It is so exciting to be reading the reviews from the opening of Intimate Apparel this weekend. At the theater, we were all profoundly impacted by the story that Lynn Nottage so expertly crafts, and to know that our audience felt the same way makes all of the hard work we do worth it.
When I saw the show, I cried through the entire second act, even when I was in tech taking notes for director Giovanna Sardelli. And when I saw it for a second time (at the preview, about three hours later) I cried the entire first act too. Not so much because it is sad—it is certainly never sappy, and I would never reduce it to the simplistic term of “tear-jerking,” but because the emotions are so finely wrought and fully realized that I felt them as well. We all discussed afterwards how we felt physically affected by the moments of reversal by the story. We share in Esther’s heartbreak.
However! I’m not here to write a review. That wouldn’t be very ethical, in terms of journalistic standards. I want to write about the process of making and marketing a play like this.
I spent a very small amount of time in the costume shop late one night during tech week and helped to sew the binding on top of a corset. Watching our costume shop workers making these items—the intimate apparel that the show is named for—was so great. The way that Esther makes corsets in the play has remained largely unchanged since 1905. In order to create this story which has running through it the thread of Esther’s detailed sewing—the thing she starts and ends the play doing—that same detailed sewing had to be done.
And really, it’s hard to describe just how amazing corset-making is. There’s a certain aspect of magic with all sewing, when the unrecognizable pieces come together into a familiar object, but with corsets that’s even more extreme. Without knowledge of the pattern, it’s impossible to tell what is going to go where until the moment that it happens.
Reaching out to people for this play was fascinating. Choosing a demographic who might be particularly interested in this sort of story was almost impossible—our list went on and on. One of the most fun events we had in preparation for Intimate Apparel was a talk with costume designer Sydney Maresca, Dina Janis, (our artistic director), the cast, and local business owner Joy Slusarek of Joy: All Things Underthings. Sydney gave fascinating background information not only about undergarments in 1905, but also about her and Giovanna’s process of researching this show. Did you know that the only way to see what underclothes really looked like at that time is to look at the turn-of-the-century equivalent of Playboy? Neither did we. Now we do.
Joy talked about being a woman business owner today who runs a business for women, and the challenges and delights associated with that. The intimate conversations that Esther has in the play, Joy said, still exist in the lingerie shops of the 21st century. When women open up about their bodies to buy a bra, or, a corset, as the case may be, they open up about their lives. Through this conversation, we often realize that the problems we experience as individuals are the problems experienced by our communities.
Which is, of course, ultimately what we learned about marketing this play once it was performed and reviews came out. We reached out specifically to women with this talk at Northshire, and we also called local Jewish and African American organizations. But at the end of the day, the play is about love, about connection and humanity. Everyone in the audience was able to feel what Esther is feeling and was moved by the performance. Only the play itself could have made that happen.