You've Been Steampunked

From musicals to Shakespeare, goggles and gears are the look du jour

By Celia Wren

Judith Bowden talks about the steampunk inspiration in her costumes for My Fair Lady at Arena Stage.


It’s a phenomenon that has infiltrated fashion, genre novels and the career of Robert Downey Jr. Now theatre seems to be the latest frontier for steampunk, the aesthetic—and, for some enthusiasts, lifestyle—that playfully recalls, revises and gives a sci-fi/alternative-history spin to Victorian style and technology.

The iconography favored by steampunkers—aeronaut goggles, stylized corsets, clockwork gears, mad-scientist laboratories cluttered with Industrial Revolution sprockets and pipes—has found its way into a number of recent stage productions. When Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith mounted My Fair Lady at her D.C. theatre this winter, she and costume designer Judith Bowden (who had previously collaborated on the musical at Canada’s Shaw Festival) opted to dress the musical’s Cockney characters in sassy steampunk attire.

To note other examples: The touring revival of Frank Wildhorn’s musical Jekyll & Hyde, slated to hit Broadway in April, features steampunk-flavored scenery and garb. Last month Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre launched a production of Around the World in 80 Days that incorporates steampunk visual elements. Another Philly group, Curio Theatre Company, had given Twelfth Night a steampunk flavor in 2010. Shakespeare in the Grove, in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, unveiled a steampunk Hamlet in June 2012. A few months later, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company offered a steampunk Titus Andronicus, with production design sponsored by Iron Wind Metals, a sci-fi and fantasy miniatures business. (For yet another example of steampunk-inspired costume flourishes, see the Production Notebook on Red Bull Theater of New York City’s Volpone in the current issue.)

The dance world hasn’t been immune, either. Last summer, the D.C.-area contemporary ballet group MOVEiUS DANCE opened Flight of Fancy (A Steampunk Ballet) as part of the city’s annual Capital Fringe festival. Showcasing a telescope-wielding aviator character and supporting dancers frolicking around in bloomers and corsets to an indie rock score, the piece won a “Pick of Fringe” award in the dance and physical theatre category.

And in 2013–14, stay tuned for Nebraska Theatre Caravan’s steampunk The Fantasticks, a touring version of the production that director Carl Beck mounted at Omaha Community Playhouse in February 2012.

That’s a lot of greasepaint action for steampunk, a whimsical but philosophically resonant tradition informed by the writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Jump-started in the 1980s by fiction writers Tim Powers, K. W. Jeter and James Blaylock, whose books envisioned eerily tweaked, alternative-history versions of the Victorian empire, steampunk gained additional prominence with the 1990 publication of The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel about a 19th-century dystopia that exploits mechanical computers. (Jeter is credited with coining the term “steampunk.”)

The concept moved beyond literature when craft aficionados, fashion designers and sculptors began to create fanciful pocket watches, cog-and-rivet-laced millinery, phantasmagorical neo-Edwardian installations and other curiosities. Forming a distinctive subculture, creative-anachronism types began to dress up as pith-helmet-sporting explorers and Oscar Wilde–style aesthetes, picnicking in cemeteries or congregating at steampunk conventions or flocking to concerts by steampunk bands like Abney Park. Recently, the movement has spread to mainstream pop culture: Witness Justin Bieber’s 2011 clockwork-gear-strewn video “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” or the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, which infuse the world of 221B Baker Street with a modern sensibility and mad-scientist flair.

With its emphasis on craftsmanship, salvaged materials and do-it-yourself philosophies, the steampunk lifestyle rebukes our own era’s mass-produced design and throwaway consumerist ethos—a point lucidly made in Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers’s authoritative and handsomely illustrated nonfiction book The Steampunk Bible. And with its nostalgic visions of wind-up and steam-powered technologies, the steampunk movement registers a subtle protest against the dehumanizing, dangerous and—to a layperson—intellectually opaque aspects of modern science.

Steampunk implies “visible technology—seeing how things work,” says Shakespeare in the Grove founder Edwin Jacob, who noodled around with that concept in his Hamlet, envisaging the tragedy at Elsinore as kind of “quintessential dramatic machine,” whose gears and levers of cause and effect were fully—and poignantly—apparent to the audience.

“Science today gets to be the realm of super-experts, and really serious equipment, and high-powered computers, and machinery that only a couple of universities can afford,” observes Lesley Currier, managing director of Marin Shakespeare Company, which produced a steampunk The Tempest in 2011. By contrast, she says, steampunk hearkens back to a time when “anybody with some persistence and imagination could invent things. It didn’t take a whole lot of expensive equipment. It just took human curiosity and imagination about the universe.”


