Perisphere Theater is presenting the regional premiere of Hazardous Materials by Beth Kander at The Writer’s Center in downtown Bethesda. The play is set in two timeframes 60 years apart: In 2015, two county inspectors wade through the wreckage of a hoarder’s apartment, looking for clues to the identity of the anonymous “Jane Doe” who recently died there. In 1955, that same apartment is clean, bright, and inhabited by a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, whose carefully ordered isolation begins to crack when a neighbor knocks on her door.
Here Jessica Utz, costume designer for the show, shares how she approached the play and how family photographs inspired her.
Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Jessica Utz and I have been designing costumes for theater and working in a costume shop since I was 17. I received a BA in Drama with a concentration in Costume Design and Technology from the University of Virginia in 2018, and then I moved to the DMV.
You work all over town — Signature, Constellation, Perisphere. Walk us through life as a full-time costume professional.
My daily life and schedule are far from normal or consistent. The way that I organize my schedule and get work is by reaching out to contacts at various theaters to see what their workload is for each show or by having people reach out to me to check my interest and availability for various projects. When I moved here I spent weeks contacting every single theater in the area so that I could make as many connections as possible and get my name out there. Working in theater is all about who you know. Often I only know what I am doing for two to four weeks at a time. When I am working a stitching contract, my schedule is much more like a regular 9-to-5, though once it gets to the week before, and of, tech, I add in early mornings, late nights, and weekends. When I am the costume designer, I spend time doing tons of research for the show, shopping online and at thrift stores, and doing fittings and alterations. Depending on the tech process for each show, I either spend full days at the theater or go to tech after my normal work day. Most of the time, I am a one-man band, so anything that needs to be done for costumes I have to make sure that I can do it. I have spent a lot of time just learning about every technical thing I possibly can.
Hazardous Materials is set partially in 1955 South Side Chicago, and one of the characters is an immigrant from Czechoslovakia. In doing research for the show, you drew on your own family history, including family photos. Can you tell us a little about that?
My father’s family are immigrants from Southeast Poland who lived in Ward 17 in Chicago. My great, great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and the family all lived there until my grandmother and grandfather moved to Vienna in the early 1960s. All of the various family members lived in the same apartment complex, and that complex was owned by someone in the family. When I got the script I immediately had my father send me a bunch of family photos so that I could use them as research for Esther and Lynley.
One photo in particular inspired a specific costume element. There is a truly spectacular photo of one of my family members posing against her car in a pair of knickers, and I was absolutely thrilled to find such a gem hidden away in our family pictures.
The Esther and Lynley storyline takes place over 11 months, requiring six costumes for each of the women. How did you use costumes to show an emotional progression over that period?
I went into the design process with the question of how we wear loss and how the process of coming out of grief and allowing ourselves to move on affects how we present ourselves to the world. Each of these characters starts in a place where they feel a certain amount of loneliness and isolation from their families and by virtue of loss. As the show progresses, I wanted to illustrate through color and flowers how these characters are growing with each other and how they slowly bring each other back to life and vibrance.
The other storyline follows two county inspectors named Cassie and Hal, who are described as entering in full hazmat gear. How did you convey character within the strict confines of the text requirements?
I will say that the practicality of having these actors in full plastic hazmat suits, respirators, and gloves under stage lights motivated a lot of my thinking. From there I could dig into their characters and how they mirror the emotional struggles of Esther and Lynley and also how, conversely, they show the visible representations of disintegration. All four of these characters are stuck in the past, but we only get to see this one day in Hal and Cassie’s lives. They are stuck not only in their own pasts; they are also physically stuck in Esther and Lynley’s. I really only got to work with the top half of each of them, so I had to decide how best to boil down a small amount of their personalities into their shirts and their shoes.
What’s your favorite costume in the show?
That is really difficult because I adore all of the 1950s costumes, but I have to say that Hal’s Smashing Pumpkins “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” T-shirt is my favorite because it honestly just cracks me up every time I think about it.
Where can we keep up with your work?
My portfolio is online at jessicalillianutz.com and my Instagram is @jessicautzcostumes. I also have a vintage clothing business that you can find @oncenfuturevintage.
Hazardous Materials plays through November 18, 2023, presented by Perisphere Theater performing at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD. Purchase tickets ($35, general; $30, senior; $20, student) online.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.