Meta moments, strange marital traditions and abrupt segues into spy scenes are just some of the elements that make “The Late Wedding” unconventional. Taking the stage Nov. 17-20 at Zellerbach Playhouse, the play unpredictably entangles audiences into the dizzyingly heartfelt wanderings of a playwright’s mind.
While juggling nonlinear narrative nuances presents its own set of challenges, weaving in visual design shares its fill of artistic resolve, particularly when it comes to costumes.
“The thing about costume designing that people don’t always get is (that) it’s a lot of research and a lot of creative resourcing: shopping, searching, painting, whatever,” said costume designer Miyuki Bierlein in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s either having excellent sewing skills or learning on the fly and crying while you’re trying to put something together — many, many memories of that from my youth. We’re artisans on a whole different level.”
Bierlein achieved their degree at UC Berkeley in Theater and Performance Studies, becoming UC Berkeley’s assistant costumer and costume curator years later. Accustomed to working on contemporary plays, the magical phrasings of playwright and fellow alumni Christopher Chen unleashed Bierlein’s creativity, allowing her to visually escape time and place.
“Often when I’m looking through a script — especially by a playwright like Christopher that writes so poetically with visual, punchy language — there are words that I cling to,” Bierlein remarked. “The word nest was in there and I was like ‘nest, ok nest, let me think, they collect things, they remember things, they hold on to things.’ I just tried to free associate and Pinterest board my way into a vision.”
“Nest” dwelled in Bierlein’s mind when designing for the production’s Bakaan tribe couple, characters that build their relationships through recalled memories. Musing over the possibilities of this single word, the thought of bowerbirds and their nests made of found objects led Bierlein to experiment with clothing as a collage of reintegrated pasts.
“If it’s a culture that’s about recollection and holding on to memory, then you’d memory quilt your clothes together too,” Bierlein explained, reflecting on her thought process. “What they’re wearing is like an assemblage, so to speak — it’s patchwork. They’re collected from preexisting T-shirts, sweatpants and clothing that we took and pieced together to create a whole other set of costumes.”
This isn’t the first time Bierlein has designed for “The Late Wedding.” They were also the costume designer for the play’s world premiere in 2014 at Crowded Fire Theater. Revisiting the play eight years later has brought her full circle, causing her to reflect on her past as an independent contractor with limited resources.
“I don’t know if I’d want to show you all the things I did in 2014,” Bierlein said playfully. “But I think you would see growth in my ability as a designer and what a supportive collaborative space that has the ability to create your dreams looks like. That’s theater in a nutshell, right? Sometimes we have the money and sometimes we don’t.”
Mixing clothing from different time periods and intended genders, Bierlein sorted through Berkeley’s stock of more than 30,000 costume pieces to create a David-Bowie-inspired look for the production’s end scene. Pleather motorbike pants, riding boots, a chainmail-looking knit top and a recreated historical frock coat were pulled together and reconstructed to enhance the play’s fluid sense of gender and sexuality.
“I’ve really appreciated that Peter Glazer, the director, has been open to letting me challenge the notion of silhouettes,” Bierlein said. “As a nonbinary person — and a person who’s really questioning a lot of the labels we put on clothes in general — I’ve done a lot of attempts to degender my designs.”
From dyeing fabrics to attaching last-minute embellishments, multiple costume adjustments usually need to be made to fit the designer’s vision as well as the actors’ bodies. Bierlein won’t deny she’s great in a thrift shop, but considering “The Late Wedding” includes approximately 30 costumes, crafting each piece involved much more than a shopping excursion.
“I challenge you to think about the last time you’ve gone shoe shopping for yourself and how hard that might have been to find a good pair of shoes for you, personally, that not only fit but also felt good to walk around in,” Bierlein proposed. “Now do that times nine. Now do that times nine times four, because every actor has four different sets of shoes. And I don’t get to take my actors shopping with me, so it’s a lot.”
In a show like “The Late Wedding,” months of work only dazzle the public eye for one weekend. For Bierlein, this is a humbling experience that earnestly links them to their craft. They find beauty in both the structure and chaos of theater, collaborating with other imaginative artists to mold a unified work of art.
“I love being a designer who has a strong vision, but a flexible method,” Bierlein said. “Hopefully this shows the future of the theater scene that you can always learn different ways to work within your own medium. I just hope people enjoy the visual feast in front of their eyes.”