But if steampunk encompasses romantic notions about user-friendly science and spiritually affirming design, it also contains darker currents. As that “punk” suffix suggests, the movement incorporates a certain rebellious, swaggering attitude. And it recalls the seamier, more menacing aspects of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution—mills, smokestacks, street urchins, dandies toting sword sticks.

Those somber resonances are among the traits that have attracted theatre folk to steampunk. Artists conjuring up Victorian or Edwardian times, in particular, revel in the chance to avoid “Masterpiece Theatre”–style coziness.

“We do have such romanticized views of the period,” points out My Fair Lady costume designer Judith Bowden, stressing that she and director Smith wanted to avoid such clichés. In particular, they wanted to make sure that the musical’s lower-class characters didn’t come across as cute and cuddly, a vibe that would keep the audience from understanding the desperation that prompts Eliza Doolittle to flee her insecure flower-vendor lifestyle in favor of Henry Higgins’s tutelage.

Steampunk “gave us an aesthetic that we could pull in and out of, that would give us a more aggressive look,” says Bowden. She went on to outfit the Cockney characters in fingerless gloves; trousers and collars lined with snap tape; hats decked out with goggles and smashed watch parts; and other items suggestive of scavenging-sourced-attire.

A comparable desire to avoid Merchant Ivory decorousness motivated the steampunk allusions in Jekyll & Hyde. “So often we see Victorian England, or America, for that matter, portrayed in a kind of dewy-eyed soft focus, covered largely with trims and tassels and laces,” scenic and costume designer Tobin Ost observes. Such an approach didn’t seem right for a musical based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 horror story.

“I knew I didn’t want it to look like a quaint Victorian musical that suddenly becomes dark,” says director Jeff Calhoun, whose collaborations with Ost include the Disney musical Newsies on Broadway.

Ost suggested aiming for a steampunk look, and went on to furnish the production with “heavy, cagy, bolty metals,” fabrics printed with the silhouettes of iron castings, ceramic tiles that evoked 19th-century insane asylums, and, for one wealthy character, a hat ornamented with chromed chicken skulls.

Ost points out that the aesthetic has considerable range. Steampunk “has all sorts of variety, and came from all different sources,” and “everybody’s ideas of what [it] means is slightly different,” he says.

That eclecticism can be a boon to stage productions. My Fair Lady’s Smith and Bowden felt that steampunk’s heterogeneity allowed them to point out power hierarchies and gang dynamics within the Cockney world, for instance.

The Fantasticks director Beck found that the multifariousness of steampunk imagery could help underscore the musical’s message about innocence, experience and disillusionment. His production offered a genteel initial vision of “a gazebo and a young boy and girl in summer white Victorian clothing,” he says. Then the fantastical-Industrial-Revolution side of steampunk came in, with “an actor-manipulated steampunk dragon that hissed smoke” and other touches.

“The more we played with [the concept], the more it felt like a very comfortable fit,” says Beck, who credits Omaha Community Playhouse costume shop supervisor Paula Clowers with originally suggesting the steampunk approach. The retro-futuristic Fantasticks was a hit for the company, Beck says; he’s looking forward to pressing the steampunk conceit even further in the upcoming tour, with the help of costume designer Georgiann Regan.

As that reference to the smoke-hissing dragon may indicate, steampunk traffics in exoticism and the ghosts of other places and other times. Yet, the tradition also speaks of the current moment. As Bruce Sterling wrote in his essay “The User’s Guide to Steampunk,” “Steampunk’s key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times.”


The tradition’s contemporary quality can be an asset to stage productions, pointing out the topicality of stories that are set in the past. A steampunk look can help a show like My Fair Lady “be both true to the time period and specifically modern,” asserts Smith.

When Chicago’s Bohemian Theatre Ensemble tackled Molière’s Tartuffe in early 2012, director Peter Robel knew that he wanted the production to explore the rivalry between religion and science. “How do you reconcile the two?” he asks rhetorically. “Can they coexist?” It’s a debate “that continues to this day.”

The mythology of steampunk had been on Robel’s radar for a while: One of his second cousins designs steampunk clothing, and he himself had grown up watching reruns of the 1960s TV show “Wild Wild West,” an alternate-history gunslinger caper that has been seen as proto-steampunk entertainment. He began to think that neo-Victorian iconography might help him foreground the religion/science conflict in his Tartuffe: The whimsicality of steampunk might have a liberating effect on theatregoers, prompting them to reexamine their perspectives and look at the issue “in a fresh way,” he says.

