, the process looks like this: Look to previous work for inspiration, design the exterior, measure by mapping out the contours of Greer's body with marker, edit down the design and then have the creator -- freelance designer andUniversity of the Arts grad Jill Keys -- sew the finished product. (And test it mid-process, which is what's pictured above.) By the time the suit is finished (it's about halfway done), the simple, flesh-colored costume -- which no one will actually see -- will have taken "about as long as we'd spend on an elaborate women's costume," Roberts said.
As for the actual building of the suit -- which measures about the same width as Keys' 5-foot-2-inches height -- Keys seems shockingly unfazed by the task at hand.
"I'm a crafty person -- I do all kinds of weird projects, so this is an everyday build for me. It's definitely the largest thing I've ever worked on, but it's not daunting," Keys told PhillyVoice.com. "But it is exciting to watch Scott in it and see the way the costume can change with the way someone moves. It's been a delight to watch him portray it as heavy, and how he changes his breathing when he wears it ... it's interesting to watch a large -- but light -- costume be completely changed when this actor puts it on."
Indeed, it's lighter than you'd think: A mere 15 pounds. Along with the sewing skills used to create an illusion of being Titanic-esque, she adds pockets of beans to make the suit more, for lack of a better word, lumpy. Her actual challenge with the project, she said, is "wrestling it into the sewing machine" -- she anticipates she'll have spent about 75 hours in total putting it together before tech rehearsal begins on Jan. 30.
The thing is, though, it's a production for the production, one that doesn't really get any stage time. The entirety of the fat suit will be covered by a 10X-sized, grey sweatsuit.
"No one will get to see all of the detail and different shapes that go into it to make it look natural on stage," Keys said. "That all gets covered up."
And though that fact doesn't bother her -- she said it's enough just to see Greer's transformation -- it might be worthwhile to take a second to reflect on not just the struggle of Charlie, but the struggle of cramming all that fabric under a needle. "