Celebrating its 40th season, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is preparing for its big holiday production of Disney's "The Little Mermaid".
It opens next week but right now rehearsals are going on, the sewing machines are still buzzing in the costume shop, and hair is still being tied to create some of the elaborate wigs you will see in the show.
The actors shine in this one, but without the incredibly talented designers, they would never be able to truly take the audience on this voyage "Under the Sea". It's one of the iconic numbers in "The Little Mermaid" and choreographers are feverishly working to get the actors ready to take it to stage. Meanwhile, a floor above, the costume designer loves hearing the song that inspired his designs drown out the sounds of sewing machines.
"Because it's Vegas, it's calypso, it's fabulousness, it's over the top!" said Rafael Castanera, The Rep's production manager and costume designer for this show. "I talk with my hands a lot and I say it needs this or it needs to go 'Wow!' and that means something," he explained.
To say he is passionate about his work is an understatement.
Castanera continued, "I only accept fabulous, fantastic, amazing! That is succeeding."
Born in Puerto Rico, Castanera put on his first production at the age of 17.
"So I wrote it. I directed it. I designed the costumes and my mother made it and my father was an accountant and he went to his clients and sold them ads for our playbill and that's how he rented theatre," said Castanera.
Castanera would go on to work in New York City before Bob Hupp, The Rep's producing artistic director, hired him 15 seasons ago.
Hupp explained, "Rafael really is multi-talented, but his skill as a costume designer really comes to the fore."
Castanera has designed costumes for dozens of shows but says "The Little Mermaid" is the most elaborate.
"The detail hopefully that you will see on stage has taken thousands of man hours. The shoes are hand painted to match the tie dye that is on the pattern of the tights the dancers wear. Everything is that way."
It starts with his sketches on paper and lengthy actor fittings. Then cutters, drapers and tailors - the folks Castanera calls the real heroes of a production - take over to create his original designs.
Castanera told us, "That's what's gonna make it magic!"
And maybe the most magical is Ursula's octopus costume.
"It takes at least two people to get me into the thing," explained Amy Jo Jackson, the actress who plays the villain. "And it's just like the height and the width of the costume and the way that it moves and the hips give the littlest swivel and it's like gagung, gagung, gagung."
And topping it off is a custom-fitted, hand-tied, massive wig created by a North Little Rock native considered one of the best in the country - and he's only 19 years old.
"And I went what!?!" explained Castanera. "And he sent me links of his website and there was some stuff in there and I was like 'Wow!'"
Castanera hired Rob Pickens just before his senior year of high school.
Pickens says, "And so when he came to me with the sketch of the mersisters with these fun styles and these crazy colors the first thing I said was 'Yes, yes, yes' and with Ursula, too."
It can take Pickens up to 50 hours to create one, full, human hair wig.
"It's a very monotonous and tedious process, but I enjoy it," said Pickens.
And he's been doing it since he first became intrigued with Broadway theatre as a kid.
"I found some books online. My mother luckily enough wasn't freaked out and bought me some wig lace, a little needle that we call a ventilating hook - it's similar to latch hooking in a way and some bobbinet tool and I started tying hair at eight years old."
Pickens now creates wigs for productions all over the country - some going for thousands of dollars. But, at The Rep budgets aren't big, so, Pickens uses synthetic hair for some of the wigs and purchases others that have pre-made backs. In fact, everyone is used to stretching their resources.
Castanera explained, "It's all illusion because if I tell you a lot of the things you see behind me is made out of, the bone structure of them, is made out of old posters that were in the lobby, you go 'Wow' and it's that and fabric and decoration and it's just imagination!"
Castanera is also hand-making all of the "Under the Sea" props.
"My hope for this show is that 10 dollars looks like a million," Castanera said.
Hupp says Castanera has become a pro at that.
"I would put our work here in all aspects of design and creation up against any theater of our size or bigger anywhere in the country," Hupp said.
Actors who've worked at theaters all over the country agree.
I've worked at maybe one other theater that has even been comparable, and that was Oregon Shakespeare, which is one of the biggest regional theaters in the country.
So if you make it to The Rep for this adventure under the sea, enjoy every second, every sequin, every seashell and every hairstyle knowing some of the biggest stars are never on stage.
Castanera concluded, "We will be working until the 11th hour so that every detail is right and then I'll go to sleep and say I wish I would have done more."
So, how much does it cost to create hundreds of costume pieces, over 50 wigs, create a set, lighting, music and hire the actors and staff for a five week run? Bob Hupp tells us an average budget for a show like "The Little Mermaid" is $350,000. They hope to gross $500,000 in ticket sales and it looks like they are well on the way to that goal as tickets are selling in record numbers.
And if you were wondering what happens to the costumes and wigs after the productions, Hupp told us they will become part of a rental package available to other theaters across the country which helps The Rep with added income. He says there are already several theaters interested in their costumes. After several years, the costumes will return to The Rep and become part of a sale to the public.
Click here to purchase tickets to "The Little Mermaid" or any of the The Rep's productions this season.