1780 – The Official Blog of Transylvania University

1780 | The Official Blog of Transylvania University

“The Children’s Hour” opens at Transylvania University

Renderings of costumes for "The Children's Hour" designed by Transy student Kevin Johnson.

Transylvania Theater and Creative Intelligence present Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour.”  Opening today, the play will run tonight through Sunday in Little Theater.

Written and debuting in 1934, “The Children’s Hour” was marked by controversy in its initial run. One of the first female-authored plays to succeed on Broadway, “The Children’s Hour” was seriously considered for the 1934-35 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; however, a Pulitzer committee member refused to see it due to its allusions to homosexuality. The play’s thematic elements also led to a difficult transition off Broadway, as many areas of the country were less receptive to the play in the 1930s. 

Despite these challenges, “The Children’s Hour,” which was based on a true story, has gone on to receive critical acclaim and continues to be widely staged — in large part due to the continued relevance of its themes, including early-wave feminism, class differences and the insidious nature of lies.

Tosha Fowler, director of “The Children’s Hour” and Transylvania’s theater program, selected the play in concert with Greg Partain, professor of music and current director of the university’s Creative Intelligence series. After receiving a copy of “The Children’s Hour” from Fowler, Partain quickly drew parallels between the play’s themes and the 2023-24 Creative Intelligence theme — “Skeptical Odysseys: Through a Glass Darkly.” 

“We talked about how the play was right in line with the theme of skepticism and what we want to be true versus what is true,” Fowler remembered, adding that the two also discussed the role power plays in feeding or starving skepticism — “When someone powerful is saying the lie, it feels different than when someone without power is saying it.” 

Transylvania’s adaptation of “The Children’s Hour” is staged in the round with the audience on all sides of the stage — a technique Fowler chose to highlight the hyper-realism of the play and illustrate to a modern audience that, while the play is set in the 1930s, the issues it raises are still relevant today. 

“I wanted people to see that nothing’s really changed in terms of people being able to tell a lie and hysteria ensuing,” Fowler said, comparing the events of “The Children’s Hour” to today’s social media. “One person can say something and all of a sudden, it catches fire for better or worse, and then lives are ruined. That happens every day — no matter what class structure you’re in or how you identify.”

The set was designed by Transylvania’s Melissa Gilbert, resident costume designer. “It’s a really beautiful design, and I think audiences are going to be surprised by how close they are and by how intimate it feels,” Fowler remarked. “It can feel like you’re eavesdropping on [the actors’] conversations.”

In addition to its unique staging, “The Children’s Hour” is also notable for the contributions of a student designer — Kevin Johnson ’24. In addition to playing the role of Dr. Joe Cardin, Johnson also served as the costume designer for the Transylvania production, costuming 15 cast members.

Johnson’s stint as the production’s costume designer also serves as his senior capstone project for the theater design and technology major (Johnson is also a psychology major).

Johnson, who started working in theater tech at nearly the same time Gilbert joined the Transy community, credits his close working relationship with Gilbert to his success as a costumer. “I’ve really had the opportunity to build my skills with Melissa and to activate them,” he said, adding, “I learned a lot from her as she was learning our community.”

Johnson began by researching the play’s time period and learning more about how American culture of the 1930s — both Hollywood and the Great Depression — would have impacted the styles Hellman’s characters wore. 

He also took inspiration from another famous female author. “I started with Sylvia Plath because the play made me think of her writing style,” he said. “Vintage images of her took me to other vintage images and artists.” 

Incorporating this knowledge into the clothing choices, Johnson pulled costumes for the actors, oversaw fittings, and even designed and constructed some of the play’s costumes in concert with Gilbert. 

Johnson was able to costume most of the actors by shopping on eBay, visiting Lexington vintage stores and scouring the theater’s shop for period-specific pieces. With a specific vision in mind for the characters of Mrs. Tilford and Mrs. Mortar, Johnson decided to create their costumes by hand — using only his research and background knowledge to pattern two dresses and build them from scratch.

“These are not simple dresses,” Fowler stressed of the drapey, mixed-media pieces. “And it’s not off of a pattern — he created the pattern. It’s pretty incredible.” 

She added that this type of costuming has advantages for costumer and actor alike. “When you create pieces for an actor’s body, you’re really able to fit the actors in a body-positive way.”

While Johnson plans to pursue a graduate degree in psychology after taking a gap year, he hopes to also incorporate his passion for theater design into his life. “With the skills I have developed here, I can always work in theater,” he said, adding, “I can have a day job and then theater happens at night — it works perfectly for me.”

Reserve your free tickets. Please note that this play bears a content advisory for the topic of suicide.