July 6, 2017 by
Photography by Justin Barnes

Jennifer Pool is doing her part to keep Omaha odd.

“I do weird things with my costumes,” says Pool of her costume designs. “I definitely like to make them strange.”

This affinity for the atypical is why Omaha Under the Radar co-founder Amanda DeBoer Bartlett approached Pool about doing costumes and design for the annual experimental performance festival’s production of Eight Songs for a Mad King (July 5-8).

No, Game of Thrones fans, Eight Songs for a Mad King does not depict Daenerys Targaryen. Nor does it have anything to do with The Donald. The 30-minute Sir Peter Maxwell Davies monodrama portrays the “tragic madness” of King George III as he toils to train his beloved caged bullfinches to sing.

Pool is excited to collaborate again with DeBoer Bartlett, whom she first met through her fashion design work.

“We originally connected around the avant-garde fashion/costume stuff I do,” Pool says. “So, when this show came up and they needed something kind of strange but rooted in some historical accuracy, she called me—because quasi-historical and really weird at the same time is my wheelhouse.”

According to Omaha Under the Radar, Eight Songs for a Mad King implements a “multitude of complex extended vocal techniques covering more than five octaves” for which they’ve crowned Kansas City baritone John J. Pearse to play the royal role. Pearse will be accompanied by an ensemble of Omaha chamber musicians.

When we spoke, Pool was still formulating design ideas for Eight Songs for a Mad King while also creating costumes for the Bluebarn Theatre’s spring production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and finishing the capstone for her MPA in nonprofit management at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She graduated before going into tech rehearsals for Priscilla.

As for the aesthetic of Eight Songs for a Mad King, audiences can expect designs to follow the production’s essence—unhinged, strange, and erratic—reflecting the cacophonous score that careens alongside the protagonist’s mental discord and delusion.

“What drew me to this project is the opportunity to take a well-known historical figure and visually deconstruct that in a way that mimics his mental deterioration. To play with that in terms of design and see if there’s any sort of commentary to be made,” Pool says. “I love anachronisms, like the idea of an 18th-century British monarch wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt—that’s not necessarily what I’ll do here, but just an example of that kind of anachronistic setup. I’m more interested in historical reference than historical accuracy because I think that’s more intriguing.”

As with all her theatrical work, Pool emphasizes the importance of making design choices that propel the story, serve the audience, and create the intended experience.

“I really look at the story and try to figure out what compelling visual cues I can give the audience to offer insight into the action and help them fully experience what’s happening in front of them—while also moving the story along,” Pool says. “That’s especially important [with this production] because it’s operatic and experimental, and that’s weird for some people. So my job is providing a point of entry into the piece through costumes and other visuals.”

Pool, who earned her bachelor’s in theater from UNO and her MFA in theatrical design with emphasis in costume design from the University of Georgia, is a lifelong theater devotee. She has clear childhood memories of being “utterly obsessed” with Annie and attending various local productions with her musical-loving parents. Interestingly, the former Bluebarn Witching Hour artistic director has actually been doing experimental theater from a young age.

“In third grade, I staged an immersive production of Sleeping Beauty in my backyard, where it was staged everywhere and people had to walk around to see the different scenes,” Pool says.

She credits her undergraduate studies at UNO for making her theatrically well-rounded.

“I performed, directed, did costumes, stage management, worked the box office—everything,” she says. “I find that really helpful now, because when people are like, ‘Um, we don’t have a set designer,’ I can jump in and make something work. I got a really broad-based theater education at UNO and had lots of opportunities to get involved.”

After the hectic schedule of Priscilla and grad-school-part-two subside, Pool will take some much-deserved me-time this summer to “sit by the pool and read Star Wars or something.” But first, she’s got another crazy train to catch with the Mad King.

“What’s awesome about Omaha Under the Radar is it sets the expectation that you’ll be interacting with stuff you don’t necessarily know,” Pool says. “Like, you haven’t seen 14 productions of this or you haven’t seen the movie version. It’s literally under the radar, or even totally off the radar sometimes, and this festival trusts that Omaha audiences will not only be receptive to that but excited about it. It’s awesome to be part of something that’s really asking Omaha arts audiences to just go there with us.”

Visit undertheradaromaha.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

Jennifer Pool