The set, which evoked a Gothic cathedral, deliberately contrasted with the mad-inventor props, including a spring-loaded ear trumpet, personal telescopes, a ring-mounted snuff box and a feather-duster glammed up with harness and chains. (Chad Bianchi was scenic designer, Kate Setzer Kamphausen devised the costumes, and Cassy Schillo masterminded the props.) The production was Jeff Recommended, and audience response “was very positive,” says Robel, who thinks his patrons appreciated the opportunity to come face-to-face with steampunk, a concept they might have heard of but perhaps not absorbed firsthand.

As with BoHo’s Tartuffe, the ramifications of science were salient themes in Marin Shakespeare Company’s 2011 Tempest. Adaptor and director Jon Tracy turned Prospero and Caliban into scientists somewhat reminiscent of Nikola Tesla. Ariel became an electrical machine that was a kind of mothership for subsidiary plug-in robots.

Justifying the approach in his director’s notes, Tracy complained that magician figures—such as a traditional Prospero—are inherently undramatic, because their supernatural powers give them an unfair advantage over antagonists. “So I thought I’d change things up a bit,” he wrote. “What if we stripped Mr. P of his magic and replaced it with science? What if our Prospero had the same mission, but actually had no idea if his plans would work?"

If steampunk provides a handy way to address weighty matters like uncertainty, faith, science and aggression, it also can just be fun. “Any sort of costume fad to me is sort of an escape from reality,” says Mary Folino, who is designing the garb for Walnut Street’s Around the World in 80 Days, which is directed by Bill Van Horn. Working on the production—whose Jules Verne source material makes it a prime candidate for steampunk treatment—Folino enjoyed creating clothes that were rooted in a historical period, but tweaked just slightly for the sake of theatricality. To furnish the farce’s characters with frock coats, for instance, she has repurposed garments formerly used in A Christmas Carol, replacing staid Victorian fasteners with gold buttons, and adding gear-shaped gizmos for decoration.

Exuberant though the touches may be, she doesn’t want them to look gratuitous. “Every piece is chosen to support the characters in the show,” she says. Another concern, given the rise of the consumer-friendly neo-Victorian subculture, is the appearance of gimmicky triteness. “I don’t want it to look like I just went and pulled things off of a website and put it on stage,” Folino notes.


Indeed, the increasing popularity of steampunk is a sign, to some thespians, that the aesthetic should be handled with caution. “The steampunk stuff you’re seeing now has become very costume-y,” whereas, some years ago, “it had a very immediate quality,” observes My Fair Lady designer Bowden.

Of course, some productions that venerate top hats, hot-air balloons and gaslight ambiances grew up independently of the steampunk movement. Happenstance Theater, a D.C.-area company that creates devised work, favors a tone of retro quirkiness: Its 2011 Halloween offering Cabaret Macabre, for instance, featured Edwardian costumes and archly gloomy Edward Gorey–style plotlines, including one involving a homicidal croquet match. Artistic co-director Sabrina Mandell says the vintage tone derives from her own sensibility. “I don’t like plastic,” she says defiantly. “I don’t like the way it looks. I don’t like things that are made of it. Somehow I relate beauty with things that are made in the pre-plastic era.”

She had never heard of steampunk until she and her artistic co-director, Mark Jaster, were working on Happenstance’s 2009 clown-inflected entertainment Look Out Below!—whose loose plot involved a primitive 19th-century sound recording mechanism called a phonautograph—and a designer mentioned the term to her. When Mandell did some research, she found that the movement overlapped substantially with her company’s outlook—so much so that, in the interest of audience outreach, Happenstance enrolled in Steampunk Empire: The Crossroads of the Aether, the virtual community and website where you can shop for a hussar-style cavalry tailcoat, engage in a discussion of magical theory in Victorian society, or pursue any number of other newfangled, Industrial Age activities.

Some of the allusions to steampunk tossed around these days by theatre folk may be marketing-driven, Mandell suspects. “People are capitalizing on the term, and the fact that it is gaining popularity,” she says.

But she also believes that, at least for some thespians, there is also a deeper bond. Artists may gravitate toward steampunk because the movement venerates craftsmanship, the handmade, and “a striving towards timelessness,” she suggests.

Indeed, the recent convergence in the drama and steampunk spheres may be most significant not for any excitement it has caused in costume or set design departments, or for any theatregoing vogue it has sparked among the goggle-wearing set, but because it points to shared values. The principles that steampunkers have enshrined in their neo-vintage fantasies are the same ones that many thespians would endorse: a healthy respect for the past; an appreciation not only for craftsmanship, but for the artful husbanding of resources; a trust in technologies that resist obsolescence; and a suspicion of the mass-produced, the impersonal and the needlessly slick.

And both traditions revel in ingenuity—the kind of insightful problem-solving that might come up with a steam-powered laptop, or give a classic play fresh resonance, night after night.

Celia Wren is a former managing editor of this magazine.